Justin Turner and the Dodgers Reunite

While the Dodgers spent plenty of the offseason upgrading their roster, they conspicuously avoided one spot. Third base, which has been Justin Turner’s domain since Los Angeles signed him before the 2014 season, lay fallow. With Turner on the market, it always felt like a foregone conclusion that the two sides would reunite. On Saturday, they made it official; the 36-year-old is returning on a two-year deal worth $34 million with a club option for a third year, as… well, as Justin Turner first reported.

When Turner last left the field as a Dodger, the moment was bittersweet. His team had just won the World Series after years of failure, but he was removed during the clinching Game 6 after testing positive for COVID-19. Despite that, he returned to the field, maskless, to celebrate with his teammates. Rumors of discipline swirled, though MLB eventually declined to enforce any punishment. Days later, he became a free agent.

Despite that strange backdrop, Turner always looked like a good bet to return to the Dodgers. As a native of Southern California, he has ties to the city; heck, they have a Justin Turner day there. In addition, the team’s only roster hole was at third base, where it had left Edwin Ríos atop the depth chart despite only 139 plate appearances in the majors — a weak link in an otherwise monstrous lineup.

No longer. Turner has been almost metronomically consistent since joining the Dodgers in 2014. His lowest WAR total (excluding the shortened 2020 season) was 3.4, and his highest 5.4. His worst batting line was still excellent: .275/.339/.493 in 2016. His best batting line fell just short of true superstar territory — .312/.406/.518 in 2018, or maybe .340/.404/.493 in a half-season in ’14. He’s simply been a great hitter, year in and year out, by walking, limiting strikeouts, and making solid contact.

That’s a reductive way of describing Turner, but it’s also a fair one. He might not excel anywhere, but he does everything well enough to make the total package sing. The plate discipline at the core of his game is the same every year: He chases less than average and makes plenty of contact when he swings. The combination limits his swinging strike rate, which in turn limits his strikeout rate, like clockwork:

Justin Turner, Plate Discipline
Year Chase% Lg Avg Contact% Lg Avg SwStr% Lg Avg K% Lg Avg
2014 26.4% 30.7% 84.9% 79.3% 6.9% 9.5% 18.0% 20.4%
2015 25.4% 30.6% 84.4% 78.8% 7.2% 9.9% 16.2% 20.4%
2016 24.4% 30.3% 84.0% 78.2% 7.1% 10.1% 17.2% 21.1%
2017 25.0% 29.9% 85.4% 77.5% 6.4% 10.4% 10.3% 21.6%
2018 25.8% 30.9% 88.5% 76.9% 4.9% 10.7% 12.7% 22.3%
2019 28.1% 31.6% 84.5% 76.2% 7.0% 11.1% 16.0% 23.0%
2020 22.6% 30.6% 80.5% 75.3% 8.4% 11.3% 14.9% 23.4%

Want fewer strikeouts in the game? Make more hitters like Turner. Unfortunately, it doesn’t appear to be a skill you can teach; Turner has been doing roughly this since he made the majors in 2009.

The other part of the equation is hitting the ball hard, and you could call that an area of concern — if you don’t look too closely:

Justin Turner, Power on Contact
2014 10.8% .153 .453
2015 13.9% .197 .405
2016 14.8% .218 .393
2017 10.8% .208 .401
2018 10.1% .205 .411
2019 17.0% .219 .399
2020 7.3% .153 .385

Fewer home runs per fly ball? Tied for his lowest ISO since reaching the Dodgers back in the deadball era of 2014? Sure sounds like the power is fading.

It’s not. Let’s look at some better numbers:

Justin Turner, Power on Contact
Year Barrel% xwOBACON Hard Hit% Air Hard Hit%
2015 5.6% .406 38.2% 45.5%
2016 8.1% .403 40.9% 43.3%
2017 7.6% .412 38.1% 40.2%
2018 6.7% .404 36.7% 38.0%
2019 7.3% .417 42.4% 45.7%
2020 11.2% .407 44.0% 46.0%

Air hard hit rate is one you might not recognize offhand, but it’s straightforward: the percentage of balls hit in the air that are hit 95 mph or harder. Just to anchor you, league average is 42%. In other words, Turner is hitting the ball as hard as ever and barreling it up more often than ever before. Despite a dip in production on contact in 2020, the components that go into it are steady.

That’s not to say that everything about Turner’s game is timeless. His defense has been trending downward for years. From 2016 to ’17, he was worth 12 runs above average by DRS and 7.4 by UZR — solidly better than average. From ’18 to ’20, he was one run above average per DRS and nine runs below average per UZR. Both systems think his defense has cratered, and StatCast agrees; he’s gone from seven runs above average in 2017 to two runs below average since. That matches the eye test; at 36, Turner isn’t as spry as he used to be.

In fact, Turner’s age is the reason he isn’t getting a far larger contract. Two years at $17 million per wouldn’t be enough to snag someone with his talent if age-related decline weren’t a major concern. ZiPS and Steamer both expect him to post the worst batting line of his Dodgers career — age being undefeated in the long run. No one in history has defied the odds forever, and the length and value of Turner’s contract reflects that.

It also reflects an oft-unmentioned truth about him. For all his production, he’s been only average at staying on the field throughout his career. In 2016, he managed 622 plate appearances — the only time he’s eclipsed 600, and it’s not like he missed by some narrow margin. That’s also the last year that he made even 550 plate appearances. Sign Turner, and you’re likely to need a second third baseman to handle some residual starts.

That suits the Dodgers just fine. Ríos might not be ready to start every day for a World Series favorite, but he’s a capable backup, and Los Angeles won’t suffer overmuch if he needs to make 20 starts in Turner’s place. It’s good to be the Dodgers: When you’re overflowing with talent, you can sign brilliant-but-fragile players without suffering when they miss time.

In fact, there’s basically nothing to dislike about this signing. Could Turner have gotten more money somewhere else? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine a team who wants a high-ceiling, questionable-health third baseman more than the Dodgers. Could Los Angeles have aimed higher? Maybe, but it’s hard to imagine they could find someone better without paying far more. It’s simply a great match. Turner wanted to play for the Dodgers, the Dodgers wanted Turner, and everything worked to plan.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Dodgers definitely did make a strong counter to all the padres moves with the bauer signing and re signing of turner.

Depth chart standings had them equal a month ago but now after those signings the dodgers are ranked 3 wins ahead again so they are clearly the team to beat in the NL and the majors too.

Dodgers got criticised for lowering payroll a little to get under the tree hold but now they are using their full financial force again.

The dodgers are just the ultimate superteam with a top front office, great player development and farm system and a top of the line payroll. They just have no weaknesses like some other supposed super teams had (for example the cubs with developing pitchers).