Deciding when to promote a top prospect can be a touchy subject. It can provide the team with a shot in the arm or create holes in a bullpen. Pete Hodges digs into the rookie performance of Trea Turner to see if his impressive numbers are sustainable or if he’s just another flash in the pan.
Trea Turner – San Diego’s 2014 first-round pick was the PTBNL in a trade that sent him from the San Diego Padres to the Washington Nationals* – had a cup of coffee last season and was overmatched in his 44 plate appearances, striking out in 27.3% of his plate appearances and being caught stealing twice in four attempts. The young shortstop began 2016 back in the minors with the Triple-A Syracuse Chiefs and proceeded to tear the cover off of the ball (.302/.370/.471). Throughout the first two months of the season, there were numerous calls for his promotion, but the Nationals turned a deaf ear and stuck with veteran Danny Espinosa who, so far this season, has put up a .214/.310/.382 line with 22 home runs.
It appeared that Turner would finally get his shot in June when Ryan Zimmerman was placed on paternity leave for a weekend series against the Cincinnati Reds. Turner started Friday, June 3rd at second base – batted second – and went 3-for-4 with a double and a walk. Many Nationals fans hoped the kid had finally arrived, but manager Dusty Baker didn’t see it that way. Turner wasn’t in the lineup for Saturday’s game, although he did make it in as a defensive replacement. Then on Sunday, he once again watched from the dugout before hopping on a plane back to upstate New York.
It wasn’t until July 8 – after another month of crushing Triple-A pitching and Zimmerman’s trip to the disabled list – that Turner got his third, and likely last, call up to the majors. On the day before the All-Star break (July 10) Turner made the start, going 0-for-4. The Nationals had to make another roster move when Zimmerman’s DL stint was up, but this time they sent Turner somewhere else: the outfield. Starting in late June, Turner played six games in center field for the Syracuse Chiefs and that limited sample was enough for the Nationals, because they demoted center fielder Michael Taylor instead of Turner.
Turner has bounced between center field and second base since then for the big league club, while putting up some very impressive numbers. As of September 21, the rookie is slashing .345/.366/.572 over 276 plate appearances – all but three batting leadoff. His eye-popping numbers show an improvement over his minor league career line of .316/.380/.460 – most notably in the power department. Turner has already hit 11 home runs in 264 at-bats – or one every 24 at bats – after lifting just 19 home runs in 1,064 minor league AB (one every 56). He also hit a home run every 55 AB this season with Syracuse and one every 46 in 2015. Whatever is causing MLB hitters to hit more home runs may also be the reason Turner’s power has spiked.
This leads us to an oddity in Turner’s slash line – his low on-base percentage compared to his batting average. His walk rate in the majors thus far is a dismal 3.3%, but this is not representative of the player he was in the minors. Turner walked in 9.2% of his plate appearances in the minor leagues – so what gives? It could be that major league pitchers want to challenge the rookie – or, they just don’t want to put someone with his speed on the basepaths. Turner has stolen 27 bases in 31 attempts this season – an 87.1% rate – which is in line with his minor league rate of 86.5%. So if a pitcher walks Turner, then there’s a very good possibility that he’s going to end up on second base. He is helped in this regard not only by his speed but also by the lineup behind him. After Turner, the pitcher must face Jayson Werth, and then MVP candidates Daniel Murphy and Bryce Harper.
Another factor to consider is Turner’s high BABIP, which is currently sitting at an unbelievable .398. However, his minor league BABIP was .388, and his blazing speed along with his contact skills indicate that his BABIP will not drop precipitously. So while his batting average may fall from the lofty heights of the mid-.300s, expecting him to sustain something above .300 does seem reasonable.
Finally, we need to look at Turner’s strikeout rate, which has been reasonably low (18.4%) while putting up these numbers. That rate is in line with his minor league rate of 19.8%. Eventually pitchers will make an adjustment but when they do, Turner may see an increase in his walks, as he has shown a talent in the minors to lay off of pitches outside the zone. An increase in walks will lead to more opportunities on the base paths, increasing Turner’s value.
Trea Turner spent slightly longer in the minor leagues than some observers predicted. However, it appears that whatever the Nationals needed to see, or teach him, has been accomplished. Turner has arrived, and the Nationals have yet another young superstar on their hands.
Follow Pete on Twitter @PeterWHodges.
Featured image courtesy of Brad Mills.
*Thanks to Karl Kolchack for pointing this out.