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The Amazing Season-and-a-Half of Justin Turner

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Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Los Angeles Dodgers infielder Justin Turner didn't make the 2015 MLB National League All-Star team. He has a case though: he's hit .314/.384/.556 this year with a 165 wRC+ and 3.0 fWAR. This is hard to write-off as a small sample half-season fluke given that he hit the snot out of the ball in 2014 too. In fact, since joining the Dodgers last year he's hit a combined .329/.396/.519 in 554 plate appearances, 495 at-bats over 183 games, with 36 doubles, 18 homers, and a 45/95 K/BB.

That's All-Star-caliber performance of course. And don't forget the 6.2 fWAR in 183 games (that's 5.5 per 162). Turner has been one of the best players in baseball the last year and a half.

I'd love to say I saw this coming but I didn't really. When he was in the minors, I thought he would make a nice role player. The first comment on Turner, from the 2008 Baseball Prospect Book:

A successful collegian at Cal State Fullerton, Turner was drafted by the Reds in the seventh round in ’06. He had a fine season in the Midwest League last year, posting a +18 percent OPS, showing a touch of power and speed. He is a very good defensive second baseman, and isn’t horrible at shortstop despite a mediocre arm, giving him a future at higher levels as a utilityman. If he continues to hit like this, which is possible, he could project as an average major league starting second baseman, not a star, but solid. ‘If he continues to hit like this’ is the important statement, and it’s too early to tell for sure. Grade C+, but raise that to B- if he hits in Double-A.

From 2009:

Last year I wrote that if Justin Turner hit as well in Double-A as he did in A-ball in 2007, you should raise his grade from C+ to B-. Well, he played well at Chattanooga, yes, but he didn’t quite meet the "hit as well" standard. His OPS was +18 percent in the Midwest League in ’07, but just +5 percent in the Southern League in ’08. He continued to demonstrate line drive hitting ability, reasonable on-base skills, and steady defense. Turner fits the "scrappy second baseman with limited tools" stereotype to a tee. I tend to fall in love with guys like this too easily. Grade C but could be a nice role player.

Then 2010, quite similar but with a new team:

The Orioles picked up Justin Turner from the Reds in December 2008; he’d been drafted in the seventh round in 2006 out of Cal State Fullerton. He’s not toolsy, but he’s very polished and scrappy, the stereotyped second baseman. As a hitter, he lacks distance power but makes good contact and has shown he can hit for average against advanced minor league pitching. Grade C

"Lacks distance power." Ha!

Then on to the Mets for 2011, his last year as a "prospect."

The Mets picked Turner up from the Orioles as a waiver claim last May. He showed more power in his second Triple-A season, hitting .316/.374/.487 overall in the International League with 12 homers and 30 doubles. He even played better defensively, cutting his error rate in half compared to 2009. His range is limited at shortstop, but he plays a good second and can cover third in an emergency. Turner is now 26 years old and a finished product, but I don’t see any reason why he can’t hang around the majors for several years as a useful role player, if he gets off to a hot start and has a bit of luck. Grade C.

After three years of use in a part-time starter and bench role the Mets let him go of course and then he suddenly morphed from fungible role player (.265/.326/.370 with the Mets) into outstanding performer.

As Eno Sarris pointed out for Fangraphs back in May, Turner credits a more aggressive hitting approach cultivated by working with Marlon Byrd for his performance burst. It is true that his strikeout rate with the Dodgers (17%) is higher than it was with the Mets (13.2%) but 17% is hardly excessive, his walk rate is higher, too, and the massive gains in power and overall production are certainly worth the change in approach.

One final interesting factoid: the power burst over the last two seasons has moved Turner's career Isolated Power up to .134 in the majors. Do you know what his minor league career Isolated Power was, which almost entirely pre-dates the change in his hitting approach?

His minor league isolated power was .133.

Basically, the change in hitting philosophy enabled Turner to duplicate in the majors what he had already done in the minors.

I have some larger points here about the implications of Turner's case on player development but they aren't mature yet. Stay tuned. In the meantime, discuss Turner.