Approximately a quarter of the way through the season, the Washington Nationals aren’t exactly where they want to be. At 17-23 as of this writing, the Nats are 4.5 games behind the division-leading New York Mets (20-17). There have been positives and negatives on the baseball field thus far, but one undeniable bright spot — just as was the case during the tumultuous 2020 campaign — is Trea Turner.
Turner, who isn’t putting up quite the same numbers in many regards as last season, is still among the best producers at arguably the most important position on the diamond. Turner currently boasts a 153 wRC+, which is second in all of baseball among shortstops; his 2.0 fWAR is also second among shortstops; and the key point of this piece: he’s tied for the lead in home runs among shortstops with 10.
Last season, Turner hit 12 balls over the fence in his 59 games played (259 plate appearances).
With 171 plate appearances over 39 games under his belt this season, the Nats’ shortstop seems poised to tie or surpass that former number in the next couple series.
Turner’s highest home run total in his career came back in both 2018 and 2019 when he connected for 19 home runs. It took him 740 and 559 plate appearances, respectively, to reach that total in those two years. In 2021, he’s on pace to match that number by the midway point of the season.
How has Turner gotten to this point this season? To start, he’s barreling balls at a higher clip thus far. In 2018, Turner barreled the ball 5.8 percent of the time, and in 2019, he barreled the ball 6.8 percent of the time. This season, his barrel percentage is up to 9.6 percent. Although his barrel percentage last year is similar to this year’s output (-0.1% difference), Turner’s hard hit percentage is up a tick over eight points this season, from 40.7 percent in 2020 to 48.8 percent this season.
Perhaps Turner is generating more bat speed this season, resulting in greater whiffs on fastballs but stronger contact when the bat does meet the ball. His whiff rate is up three points from his totals a season ago. Another potential explanation is his willingness to pull the ball this season versus last season.
Turner’s pulling the ball nearly 33 percent of the time this season — nearly a seven point rise in that category.
Although Turner has had the propensity to pull in the past, it’s perhaps bringing him more success in terms of power in 2021.
Figure 1 (above) shows Turner’s preference to drive home run balls to left field as opposed to hitting the ball to the opposite field and over the wall.
As for the 2021 season, Turner’s histogram shows that all of his home runs have had a launch direction between -10 and -30, with only one home run appearing in the 0-5 category.
The most probable explanation is that it’s a number of the aforementioned factors working in tandem with one another — and perhaps other factors not covered here.
Turner is striking out more frequently this season than ever before in a full season of work (20.5 percent), while walking less (4.7 percent). The result of this is that his wOBA has fallen slightly since last season, down to .401 from .413 in 2020, but that mark is still higher than any previous season. The greater number of strikeouts and fewer number of walks has likely resulted in a weakening of his wRC+ (down to 153 from 158 in 2020), but that is still an excellent number and much higher than any other year of his career.
The tradeoff is that while Turner might be getting on base less frequently as opposed to a year ago, he’s largely making up for that by hitting home runs. Additionally, Turner contributed approximately .045 fWAR per game last season. This year, that number is up to .051 fWAR per game. In other words, while Turner was on pace for 7.4 fWAR last season over the course of 162 games, he’s on pace for 8.3 this year. Simply put: he’s a more valuable player this season.
Finally, what’s special about what Turner is doing in terms of power thus far is the year in which he’s doing it. The year of “Manfred ball,” as it were, has resulted in fewer home runs — although, as Devan Fink noted at FanGraphs earlier this month, it might not be by as much as we think. Nevertheless, the ball is undeniably different and those differences are leading to less offense, more strikeouts, more no-hitters, and, of course, fewer home runs.
Pick any year in recent MLB history and the league-wide strikeout rate is going to be anywhere from one to five percentage points higher in 2021.
Although less pronounced, there’s a similar trend emerging in regard to home runs, as well.
Despite that, Turner is posting decent power numbers this season. Turner’s 10 home runs have him tied for 12th in baseball, while it places him as the leading home run getter on the Nationals, four ahead of the second-place Kyle Schwarber (6), who was acquired by Washington to hit home runs.
Whether or not Turner’s pace will continue later into the season is yet to be seen, but I suspect he’s going to continue to be one of the prominent contributors for this club in 2021. If I had to guess, as time goes on, Turner’s home run pace will lessen, his strikeout rate will decrease, while his walks increase, and we’ll see his on base percentage rise to similar levels as 2020. But for now, let’s keep watching Trea Turner, Home Run Hitter.