Justin Turner jumpstarted his career following a swing change prior to the 2014 season. The Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman has spoken on the subject several times, with no shortage of stories chronicling his journeyman-to-slugger evolution.
That doesn’t mean that Turner doesn’t have more to say about hitting. He still has plenty to share on the intricacies of his craft, both philosophically and as they pertain to his own experience. When it comes to a good thing, there’s always room for more.
The conversation that follows took place this past Sunday.
David Laurila: Do you see hitting as more or an art, or more of a science?
Justin Turner: “Honestly, I think it’s both. When you’re talking about the mechanics of the swing, and the position you’re trying to get in, there is definitely science involved. You need to understand how your body works — or, if you’re working with someone else, understanding how their body works — in order to get into the best position to have consistent success.
“Then, when you’re in the box, you have that cat-and-mouse game with the pitcher you’re going to face three or four times. How is he going to attack you? How is he going to approach you? That’s more of the art of hitting.”
Laurila: Doing what feels natural isn’t always going to be optimal. Is that accurate?
Turner: “Usually, what’s natural is what’s comfortable. You definitely want to feel comfortable in the box, but sometimes when you get into bad habits, comfortable isn’t always the right answer. I think there’s a time for feeling uncomfortable, to get yourself out of some unwanted habits you have. If that makes sense.”
Laurila: Can you elaborate?
Turner: “It’s easy to go in the box and get to a position — get set up in a spot where you feel good — before the guy is starting. You feel hitter-ish. But that doesn’t always put you in the best position when you’re getting ready to load and get your swing off. If you’re not getting in that good position, sometimes you have to put yourself in an uncomfortable position to kind of trick your mind into getting in a better spot to hit.”
Laurila: Are you referring to lower half, or more the kinetic chain, where the entire body is involved?
Turner: “It’s definitely kinetic chain, and it differs player to player. I feel like I’m a guy who… I need to be less in my legs; I need to think less about my legs in order to be in the best spot. I feel that when I try to get a better load in my legs, or I try to get my lower half involved, I tend to get more rotational. That’s counterproductive for my swing.
“When I’m a little bit taller and out of my legs — just thinking about being tall and upright with my posture — I end up naturally falling into a pretty good position with my legs. If I’m thinking about getting in that position with my legs, that doesn’t happen nearly as well.”
Laurila: Why is being rotational counterproductive to your swing?
Turner; “I personally believe that rotational swings aren’t efficient swings. I feel that rotational swings are more collision-hitting. You’re in and out of the zone so fast when you’re rotational. The more linear you are, the sooner you’re in the zone, and the longer you’re in the zone. There’s more room for error. If you can be linear, your barrel is going to stay in the zone longer, which gives you a chance to hit different types of pitches, and different types of speeds. The rotational guys are usually in and out of the zone in a very small window, so they almost have to be perfect to square up a 98-mph fastball.”
Laurila: Is having a linear swing all about body positioning, or is there a mental component as well?
Turner: “It goes both ways. It’s definitely a physical thing, but the thought process… I call it, ‘Having a case of the ins.’ You’re in the box, and right before the guy lets go of the ball, you’re worried about that fastball in. As soon as you get a case of the ins… that kind of causes you to leak your front side. You’re cheating to that ball in, which causes you to be a little rotational.
“When I’m good, I’m not worried about the ball in. I’m just worried about being on time. If I am, I have plenty of time to handle the ball in, and can also put a good swing on the ball that’s out over the plate.”
Laurila: It’s been said that a good hitter wants to get jammed.
Turner: “That’s one of the old cliches of hitting: Let the ball get deep; back the ball up. I think that’s a very old-school mentality of hitting. You see a lot of guys who kind of get out over their front side, and chase off-speed. Personally, I have my eyes set out in front of me. I have my zone where I want to hit the ball, and I want to make contact out in front. If I’m on time, I shouldn’t get jammed.”
Laurila: A lot of hitters say their approach is to try to hit the ball over the centerfielder’s head.
Turner: “I actually had this conversation with Joc [Pederson] about 10 minutes ago. I’m more focused on the contact-point area. I want to set my timing up, see the ball out in front, and make contact out in front. If I’m a little bit late, the ball will go to right field. If I’m a little bit out in front, I’ll pull it. That’s a byproduct of being linear and giving myself that room for error. I don’t want to try to predetermine direction. I just want to make sure it’s not on the ground.”
Laurila: In my most-recent hitting interview, Evan Longoria said that groundballs up the middle aren’t hits any more.
Turner: “Groundballs in general aren’t hits anymore. With all the information, the shifts, the defensive positioning, it’s hard to get a ground-ball base hit now. That said, I think there’s a misconception about launch angle. A lot of people think it means you want to hit fly balls all the time. Well, line drives are air-balls, too. It’s not about hitting a fly ball, it’s about not hitting a groundball.”
Laurila: Circling back to the art-or-science question, would you have given the same answer seven years ago?
Turner: “Before I made my swing change, no. I was a guy that… I had my leg kick, but I always thought about staying back, keeping my weight on my back side, getting inside everything, backing the ball up, using the other part of the field. And I had success doing that. I got hits. But I never really drove the ball. I never really did damage until I learned how to move my contact point out in front, and how to hit the ball in the air to the pull side. Before, I didn’t take chances at doing damage, because I had never done damage before. Now that I understand my body, my positioning, my timing, my swing, I can takes shots at driving the ball.”
Laurila: Your made your swing change five-plus years ago. Have you remained mechanically the same since that time?
Turner: “No. There have been a ton of subtle changes. If you look at my swing right now, I’m squared off and starting nice and tall. Last year I was open. My hands were higher, and I started on my toe instead of flat-footed. If you go back to 2014, I was square, but with a little bit of a wider base. When I leg-kicked, it was more of a leg kick underneath… I would take my front foot almost to my back knee, and then go forward in order to feel that underneath move. So, there’s been a constant evolution of trying to get my body in a good spot.”
Laurila: Basically, the feel changes, but the core principles remain the same…
Turner: “The core principles are always there. That’s a conversation we have with our hitting guys constantly. It’s fine to make adjustments, but what we don’t want is for guys to make drastic changes to their swings, going from one thing to something completely different, and getting outside of those core beliefs. You don’t want to get away from what makes a swing a good swing.”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Nolan Arenado, Cavan Biggio, Matt Chapman, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jesse Winker.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.