ST. LOUIS Around here, the name Jacob Turner used to be synonymous with speed.
It wasn’t that long ago that Turner, now a right-handed starter for the Miami Marlins, threw 98 mile-per-hour fastballs to any Westminster Christian Academy catcher brave enough to crouch behind the plate.
Back then, if you happened to pick the right day to go watch, you might have even found Mike Matheny, now manager for the St. Louis Cardinals, sitting nearby, thinking of advice to offer the St. Charles native who happened to be high school teammates with his son.
Matheny will tell you he knew in 2009 that Turner, then a senior, had the makings of a major leaguer. And he was right. But here’s what’s interesting: The kid’s most-impressive weapon then — that heater that registered two ticks south of triple digits — wasn’t in Turner’s arsenal when he faced the Cardinals in St. Louis for the first time as a pro Friday night.
“He was throwing harder in high school,” Matheny said before Turner’s start. “But, he’s just learned how to pitch.”
As Turner has navigated a professional career that feels longer than it really is, he’s made adjustments. One was a decision to turn down the gas and swap some of that celebrated speed for some more control.
“No matter how hard you throw, at this level, if you leave it over the plate, guys are going to hit it,” Turner said. “That’s something I’ve been working on, my command.”
The Detroit Tigers drafted Turner with the ninth pick in 2009, but traded him to Miami for Anibal Sanchez and Omar Infante in 2012, before Turner had made his seventh MLB start. He finished that year with the Marlins, then had a bad enough spring training this year (0-3, 9.69 ERA) to earn a demotion when the regular season began.
That’s when things took a more-optimistic trend.
“I just got back to what I was doing,” he said. “Pounding the strike zone, trying to get as many ground balls as I can. Get early outs.”
He entered Friday’s game fresh off a 7-1 win against the San Diego Padres on June 29, the first complete game of his career. He held a 1.76 ERA in 41 innings.
“The guy I see now is totally different than the guy I saw at spring training,” Marlins manager Mike Redmond said. “He went down to the minor leagues and got himself right. He’s pounding the strike zone, and doing all the things he needs to do to be successful up here in the big leagues.”
But what happened to the gas?
Matheny weighed in.
“You only have so many bullets, right?” he said. “Eventually, you’re just going to lose some of that. We watched Bartolo Colon the other day. It’s going to catch up.
“Now, Jacob is a different story. He’s still young. But, mechanically, you’re making adjustments. Sometimes you have some injuries. I know he had a little bit of one when he went to Detroit (Turner experienced tendinitis in his right shoulder). Those sort of things start to alter your mechanics.
“There are all kinds of things that can happen that can change what your velocity looks like. There are also guys who learn there is a zone they need to pitch in. Instead of just throwing as hard as you can to light a gun up, you’re going to be more effective if you drop down in your velocity, and you can execute pitches better.”
Turner leans toward that final theory — a decreased velocity resulting in an increased effectiveness — as the reason his 98 mile-per-hour pitch has gone away. In the later innings Friday, he showed why it might make sense. After the Cardinals scored a run in the first inning and three more in the third, the pitcher clamped down and allowed zero runs through his final four innings.
“We got down early, but give Jacob a lot of credit,” Redmond said. “He battled, and made a lot of pitches after that. He kept us in the game.”
And he did it without throwing one pitch faster than 95.
Follow Ben Frederickson on Twitter (@Ben_Fred), or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org