He hasn’t hit as many homers as Corey Seager, or made as many highlight-worthy plays as Mookie Betts or Cody Bellinger, but Justin Turner has been a crucial part of the Dodgers’ October success to this point — success that has the team one win away from its first championship since 1988. A perennial force in the postseason during his seven-year run with the team, the 35-year-old third baseman began this year’s playoffs in a bit of a funk, but went on a tear that started in the middle of the NLCS, and has raked at a .364/.391/.818 clip through the first five games of the World Series.
After batting a more-than-respectable .307/.400/.460 (140 wRC+) during the regular season — we’ll get back to that performance — Turner went hitless in eight plate appearances during the Wild Card Series against the Brewers, and just 2-for-10 in the Division Series against the Padres, though he did walk three times and drove in a run in all three games. He singled in each of the first three NLCS games against the Braves, and scored twice during the 15-3 Game 3 rout, but to that point was batting just .167/.278/.167 though 36 PA, with an average exit velocity of just 88.8 mph and an xwOBA of .296. While the two hits he collected in Game 4 came during garbage time, when the Dodgers trailed by six runs, his eighth-inning double off Tyler Matzek was a portent of things to come.
Since then, through the remainder of the NLCS and the first five games of the World Series, Turner has gone 12-for-35 with six doubles, three homers, and four walks (.343/.410/.771), with an average exit velocity of 95.1 mph, a .441 xwOBA, and at least one extra-base hit in seven of the nine games. He homered off Max Fried in the first inning of NLCS Game 6, walked twice and scored the first Dodgers run in Game 7 (the only game in that stretch in which he didn’t hit safely), and collected doubles as his lone hits in the first two games of the World Series.
Turner’s bat was a much bigger deal in Games 3 and 4, as he became the first player to hit first-inning homers in back-to-back games of the World Series. The first of those, off Charlie Morton, gave the Dodgers a lead they didn’t relinquish, and his third-inning double off Morton preceded a two-run single by Max Muncy. After homering off Ryan Yarbrough to start the scoring in Game 4, his third-inning single went for naught, but his seventh-inning double off Aaron Loup set up Joc Pederson’s two-run single, which gave the Dodgers a 6-5 lead, and his eighth-inning single of John Curtiss sent Seager to third base with two outs. Muncy couldn’t bring them home, which proved significant as the Rays came back in the most improbable fashion, but none of that was attributable to Turner’s play. Those big hits:
The Rays managed to keep Turner hitless in Game 5, dropping his overall postseason numbers to .262/.347/.492 and his World Series numbers to .364/.391/.818, but he still made some quality defensive plays behind Clayton Kershaw, a recurring theme for him this postseason:
As the Dodgers strive for that long-elusive championship, Turner’s been pushing the rock up the hill for longer than any of their other position players — longer, even, than the Andrew Friedman era, which began in late 2014; only Kershaw (who debuted in 2008) and Kenley Jansen (who arrived two years later) predate him on the roster. Ned Colletti was still the general manager when the Dodgers signed Turner in February 2014, and even they didn’t really know what they were getting: a poster child for the launch angle revolution and one of the era’s great late-bloomer success stories.
The Mets non-tendered Turner in December 2013, for reasons that aren’t entirely clear; murmurs about a lack of hustle or an unwillingness to spend part of the winter training with the team’s strength and conditioning coach later surfaced, in typical Wilpon-era fashion. Turner, who had hit a modest .265/.326/.370 (97 wRC+) in three-plus seasons with the Mets, had begun revamping his swing late in the 2013 season on the advice of teammate Marlon Byrd, who convinced him to be more aggressive, adjusting his leg kick so as to transfer his weight earlier, bring his point of contact closer to the pitcher, and hit the ball in the air with greater frequency. After being non-tendered, he spent the winter working with Byrd and hitting coach Doug Latta, and signed an incentive-laden minor league deal with the Dodgers, who had been keeping a backup infield spot warm for Michael Young in case he decided to return; instead he retired.
