At first glance, Trea Turner doesn’t look any different.
He’s still stealing plenty of bases, owns the same batting average he finished last season with and has displayed some sneaky pop with eight extra-base hits on the year. Upon closer inspection, however, the Washington Nationals’ shortstop has radically changed his approach at the plate — and the results are just beginning to show.
In years past, Turner has struggled to identify pitches outside the strike zone. According to Brooks Baseball, he’s particularly had trouble with off-speed pitches, whiffing on at least 20 percent of them every year in the majors prior to this season. Yet so far in 2018, that number has dropped dramatically.
It’s only May 1 and Turner has already set the second-highest walk total of his young career with 18. Last season, when he set his career high of 30 bases on balls, Turner didn’t draw his 18th walk until June 29. He’s showing unprecedented plate discipline and has pushed his on-base percentage up to .381, which would be a career high.
Turner’s success has been a byproduct of his newfound ability to lay off those pitches outside the zone. FanGraphs lists his chase rate at 22.6 percent — about 5 percent lower than his career average. By working deeper into counts, Turner is seeing 4.04 pitches per plate appearance this season compared to 3.79 in 2017 and 3.80 the year prior. In fact, he has the highest PPA among qualified players on the team by Fox Sports’ calculations.
“Nobody throws fastballs in hitter’s counts anymore,” Turner told The Washington Post.
“There’s not really a hitter’s count … If somebody is going to take a hack 3-1 or 3-2, they can kind of get themselves out if you just throw them a breaking ball, a bad pitch. Obviously, you want to do that.”
To make things worse for opposing pitchers, Turner isn’t just making more contact, he’s making better contact. His hard-hit rate is a career-high 38.6 percent, and while he only has one home run on the season, his paltry 4 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio indicates he’s just gotten unlucky on a few deep flies.
Of course, Turner is still going to rack up the strikeouts. His overall swing rate has remained consistent compared to his career average, so he’s making up for the missing swings outside the zone by trying to put the ball in play more often when it’s over the plate.
After breaking out with an impressive 73-game rookie performance in 2016, Turner had a disappointing sophomore season that saw him hit the DL for two separate injuries. Although he stole 46 bases and had several hot streaks throughout the year, he wasn’t taking pitches and working deep into counts — limiting his ability to get on base and put himself in a position to utilize his running abilities further.
Between his speed, power and improved patience, Turner profiles as the prototypical No. 2 hitter for the sabermetric-dominated era the sport of baseball is enjoying. At leadoff, Turner’s power is wasted. If he were to hit No. 3 in the lineup, he’d lose out on several opportunities to steal bases. Nats manager Dave Martinez did experiment hitting Turner fifth and sixth, but it’s evident the 2018 version of the 24-year-old shortstop must be hitting near the top of the order.
Washington hasn’t been scoring runs in bunches like it did in April last season as it’s missing key hitters in Anthony Rendon, Adam Eaton and Daniel Murphy. Turner didn’t get off to a hot start — he hit just .200 through his first 13 games — but has since heated up to the tune of .348/.427/.470 over his past 16 contests.
“I feel better,” Turner said, as quoted by MASN. “Feel like I’ve been squaring the ball up a little bit more, still would like to drive it a little bit more but it’s nice to be on base frequently and kind of make something happen. Score some runs.”
One can assume the Nats’ new hitting coach Kevin Long has had something to do with Turner’s transformation, a tactic he wanted to try out with Murphy prior to the season. Once the injured reserves do return to the field, the Nats’ offense still has the potential to be among the best in the league, and Turner looks like he’ll be right at the center of it.
Looks can be deceiving, but don’t let Trea Turner fool you. His speed is only the beginning.