This is a tweet we see often from from the Nationals:
In a 162-game season, Trea Turner would be on pace for:
248 Hs (would've been 1st in @MLB in 2019)
141 Rs (1st)
35 HRs (t-23rd)
50 2Bs (4th)
10 3Bs (t-1st)
91 RBIs (t-38th)
— Washington Nationals (@Nationals) September 1, 2020
The team’s social media handle loves to take stands about their players: Anthony Rendon, best third baseman in baseball, Juan Soto, best hitter in baseball, Stephen Strasburg, best postseason starting pitcher in history, and on and on. One of their longstanding beliefs is that over a full 162-game season, Trea Turner puts up MVP-type numbers. One of the reasons they can take this stand is because Turner is rarely healthy for a full 162-game slate, so extrapolating looks good.
In fact, Turner dealt with more turmoil early in his career than you might have noticed.
Turner spent the first portion of his major league career learning to play a new position. In 2016, the Nationals threw him into centerfield after just six games of training in Triple-A. He then turned around and spent the next season re-acclimating himself to shortstop. There was also his broken wrist, and his broken fingers last season.
Perhaps most tumultuous of all was this: Turner spent prime development time in the Padres system after being traded to the Nationals. The Nats exploited a loophole to snag Turner less than a year after he’d been drafted, but in this strange case, the Player To Be Named Later was actually named right away, and only traded later. Maybe that put a chip on his shoulder, but it’s certainly a less-than-ideal way to begin a professional career.
Despite all of this, he’s developed into a star player. Don’t you think so, Brandon?
Trea Turner is insane. He's 11-for-14 with 4 2B, 1 K over his last 3 games.
.786 AVG, 1.857 OPS
Hitting .363 on the year
— Brandon Wile (@Brandon_N_Wile) August 30, 2020
This was coming off an an almost perfect offensive series against the Red Sox, right in the middle of his 16-game hit streak and 22-game on-base streak — both of which came to an end this week in Philadelphia. As of Friday morning, the 27-year-old shortstop owned a triple slash of .366/.420/.634, good for a 177 wRC+ across 157 plate appearances. He good.
But is he good enough, as the team’s Twitter handle suggests, to be an MVP candidate? Or is 162-game-average Trea Turner a myth propagated by rate statistics and extrapolation?
Part I: Fastest Player In The Game
Turner runs well, he plays shortstop, he bats leadoff — it’s easy to put him in a box. He’s, you know, like, a speedy leadoff shortstop guy. Because he plays shortstop, we rarely get to see him at full gallop like we do outfielders. Still, if there’s one thing we’ve always known about Trea Turner, it’s that he’s fast. Very fast:
? Trea Turner inside-the-parker ? pic.twitter.com/ZhaBFGWiRR
— MLB (@MLB) September 3, 2020
He’s become one of the most prolific base stealers of his era. Since his rookie season (2016), Turner ranks third in total stolen bases with 160, trailing only Jonathan Villar’s 169 and Billy Hamilton’s 176. By wSB, which measures how many runs a hitter contributes by the bases they steal, Turner is second only to Hamilton. Though he’s a volume thief, he’s also efficient, swiping bags with a success rate of 82.6% for his career, making him the 27th most efficient base stealer all-time (minimum: 80 attempts).
But this is 2020, and we no longer have to look at stolen bases alone to measure a player’s speed. In 2019 Turner finished second in average sprint speed (30.4 ft/sec), trailing only Tim Locastro of the Diamondbacks (30.8 ft/sec). He’s finished top-five in sprint speed every year of his career. He torched the league with 134 Bolts in 2018, which is “any run above 30ft/sec,” per Statcast. In 2018, Hamilton finished second with 101 bolts, the only other player to break the century mark. Last season was even more outrageous: Turner notched 126 bolts in just 122 games. Locastro finished second with just 68.
From 2015 to the present, Turner’s 465 bolts rank second only to Hamilton’s 496. Cesar Hernandez is the only other player in the 400s, with 407. Broken down by percentage of bolts per competetive runs, and Hernandez notches a bolt on 30.15% of his attempts, Turner at 53.32%, Hamilton at 53.68%.
If Turner’s not the fastest player in the sport, he’s not far off.
