2014 Dodgers In Review: Super Sub Justin Turner

MLB 322 .340 .404 .493 157 7 3.2

What happened in 2014: Received a minor-league contract for $1 million, paid off big time for the Dodgers.

There was talk all winter of the Dodgers signing Justin Turner. A day after we launched this site, Chad wrote a piece about the Dodgers needing utility infield depth. The photo used: one of Justin Turner. Here’s what Chad said:

“Turner hit .280/.319/.385/.704 with the Mets in 2013, and he’s probably the best utility infield bat remaining. Better yet, he’s performed essentially the same since 2011 and is only 29, so he’s a rare utility candidate that seems like a safe bet to produce going forward. His defense isn’t the greatest, but it’s tolerable in a player with his offensive skill and versatility.”

Sounds about right.

Mike wrote this 11 days later.

“Oh. So let’s dispense with the games and guess that there’s a 99% chance this is going to be Justin Turner, who is listed on MLBTR with the third basemen along with Brandon Inge and Placido Polanco. I say this not because I have any particular inside information, but because the pieces just fit.”

Sure you didn’t, Mike.

“Turner isn’t at all great, but he’s only 29, can sorta play second, short, and third, and reportedly received interest from several teams this winter. There’s also this: he’s a Long Beach native and a Cal State Fullerton alum, and he’s married to a UCLA alum, with whom he currently lives in the LA area. No, “being from LA” doesn’t automatically make someone a Dodger, but I can’t imagine that it hurts that his wife is constantly tweeting with and at good friend Cat Belanger, who works in the Dodgers marketing department.

I’m just making connections that may not be there, but if he’s unable to find a guaranteed deal, I don’t imagine that he’s going to do better than come home to a team that has a chance to win, a big chance of playing time, and family connections.”

Four days later, the Dodgers signed Turner. For a guy who wasn’t God-awful, he was only able to secure a minor-league deal. He made that pay off handsomely.

Daniel immediately began speculating about a second base platoon, as the Dodgers didn’t have a “true” starting second baseman in spring training.

“If we take the best wRC+ from each side of the major league portion of the table, the “optimal” batting platoon would be pretty uninspiring: Brendan Harris against left-handed pitching, and Chone Figgins/Justin Turner against right-handed pitching. Harris hasn’t hit well since 2009 (and isn’t great on defense), and we all know about Figgins’ past. Turner has been league average against right-handed pitching and has less risk than Figgins, so he seems like the ideal option against right-handed pitching.

Since there’s no obvious platoon partner for Turner among the major league options, the search could be expanded to the Dodgers’ minor leaguers. Both Rojas and Sellers are known for their gloves and not for their bats, potentially allowing for them to make up for having lower hitting numbers. Rojas is terrible against all pitchers, but Sellers is an interesting option since he hits lefties better. The raw values of his minor league statistics are nearly useless (since they’re from Albuquerque), and even if we use three years of split data, Sellers has only had 178 plate appearances against southpaws. The sample really isn’t large enough to definitively say that Sellers has a big platoon problem, but it still could be an advantage for the team to exploit.”

Just a little more than a month later, Daniel revisited the option, after Dee Gordon had all but assumed the starting gig.

“I really like it when data surprises me. Before this article, I was convinced that Turner would be a better choice for second than Gordon on both sides of the plate. After doing the math, using Gordon against right-handed pitching makes a lot more sense. However, using him against left-handed pitching is a mistake. As I was writing this, news broke that Turner will be playing in tomorrow’s game against lefty Wade Miley. Maybe the platoon talk wasn’t just talk. In any event, it’s probably only temporary, until Guerrero gets a bit more playing time in the minors.”

Luckily for the Dodgers, Turner was used much more than a straight platoon partner for Gordon at second base.

Turner came into the 2014 season as a .260/323/.361 hitter. Not terrible, especially for a part-time guy who can play all four of the infield positions (not that well at shortstop, but you get the idea). He blew those numbers away with a .340/.404/.493 triple slash in 322 plate appearances. Yes, he was helped by an extremely lucky .404 BABIP, but he was nails for the Dodgers.

When Juan Uribe went down with an injury in May, Turner stepped in and thrived.

“Enter Justin Turner, who has filled in admirably since Uribe was disabled. Since that time, Turner has hit .349/.406/.540 with three home runs, three doubles, 12 RBI and 14 runs scored. In the last two weeks, he’s been the seventh-best third baseman in the league. And he’s done most of his damage as a third baseman this season, hitting .360/.411/.523 from the hot corner. We can debate the merits of that statistical split, but as a third baseman, Turner is providing offensive production that tops that of Uribe’s thus far.

Another surprising facet of Turner’s game is the fact he’s playing solid defense in Uribe’s stead. Advanced defensive metrics have him at -0.2 UZR/150 (league-average is 0) and 3 defensive runs saved. Including this year, Turner’s career numbers at third base are not great: -4.5 UZR/150 and just 2 defensive runs saved. These numbers only matter depending on how much stock you put into them, but Turner has been at least an average defender at third base since Uribe went down, which is about all one could expect out of a utility player.”

But it wasn’t a perfect season for Turner, as evidenced by his night on Aug. 8 against the Brewers.

“Then, in came Brandon League, and everything came unglued. League induced a soft grounder to short off Mark Reynolds‘ bat. The ball hit Turner on his glove wrist; it should have been an inning-ending double play. With runners on first and third, Martin Maldonado dropped a safety squeeze, which succeeded due to an errant League glove flip. It would have taken a perfect play by League to get Weeks at the plate, so this time you have to tip your hat to good execution. This tied the game. After a fly out, Khris Davis hit another grounder to Turner in nearly the exact same location as the botched double play, and Turner couldn’t cleanly field the ball. This resulted in a bases loaded situation with Carlos Gomez batting. Gomez hit yet another ground ball to short. This time Turner actually fielded the ball, but his throw to first was low and wasn’t dug out, so the go-ahead run scored. Gerardo Parra followed up with a two run single, and the inning mercifully drew to a close as Gomez TOOTBLAN’d.”

But that’s OK. Turner would more than redeem himself a couple weeks later by hitting a game-winning home run against future Dodger Tyson Ross in another Clayton Kershaw gem.

Turner combined with Scott Van Slyke to form the strongest bench the Dodgers have employed in forever*.

*- Might not be 100 percent accurate

August Fagerstrom of FanGraphs looked at the best and worst benches in baseball back in August.

“This one kind of surprised me. Well, first, let’s just tackle the elephant in the room, which is Chone Figgins being on this list. Weird. Anyway, this list kind of surprised me, but I guess it makes sense considering Justin Turner has provided more value himself than the entire bench units of 28 other teams. Turner has always been a league average hitter who can play all four infield positions, making him a pretty valuable piece off the bench. Then there’s Scott Van Slyke, whose three true outcome approach coupled with his ability to play surprisingly well in the outfield makes him a pretty valuable piece off the bench, too.”

It’s nice to have guys on the bench who are actually, you know, good at baseball. Now, his BABIP is clearly unsustainable, so expect some regression next season. But, even if he regresses to his pre-Los Angeles numbers, he’s still a valuable bench piece (as long as he doesn’t have to play much shortstop). Steamer projects him to be a .266/.326/.381 hitter worth a win. That’s much more realistic than him repeating his 2014 performance, but I could easily see him out-performing that projection.

2015 status: Set to make $2.2 million via the arbitration process. He’s still under team control for the next two seasons, so unless he’s traded, he isn’t going anywhere.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.