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Taking a Sabermetric Turn with Turner

Disclaimer: this article challenges the age-old adage that numbers is bullshit.


Trea Turner would not be the first junior to hurt his draft stock by suffering from a falloff in production with the pressure of hundreds of thousands of dollars riding on his draft-eligible season performance. Without giving it much thought, I have chalked up his very-good-but-down-for-him year as just that: pressing. In the games I have seen, he definitely seems more pull-conscious, which is perhaps an indication that he has been trying to show more power to increase his draft position. Statistics, as they often do, tell a more complete story.

Before we delve into the sabermetrics, let's take a gander at his triple slash line over the last three seasons:

  • .306/.380/.452 (2014)
  • .368/.455/.552 (2013)
  • .336/.432/.459 (2012)

In his remarkable sophomore season, Turner hit five of his seven home runs over his first 14 games but only two after returning from the ankle injury he suffered in the Clemson series. In addition to the power jump, he appeared on his way to hitting over .400 as well, but he was just not quite the same player he was pre-injury, and, for whatever reason, he seems to have taken another step back in 2014.

Turner's batting average on balls in play suggests that his 2012 and 2013 seasons were actually a lot closer to 2014; in other words, perhaps luck inflated his numbers from his first two seasons more so than pressing is hurting his numbers now. Turner hit .374 on balls in play in 2012, .393 in 2013, and just .318 this year. A .300 BABIP is about average against Major League Baseball-caliber defenses, but .320 would probably be a better baseline in the college game, and someone with Turner's speed could be expected to eclipse that. So it appears Turner has been a bit unlucky this year, especially in comparison to the Turner of the past.

But is it the same Turner in terms of speed? The frequency and success rate of Turner's steals have trended downward since his record-setting freshman season. He went 57-for-61 (93.4%) in 63 games in 2012, 30-for-36 (83.3%) last year in 56 games, and 10-for-13 (76.9%) in 31 games so far this year. I don't think he has ever fully regained his speed due to last year's injury.

A loss of speed, coupled with an approach at the plate that eschews using the whole field in favor of power, could definitely explain Turner's precipitous decline in BABIP and resulting drop in production from elite to very good. A .393 BABIP was never sustainable to begin with, but I think there's more going on with Turner's ill-timed decline than bad luck or regression.

Another, albeit less significant, factor is his walk percentage. Turner posted an excellent 13% walk rate as a freshman and improved it slightly to 13.8% as a sophomore. In 2014, Turner's walk rate has slipped to a more pedestrian 10.5%. Of course drawing fewer walks hurts his on-base percentage and his triple slash line, and the reduced rate could also be an indicator of a less-disciplined approach from a hitter that is trying to do a little too much to impress scouts.

Turner is an amazing talent, and I'll take that .832 OPS out of the shortstop spot forever. Unfortunately, that 1.007 OPS guy from a year ago is the guy Baseball America tabbed as the best position player in college baseball. Turner not living up to the weight of those expectations has not only contributed to N.C. State's surprise struggles on the diamond, it's probably cost him a lot of money, even if his decline in production is probably a bit less significant than the traditional measures suggest.