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Why Justin Turner is a good fit for the 2024 Toronto Blue Jays

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Bob Ritchie
2 months ago
On January 30, the Toronto Blue Jays signed free agent Justin Turner to a one-year, USD 13.0 million contract. With bonuses, Turner can earn an additional USD 1.5 million. Blue Jays Nation Contributor Jim Scott argued why Turner is not a good fit for the Blue Jays. In this article, I will take the opposite side of the argument.
I have organized the analysis as follows:
  • Durability
  • Batting metrics
  • Approach
  • Clutch-like performance
  • Steamer projections
  • Other Matters

Durability

Starting in 2021, Turner played in 151, 128 and 146 games. By comparison, the number of games played by the 36-year-old J.D. Martinez declined from 2021’s 148, 2022’s 139 and 2023’s 113. Even 31-year-old Jorge Soler has played fewer games (358) than Turner (425) and Martinez (400). Although Turner played 146 games last season, he suffered two serious injuries.

Hit by a Pitch

During a March 6 Spring Training game, Turner was hit in the face by a pitch and required 16 stitches. He returned to the field on March 20, but there may have been a carryover effect into the season’s first month.
By the end of April, Turner’s ISO (SLG less BA) was 0.102, his Barrel/Batted Ball Event (“BBE”) was 3.2%, and his Barrel/PA was 2.4. From May to the end of August, Turner posted ISO, Barrel/BBE and Barrel/PA marks of 0.232, 7.6% and 5.6, respectively. The May-August numbers were much closer to his career marks of 0.178, 7.8% and 5.7, respectively. All of these career numbers are higher than the MLB Average.
Therefore, Turner’s facial injury may account for his below-average batted-ball metrics early in the 2023 season.

Heel Injury

On July 31, Turner stepped awkwardly on first base and suffered a deep heel bruise. In early August, Turner told the Boston Globe’s Alex Spier, “It’s a bone bruise. There’s no real remedy for a bone bruise. You ask a medical person, they’ll tell you 4-6 weeks avoiding impact.” Turner missed some games because of the heel injury, but he mostly played through the injury. Before the heal contusion, Turner’s wRC+ was 124; after, it was 92.
Furthermore, Mass Live’s Chris Cotillo reported that Turner was noticeably limping in September. Therefore, given Cotillo’s comment, I looked at Turner’s September ISO, Barrel/BBE and Barrel/PA. The numbers were worse than April’s. His September ISO, Barrel/BBE and Barrel/PA were 0.074, 1.4% and 1.0, respectively.
I believe a severe heel injury like Turner’s can significantly affect a player at the plate. The effects can be physical (for example, having a less stable foundation through the swing) and mental (dealing with the pain on the field and off).
Hence, MLB observers should consider the impact of injuries on Turner’s 2023 performance. To isolate the possible effect of the heel injury on Turner’s September hitting, I will include Turner’s pre-September batting metrics where relevant.

Batting Metrics

Table 1 has the wRC+ details. For comparison purposes, I included the batting data for Martinez, Brandon Belt and Soler, all of whom remain unsigned as of February 2.
Beginning with his tenure with the Dodgers, Turner has performed very well at the plate. His career 127 wRC+ and balanced production versus righthanded pitchers and lefties is noteworthy. However, Martinez was more formidable than Turner in 2023, and his career 151 wRC+ versus lefthanded pitchers is terrific.
Let’s dig a little deeper into the handedness splits. Please refer to Table 2.
But first, the importance of hitting well against righties should not be underestimated. In 2023, 74% of all pitches were thrown by righthanders. Hence, a designated hitter who excels against righthanded pitchers is much desired.
Against righthanders, Turner’s wOBA and xwOBA lags the other hitters. For the record, MLB’s average wOBA was 0.318 last season. When facing lefthanders, only Soler produced better wOBA and xwOBA numbers than Turner.
Therefore, Turner’s 2023 batting metrics, particularly the numbers adjusted to account for the heel injury, bode well for 2024.

Approach

Compared to most hitters, Turner does not swing at pitches out of the strike zone. In 2022, his O-Swing% was 26.7%, which ranked in the 65th percentile (the batter with the lowest O-Swing% is in the 100th percentile). In 2023, his 25.8% O-Swing% ranked in the 69th percentile.
The change of note is Turner’s swing rate on pitches in the strike zone (Z-Swing%). During the 2022 season, Turner’s Z-Swing% was 70.4%, which ranked in the 64th percentile (the batter with the highest Z-Swing% is in the 100th percentile). In 2023, his 63.4% Z-Swing% was in the 24th percentile.
Some writers have examined whether swinging less is a good thing. For example, The Athletic’s Eno Sarris wrote the article, Swinging less could be the answer to MLB’s offensive woes. But is it bad for the sport? One of Sarris’s conclusions is, “It’s not just swinging less at pitches outside the zone that’s correlated with success — it’s swinging less, period.”
Turner’s Z-Swing% drop from 2022 could result from a conscious decision by Turner to swing less and be more productive. Regardless of the cause, Turner’s Swing/Take Run Value percentile ranking was 85th in 2023 and 88th in 2022. He made good swing decisions in 2023 and 2022.
I will conclude this section with an MLB TV video that analyzes Turner’s approach. The MLB crew believes that Turner will perform well during the 2024 campaign.

