Justin Turner, Marlon Byrd, and an Education in Hitting

Justin Turner isn’t Babe Ruth — mostly because only Babe Ruth is Babe Ruth. Of late, however, Turner’s numbers have been Ruthian in nature. Consider: since the beginning of 2014, only two hitters in all of baseball have been better than Turner, pound for pound. Two hitters! All this after the Mets released him. Turns out, he met someone on the 2013 Mets that changed his life.

Someone else’s life changed in 2013. This 35-year-old veteran outfielder with a little bit of power and a little bit of speed and a little bit of defense was coming off a down year and a suspension — circumstances which might otherwise be known as “the end of a career.” But he’d heard something about hitting he’d never heard before, and he’d spent the winter in Mexico putting his new philosophy to work. That year in New York, he was hitting for more power than he’d ever had before, and he was relevant once again. He thought he’d tell a red-headed backup infielder a little of what he’d learned.

That outfielder was Marlon Byrd.

Turner spent the season talking to Byrd — “his ideas fit really well with what I was trying to do and where I was trying to get to” — but the grind of the season didn’t provide enough time to practice and really implement those changes. “That offseason, even after the Mets let me go, I was hitting five days a week with Marlon,” Turner said.

Marlon Byrd (02-12) 6.5% 17.1% 0.135 0.321 0.278 0.336 0.413 0.328 96 26.8%
Marlon Byrd (13-15) 5.7% 27.2% 0.201 0.339 0.271 0.320 0.472 0.343 120 38.3%

The veteran told the youngster things he’d never heard before. These things were “opposite of the older style.” These things occurred to Turner for the first time. These things changed Turner’s mindset at the plate almost immediately.

Justin Turner (09-12) 7.4% 12.5% 0.100 0.286 0.254 0.324 0.354 0.303 92 18.2%
Justin Turner (13-15) 7.2% 17.3% 0.155 0.366 0.315 0.371 0.470 0.368 139 33.8%

“The old saying is ‘stay back stay back stay back.’ Well, he was talking about doing the opposite,” said Turner. “Not backing the ball up, going out and getting it. Being aggressive and get out there and get on your front side, get off your back side.”

After years of hearing about letting the ball travel deep in the zone, and giving the ball time, and staying back, Turner didn’t quite take to the advice right away. He challenged Byrd, but Byrd got him right back. “Pull up your film from all the balls that you’ve driven, and look where your contact point was,” the outfielder told the infielder. “Even though I thought I was backing the ball up, when I looked at the balls I was driving, they were out in front of the plate,” Turner admitted. “It really started making sense.”

A still from a 2012 Justin Turner home run, with the ball highlighted out in front of the plate.

So Turner worked with Byrd to move his contact point more out in front. Look at Byrd’s transformation before and after his work in the winter of 2012. Don’t focus too much on the leg kick. Byrd did have to spend time in Mexico learning how to hit with a leg kick, and the leg kick was part of the reason that Turner first talked to Byrd — Turner had hit with one forever — but the leg kick is only one part of the attempt to get out in front of the front foot earlier.

Before Byrd changed his approach:

After Byrd changed his approach:

And now Turner in 2012 (the homer from above):

And Turner in 2014:

You can see, particularly in the sideways angles, that the players shift their their weight earlier now than they did before. The leg kicks help, but there’s a difference in the weight transfer, as well. An aggression.

These guys have to be a little careful with the new aggression. As hitting consultant Dan Farnsworth pointed out, it has a drawback. “They can end up sliding forward so much that they lose their legs easily,” Farnsworth said. It’s fun to emulate a guy like Mike Trout, who hits this way, but Turner and Byrd need to make sure their timing doesn’t get them too far out in front.

There’s a possibility Turner was a bit miscast as a platoon righty, facing just lefthanders. His big-league splits — 21% above league average against righties, and 1% below against lefties — suggests as much at least. But Turner points out that his minor-league splits were better against lefties (.796 OPS vs LHP, .776 OPS vs RHP) and that big-league lefties throw cutters. “In the minors, they weren’t throwing cutters. Everything was going away from me, so it’s easier to stay out over the plate. And now they throw that cutter to keep you honest.” But Turner was pretty good against lefties last year, he wanted to point out. It’s probably just a sample size thing.

His mechanical and philosophical changes were more important to his improved play. “I’m open minded to hitting, I love hitting and I love hearing philosophies about hitting, what people are thinking about,” said Turner about his approach to his craft. “That was one of the first times I had heard ‘don’t stay back, and get on your front side, get off your back side, try to catch the ball out front.” This new philosophy seems to be working for him.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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9 years ago

Great read! I’ve been looking for a reason to believe that Justin Turner won’t regress and this gives me hope, maybe he can be a full time guy after all.

9 years ago
Reply to  Tymathee

Unfortunately for him, if he has developed into a player capable of playing full time, he’s on the absolute worst team to do it.