Part II: Putbacks And Hustle Rebounds
To stack bolts year-after-year the way Turner does means he’s legging out a lot of infield hits. Here’s the formula:
speed + contact + groundballs = sustainably high batting average on balls in play
For any player with speed, step one at the dish has to be put the ball in play. It doesn’t matter how fast you run if you’re walking back to the dugout after strike three. Turner’s making contact at a career-best rate in 2020 with a 14.0 K%, but this is not a new skill. He’s always had a knack for putting the bat on the ball — he has an 18.3 K% for his career and has paired it with a 21.1 Whiff%. He currently ranks in the 90th percentile for K-rate and 80th percentile for whiffs. He’s a free swinger more akin to a leadoff batter from the 90s, but Turner’s approach works for him because of his contact ability.
So he’s got the speed, and he’s got the contact, but does he hit the ball on the ground?
He does. With an career groundball rate of 47.8%, he typically kills worms about three or four percent more often than your average player. What all this adds up to is a lot of at-bats like this:
Because Turner avoids striking out and burns worms, he routinely logs an above-average batting average on balls in play. His .386 BABIP this season compares favorably to a stellar career average of .341 BABIP. Normally we might look at a BABIP that high and point to oncoming regression, but wheels like Turner has create those extra chances. Every infield single is like an offensive rebound: he misses the barrel — effectively clanking one off the rim — and instead of surrendering the possession to the defense, he hustles and turns it into points.
What separates Turner from Hamilton, Locastro, Roman Quinn and the other speed freaks is that Turner is not a singles hitter. Not anymore.
PART III: Middle-Of-The-Order Bat
Based on his profile, the Nats should be more than comfortable hitting Turner in the middle of the order. There’s no harm in letting him get those extra ABs from the leadoff spot, but he’s currently sporting a .268 ISO. That’s higher than Gleyber Torres in 2019. Of course, that’s coming in only 35 games, but that’s the thing about Turner: he has monster stretches of power. He had a .225 ISO in his first season across 73 games back in 2016, and his .200 ISO from last season is nothing to scoff at either, especially considering he spent half the year holding the bat with a broken finger.
His career .181 ISO won’t pop your eyes from their sockets, but it’s a better career mark than Dansby Swanson (.144), Tim Anderson (.164), Nick Ahmed (.150), Xander Bogaerts (.166), or Marcus Semien (.172). But it’s not quite sharing airspace with Corey Seager (.202), Francisco Lindor (.204), Carlos Correa (.208), Javy Baez (.211), Paul DeJong (.214), or Trevor Story (.262). Lean into the recency bias of Turner’s .214 ISO in 2019-2020, however, and he can hang. He’s a top-eight shortstop in the game by isolated power over that time. By slugging percentage he jumps into the top-four.
By wRC+ — my personal favorite measure of offensive production, which correlates slightly more to success than even wOBA — Turner’s 128 wRC+ since 2019 ties with Semien for third best among qualified shortstops.
PART IV: The Question Behind 2018
When it comes to Turner, the team’s Twitter handle doesn’t just cite his 162 games averages out of rogue excitement. I get it. They’re good: .297/.353/.478, 36 doubles, 9 triples, 22 home runs, 51 stolen bases.
The only problem is that Turner’s never actually had a season like that.
2018 was the one season he stayed healthy enough to play in all 162 games. Instead of seeing the 162-game average Turner we like to believe in, the Nats got a slightly diluted form of him: .271/.344/.416, with a 105 wRC+ and 4.8 fWAR. He led the league in steals with 43 and scored 103 runs, a career high. His BABIP fell to a career-low .314 and his ISO fell to a career-low .145, but there was nothing irregular about his barrel percentage, hard hit percentage, or K-rates. His xwOBA marched in step with his career rates. He actually achieved the highest walk rate of his career at 9.3%.
That’s not a bad season! But the difference between Turner’s 2018 and his 162-game averages are the difference between a star player and an MVP. Was fatigue a factor? Is that just what happens when Trea plays a full 162? Or was it happenstance that his worst overall season was his healthiest?
I’d love to believe in Turner with the dogged homerism of Nationals social media — though I can’t help but wonder if the 162-game average Trea is a myth. Because if he’s real, he’s not just the fastest player in baseball.
He’s one of the best players in the game.