Clutch-Like Performance

Generally speaking, I don’t believe clutch exists in baseball. Do batters get clutch hits? Yes! However, study after study has shown that clutch hitting is not a replicable skill. For example, in 2018, Baseball Prospectus published a two-part series, Prospectus Feature: A Revised Look at Clutch Hitting. The authors of the article concluded, “We therefore echo (Dick) Cramer’s conclusion from 41 years ago that while clutch hitting may exist as a feature, it does not exist as a repeatable skill.”
By this stage, the non-nerds are no doubt unhappy with me. So, here is a RISP soother. First, not all RISP situations are high leverage. Second, in RISP opportunities, Turner has outdone himself over his career. Let me explain.
Baseball-Reference has a tOPS+ stat. The idea behind tOPS+ is that the player’s OPS in a given situation (RISP, RISP with two outs, high leverage, etc.) is compared to the player’s total OPS. The + sign indicates that tOPS+ is an index (100 is the batter’s total OPS). The tOPS+ stat can refer to a season or a career.
The key takeaway is that, for a given split, tOPS+ measures a player against himself, not other players. Onto Turner! Please take a look at Table 3.
Turner has a 0.829 OPS for his career, corresponding to a 125 OPS+. In other words, his OPS is 25% higher than the average hitter (the average hitter’s OPS+ is set to 100). In RISP situations, Turner’s OPS is 0.893, which translates to a 116 tOPS+. Stated another way, Turner in RISP situations has performed 16% better than Turner in all situations.
For the record, Belt’s career tOPS+ is 102. However, he struggled in 2023 in RISP situations. Overall, Belt posted a 0.859 OPS (136 OPS+) in 2023. However, his tOPS+ in RISP situations was 65 (0.705).
What to make of these numbers? Since his Dodger days began (2014), Turner has had three seasons where his tOPS+ was below 100 and seven where his tOPS+ exceeded 100. Therefore, the tOPS+ season-to-season variability supports the view that past RISP performance does not predict future RISP performance. Hence, we cannot be confident that Turner’s 2024 RISP OPS will exceed his overall 2024 OPS. However, given his career 116 RISP tOPS+, we should not be surprised if Turner outperforms his 2024 OPS in RISP situations next season.

Steamer Projections

I present Table 4, Steamer’s 2024 projections for Turner, Martinez and Soler. The highlights are as follows:
  • Compared to 2023, Steamer estimates reduced 2024 numbers for all three players.
  • Concerning wOBA and OBP, two metrics correlating strongly with run-scoring, Turner measures up well.
  • However, Turner lags Martinez and Soler in projected power.
  • When considering Turner’s 2023 April-August numbers, I believe he will outstrip Steamer’s 2024 estimates. I am not suggesting that the Turner (2) numbers will be his 2024 metrics.
  • My point is that given the likely impact of Turner’s injuries on his 2023 performance, I believe there is a reasonable case that Steamer’s projections are conservative. ZiPS DC projections are more optimistic than Steamer’s.

Miscellaneous Matters

Lorne Cohen, Baseball Savant and Blue Jays Nation Writer Whisperer, contributed the following points concerning Turner:
  • Turner is not a “big, scary bat” like Martinez. Perhaps Toronto decided to opt for a designated hitter with better contact skills.
  • In 2023, Turner’s In-Zone Contact% was 84.0%, higher than Martinez’s 79.0%. Concerning O-Swing Contact rates, Turner’s 2023 number was 68.7%, and Martinez posted 51.4%.
  • Furthermore, Toronto may prefer a designated hitter with a lower K%. In 2023, the K% of Turner, Martinez and Soler were 17.6%, 31.1% and 24.3%, respectively.
  • The Boras Factor. Martinez is a Boras client, and Boras is known to wait until better offers come for his players. As of February 2, in addition to Martinez, Matt Chapman, Cody Bellinger and Blake Snell, all of whom are Boras clients, remain unsigned.
  • Vayner Sports represents Turner. Therefore, Toronto may have concluded they needed a designated hitter and were unwilling to wait longer for Boras. In other words, Toronto did not want to risk leaving The Free-Agent DH Store empty-handed. Given Turner’s hitting skills, this is not an unreasonable decision by Toronto.
I agree with Lorne’s points.

The Last Word

In his article, Jim commented that Toronto has several needs to address, including acquiring an above-average third baseman who can contribute offensively regularly. I agree that Turner does not fit that bill. However, the reality is that other than Chapman, the free-agent market was short on such third baggers. Perhaps the trade market will present an opportunity, but we don’t know if it has or if it will.
In the meantime, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, who sports a +22 DRS/1200 and a +17 OAA/400 as a third baseman, can more than handle the defensive duties at third. However, Steamer projects an 89 wRC+ for IKF, which lags Chapman’s 104 projected wRC+. Therefore, given the expected below-average bat at third, Toronto correctly focused on the designated hitter market.
The other area where Jim and I disagree is Turner’s bat. I believe that injuries hampered Turner’s 2023 hitting metrics. Accordingly, Steamer and Jim are too conservative in their 2024 Turner projections.
Furthermore, my confidence in Turner is bolstered by the comments from the MLB crew and his Swing/Take high percentile ranking.
For the reasons stated, Turner is a good fit for the 2024 Blue Jays.

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