The secret behind Turner's big breakout
Offseasons in batting cage have transformed utility man into everyday star
Mark McGwire didn't know what to expect when Justin Turner showed up at the Dodgers' complex in Arizona two years ago. He was a non-roster invitee with a .260 career average looking to earn a utility spot on a crowded roster.
Turns out, McGwire now says, that the team with baseball's biggest payroll was adding a guy who was "probably one of our MVPs last year, if not the MVP,'' even if no one knew it at the time.
"Thank you, New York Mets, for letting him go,'' said McGwire, the Dodgers' hitting coach.
The real thanks go to Marlon Byrd, the Reds outfielder who overhauled his swing and lengthened his career while serving a PED suspension in 2012, and to Doug Latta, a former high school coach who teaches hitting to the hardcore out of a batting cage in an industrial park in the San Fernando Valley, west of Los Angeles.
One of the great things about baseball is that hitting is more like playing golf than running with a football. The light goes on for different people at different times, with insights available through hard work when a player is properly motivated.
Look at Jose Bautista, for example.
A journeyman who had been with four Major League teams, Jose Bautista was open to overhauling his swing when he was traded to the Blue Jays on Aug. 21, 2008. He worked with then-manager Cito Gaston and hitting coach Dwayne Murphy, developing a leg kick and subtly moving his body toward the pitcher, rather than staying quiet and waiting on the ball, and turned himself into one of the game's most dangerous hitters as his 30th birthday approached.
Turner, a 30-year-old free spirit with a flowing red beard and an almost unquenchable thirst for the moment when a high-90s fastball or nasty slider meets the barrel of his bat, has undergone a similar transformation.
Turner's not Bautista (not yet, anyway), but he's a .324 hitter with a .977 OPS and an OPS+ of 169, the level where hitters like Mike Trout, Joey Votto and Nelson Cruz generally reside. Turner is deserving of a spot on the National League All-Star team, but he might be a year away, as perception doesn't always change as quickly as reality.
For Turner, the light went on in the summer of 2013, as he traveled through the Major Leagues as a reserve infielder on a 74-win Mets team. Byrd, released by the Red Sox, had signed a Minor League deal with the Mets after a prolific winter in Mexico.
Byrd shared with Turner how he had torn down and rebuilt his swing working with Latta over the previous year, making use of the down time during his suspension. The two would spend the next winter working together at The Ballyard, Latta's cage, with Turner driving from North Hollywood and Byrd from Malibu, and Turner's approach to hitting was transformed.
"It wasn't something that just happened overnight,'' Turner said before a game at Wrigley Field. "We did it five days a week for four months, trying to fix [my swing] and get to where I can repeat it. Went to Spring [Training], had success. Throughout all last year, from that base we established, we made adjustments on the fly within the parameters of the philosophies we had, and started having success.''
Before working with Byrd and Latta, Turner had played in 318 Major League games, with his versatility as a fielder and success as a pinch-hitter his calling cards. He hit .260 with a .685 OPS and a home run every 105 at-bats on average.
In his two seasons with the Dodgers, Turner has played in 172 games and is batting .334 with a .927 OPS and a homer every 27 at-bats. His emergence played a role in president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman trading Juan Uribe to the Braves a month ago, and Turner has responded with a big June, including home runs in all three games of last weekend's series against the Giants. His blast off Yusmeiro Petit on Sunday cleared the wall in straightaway center field, similar to Jose Canseco's grand slam in the 1988 World Series.
Mark DeRosa recently broke down video of Turner on MLB Network, showing the differences when he was with the Mets and now with the Dodgers. DeRosa pointed out how he's narrowed his stance and implemented a high leg kick, which DeRosa says is "letting his natural ability come out.''
Turner says he had used a leg kick his entire career, but Byrd convinced him he should be transferring his weight and moving toward the pitcher much earlier than he has previously believed.
"He talks about gaining ground, catching the ball out in front rather than catching it deep, where I'd always been,'' Turner said. "Trying to pick my foot up and put it down in the same place, stay back, back the ball up, and stay behind the ball. You're still staying behind the ball, you're still backing it up. You're just moving your contact point out a little in front of you.''
McGwire sees nothing radical in the approach that is working so well.
"Obviously, hitting off the front side, to me is the proper way of hitting,'' McGwire said. "You have to have the energy to hit off that front, firm side, and he has a great firm side. Even though he has a leg kick, he doesn't travel. He keeps his hands in tight, doesn't have a lot of movement. He uses the whole field. Very good off-speed hitter and can hit fastball velocity with the best of them.''
While McGwire says he "doesn't travel,'' Turner has a feeling that his energy is now working most efficiently when he launches balls. It's something Turner talks about all the time with Joc Pederson, the rookie center fielder who is hitting homers (19) and drawing walks (52) at prolific rates.
Like Byrd and Turner in 2013, Turner and Pederson bonded last September, which led Turner to invite Pederson to join the group working with Latta last winter.
"Joc loves talking about hitting,'' Turner said. "Joc's very similar to Marlon. It's 24/7 talking about hitting, watching other hitters, gaining information. It's awesome to have them as teammates, because you have somebody you can constantly talk about your swing with, [and] they understand your dialogue.''
Where will Turner be able to take the improved knowledge of how to use his talent? How significant of a player might he become? These might seem like intriguing questions to you and me, but they're not the ones Turner is asking.
"The thing about hitting is you never figure it out," Turner said. "It changes every day. Your body goes through different things, you're feeling different things. It's all about making adjustments. Every day, from day to day to day, you're making adjustments and adjustments. It makes it exciting to know the basic philosophies and make adjustments inside those philosophies to get yourself feeling good for that day.''