In his first 2 years in Dodger blue, Justin Turner has been an offensive force, a steady defensive cog and one of the true MVP candidates the Dodgers possessed not named Clayton. Being one of the best diamonds in the rough that Ned Colletti ever unearthed, Turner slashed a surprising .314/.384/.492, with an OPS of .876, nearly 200 points higher than his previous career average. After doing his best to single-handedly carry the sluggish Dodgers offense over the Mets strong young pitching in the 2015 NLDS, Turner succumbed to micro-fracture surgery on his knee in the offseason.
His season started as one would expect from someone recovering from micro-fracture surgery. Turner struggled to get anything going offensively, posting a paltry triple slash of .220/.320/.642 through June 3rd. After going hitless in his first 13 June at-bats, many Dodger fans felt his time in the sun may be setting. Since, he has played the best baseball of his entire career, sporting a 1.051 OPS, 15 HRs and 42 RBI in 42 games. His HR total alone was 1 shy of his career high of 16, albeit in 254 fewer plate appearances. Turner’s red star continues to shine.
So how has he turned it up to 11? Turner’s pronounced leg kick is the defining feature of his swing. If he is having timing issues with that leg kick, it can lead to trouble getting around on pitches inside. Once he found his timing, he began to substantially increase his power rate. Turner has also been substituting ground balls for line drives, something that generally bodes well in a hitter’s favor. Since I’ve identified these as two key outliers that have increased Turner’s statistical performance, lets examine them a little deeper.
Since this analysis needs to have a set of end-points, I’m going to set the “1st” and “2nd” half end points at June 3rd. The first “portion” of the season will run from April 4th to June 3rd, and the second “portion” will run from June 4th to July 25th.
Turner’s power resurgence has jumped, partially a result of the aforementioned increase in line drives over ground balls. During the first half of the season, Turner’s ground ball rate sat at 38.2%, meaning that 38.2% of the balls he hit in play were ground balls. During the second half, that rate decreased to 27.8%. This is important to note because a ball hit on the ground is an out roughly 75% of the time. His line drive rate jumped from 22.9% in the 1st half to 27.1% in the 2nd, and his fly ball rate jumped from 38.9% to 45.1%.
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The biggest change may have been his HR/FB%, or his percentage of fly balls that went for HRs. In the first half, his rate stood at a well below league average rate of 5.4%. In the second half, that jumped up to 23.1%, almost double the league average. Justin Turner has a .675 batting average and a 1.715 OPS on line drives this year, so by increasing the rate with which he hit them, naturally the rest of his stats will follow suit.
The increase in line drives isn’t just about hitting the ball harder. When a hitter replaces ground balls with line drives, he is actually improving his launch angle, or the angle at which the ball leaves the bat. Launch angles less than 10 degrees are generally ground balls, between 10-25 degrees are line drives, 25-50 degrees are fly balls and greater than 50 degrees are pop ups. In the first chart below (courtesy of Statcast, which can be found at Baseball Savant), you can see that the bulk of Turner’s batted balls are below 10 degrees, resulting in a lot of outs. But in the second chart, his launch angle drastically improves, and the hits follow suit.
Getting his timing in sync has also allowed him to have better success at hitting the ball on the lower inside corner of the plate. The heat maps below, courtesy of Fangraphs, reflect Turner’s slugging percentage on all pitches within a section of the plate. Looking at these heat maps, the first picture reflects our first half date range and looks like a sea of blue. Blue, in this case, is not very good.
However, in the second half date range heat map, not only has Turner drastically improved his power on inside pitches, he’s done a great job at driving the ball on the outside and the top of the strike zone as well. This really shows how well Turner can cover the plate when his mechanics are right. His contact rates have improved also. In the first half, Turner was lacking in his hard hit rate. He improved that from 29.9%, to 45.8%, nearly double his career average and higher than even noted baseball abuser Giancarlo Stanton’s career rate of 41.9%. Even with the small sample size caveat, that’s pretty impressive.
In addition to driving the ball harder, Turner has been pulling the ball more and driving it to left field. His pull rate during the first half was 33.3% and has increased to 40.3% in the second half. Pulling the ball isn’t always great, but pulling the ball and increasing power generally correlates with a higher home run rate.
As is the case with a few areas within baseball, Turner has also benefitted from some increased luck. His BABIP, or batting average on balls in play, has increased from .255 in the first half to .305 in the second. Now of course, hitting more line drives will cause BABIP to increase but it’s important to note that his BABIP only stands slightly above league average, so it stands to reason he was getting unlucky in the first half.
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Justin Turner has already eclipsed his career high in home runs, and should easily clear his career high in hits, doubles and RBI when the season is all said and done. It really highlights the difference in performance one can have when they start hitting predominantly line drives over ground balls. Turner will be a free agent at the end of the year, and if he keeps up this level of performance, he could easily blow past a contract like Daniel Murphy acquired last offseason. For the time being, let us watch and revel in his many accomplishments as he hopefully leads this Dodgers team to another NL West title, and more!
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