Over the past 365 days, Paul Goldschmidt has been the best hitter in baseball, posting a .331/.458/.610 line that is good for an absurd 184 wRC+. Do you know who the second-best hitter in baseball has been over the past year? No, it’s not Bryce Harper; he’s third, at 167. And Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera are tied for fifth, each putting up a 161 wRC+ during that span. So who is the mystery man who has put his name among this elite group of hitters?
Dodgers infielder Justin Turner. Yes, the same Justin Turner who began the year as LA’s second-string utility guy, as he wasn’t even the team’s top reserve infielder. Although Turner had a very strong 2014 season of part-time work, the Dodgers’ glut of infield talent put him behind not only the starting trio of Howie Kendrick, Jimmy Rollins and Juan Uribe, but also saw him slide in behind Alex Guerrero for playing time at third base. Turner didn’t get his first start of 2015 until April 22, the Dodgers’ 14th game of the season.
But just as he did a year ago, when he’s been placed in the lineup, Turner has done nothing but hit. In fact, while his 157 wRC+ a year ago looked like a total fluke — given that he’d put up marks of 96, 98 and 99 the three previous years — he’s actually hitting even better this season, cutting his strikeout rate while also hitting the ball in the air more frequently and with more authority, resulting in a 170 wRC+ in the first few months of 2015.
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There are plenty of reasons to be skeptical of Turner’s breakout, of course. He didn’t have his first above-average hitting season as a big leaguer until last year — when he was 29 — and even dating back to the beginning of 2014, Turner has only 504 plate appearances, fewer than most players get in a full season. Most of Turner’s track record suggests that he’s not really a great hitter, but a guy with good contact skills and some power who is on the hot streak to end all hot streaks. It’s also somewhat telling that the Dodgers watched him destroy opposing pitchers last year, but still weren’t interested in expanding his role for 2015, then also went out and spent $63 million to sign infielder Hector Olivera this spring.
But while there are plenty of reasons to not believe in Turner’s breakout, it’s not like this career arc is entirely without precedent. For some historical context, here are five recent hitters who were, like Turner, essentially useless at the big league level through age 28, then turned into quality big leaguers later in their career.
WAR through 28
WAR after 29
Mora stands out as perhaps the best comparison for Turner, as he also reached the big leagues as a utility infielder, then kicked around for a few years as a low-offense role player. Like Turner, he didn’t really do anything exceptionally well, but was just good enough at everything to carve out a part-time job even though his career didn’t get started until he was 27. And because it took him so long to get to the majors, his breakout didn’t even occur until his age-31 season.
But like Turner, when he broke out, he did so in a big way. After posting a 93 wRC+ through 2002, Mora jumped up to 151 in 2003, then improved again to 159 in 2004. Over those two seasons, he tied some guy named Manny Ramirez for fifth-highest wRC+ in baseball; his +11.2 WAR ranked 12th among major-league position players over those two seasons, even though he was a part-time player for most of 2003.
Mora went on to have one more very good season in 2005 before age started to catch up with him, and he returned to being more of a solid average player than any kind of star. But despite his late breakout, Mora had a six-year run where he accumulated +22 WAR, putting him ahead of much higher-paid contemporaries like Johnny Damon, Jim Thome and Carlos Delgado. The Orioles reaped significant benefits from letting Mora play his way into the lineup, even though he never profiled as a guy with much upside or a long-term future with the club. They just let him play until he stopped hitting, and in his case, that took six years.
Mora’s success doesn’t guarantee Turner will follow the same path, of course, but I’d argue that he’s still done enough at this point to deserve a real chance to show what he can do as an everyday player. Even if you just look at the entirety of Turner’s career, putting no extra weight on his most recent performances, he’s put up a 118 wRC+ and +6 WAR over 1,400 plate appearances. Drop him to something like his career averages, and he’s not that different from Kyle Seager, who was rewarded with a nifty little $100 million contract extension over the winter. Seager is younger than Turner, of course, and a better defender, but the difference between them shouldn’t be that one gets a nine-figure contract while the other is being platooned with Alberto Callaspo.
The Dodgers did open up some playing time for Turner by jettisoning Juan Uribe to Atlanta in the deal that brought Callaspo to Los Angeles. But since May 31, Turner has started only 14 of 24 games at third base, with the vastly inferior Callaspo picking up the other 10 starts. With Olivera blasting his way through the minor leagues, the Dodgers’ infield is about to become overcrowded once again. And if manager Don Mattingly isn’t giving Turner everyday at-bats now, it’s unlikely to occur after Olivera arrives. After all, I don’t think the Dodgers rewarded the 30-year-old Cuban with a six-year contract to have him serve as a bench player.
But Turner deserves a chance to become an everyday player. Maybe it won’t happen in Los Angeles, but at the least, he should get a run as the team’s third baseman before Olivera arrives (likely around the All-Star break). And if he keeps hitting like this for the next few weeks, the Dodgers should leave him in the lineup until he stops hitting. He won’t keep this Miguel Cabrera impersonation going forever, but his combination of contact and newfound power suggests he can help the team win even in an expanded role.
It’s time to give Turner a real shot to play every day. He’s probably not this good, but we all thought that about Mora a decade ago, too.