When Turner showed up with his new swing, the Dodgers tried to coach him back to his old stay-back-on-the-ball ways, but he tore up the Cactus League and made the team. He played sparingly until Juan Uribe got hurt, but got hot once he got regular playing time, and continued to play all around the infield, finishing at .340/.404/.493. He took over the regular third base job the next year, his swing continued to evolve, he cut his groundball rate and began hitting homers: 16 in 439 PA in 2015, after hitting just 15 in over 1,200 PA previously, and an average of 21 from 2015-19, with a high of 27. He’s become not just a staple of the lineup, but a foundational piece, valued not just for his production but his clubhouse and community presence. After the 2016 season, the Dodgers signed him to a four-year, $64 million deal, one that looked like a considerable discount in a winter where FanGraphs rated him the game’s number two free agent behind Yoenis Céspedes. That deal more than paid off, as Turner produced 14.3 WAR in those four seasons despite playing just 75% of the Dodgers’ games due to a variety of injuries. In seven seasons in Dodger blue, he’s produced 26.6 WAR, 5.6 for every 650 plate appearances. That makes him one of the most productive players in franchise history:
|Pee Wee Reese*||1940-1958||9470||61.3||4.2|
In terms of late bloomers, it’s hard to quantify, but I took a swing, one whose parameters are admittedly tailored to the outline of Turner’s career:
|Player||WAR Thru 28||WAR 29 onward||Gain|
The 10.0-WAR threshold helps to capture some of the above players whose turnarounds started earlier than Turner’s; for example, Kent and Butler both had their first solid seasons at age 26, Ortiz at 27, Bautista, Cruz, Werth, and Zobrist at 28… you get the idea. For many of those players, a change of scenery marked the point of inflection, as the players were able to escape the pigeonholes in which they’d been stuck. Turner might be the most famous post-non-tender success story this side of Big Papi. (For more on Turner’s turnaround, see both Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik’s The MVP Machine and Jared Diamond’s Swing Kings.)
Back to his place in Dodgers history, Turner’s 141 wRC+ (.302/.382/.503) places him 10th among players with at least 2,000 PA, and he has more plate appearances than five of the heavy hitters ahead of him. Thus it’s not all that surprising that thanks to the Dodgers’ perennial presence in October during his tenure, he’s put a claim on several franchise postseason records, including games (71), plate appearances (311), hits (79, surpassing Steve Garvey’s 63 in Game 3 of the NLDS), homers (12, one more than Seager and Snider), and RBI (41). He’s there on merit; his career postseason line (.298/.395/.513, 148 wRC+) is even a touch better than his regular season performance; while he has an NLCS MVP award from 2017 against the Cubs, he only lacks that elusive ring. While there’s reason to believe the Dodgers will work to retain him this winter, this could be his last best chance at a title.
Looking back at the 2020 regular season, Turner was certainly productive, but he was limited to 42 games by a left hamstring strain that cost him the first half of September and continued to hamper him upon returning, though he did raise his slugging percentage from .410 to .460 over his final 10 games, thanks largely to a two-homer game against the Angels on September 25, matching his total to that point. While it makes sense to connect his hamstring woes with his downturn in power, Statcast suggests he was somewhat unlucky, and was basically the same hitter as he’s been in recent years:
Turner had one of the majors’ largest gaps between his expected slugging percentage and his actual one:
|Danny Jansen||Blue Jays||93||.358||.437||-.079|
|Nomar Mazara||White Sox||92||.294||.365||-.071|
Regarding the hammy, it’s certainly possible that Turner’s lack of speed — he’s fallen to the 18th percentile via Statcast, down from the 43rd percentile two years ago — cost him a few doubles, and including the postseason, he’s 2.0 homers short of his expected total based on ballparks and batted ball parameters of his long drives, placing him in the 97th percentile in that category.
Aside from his running, Turner doesn’t appear to be showing ill effects on either side of the ball right now, which is good because the Dodgers could use every bit of the production he can muster to put them over the top. It would certainly complete the arc of his time with the Dodgers, and cement his place as one of the era’s great rags-to-riches stories.