The other day, my phone changed Trea Turner’s first name to “Treat.” Sometimes there is great profundity in autocorrect.
That’s not a bad catch for a guy who has played 162 innings in center field in his entire professional career. When you’re as fast as the 23-year-old Turner is, you don’t need to get a great jump on a fly ball to run it down.
Speed has always been Turner’s calling card, dating back to his freshman year at NC State, when he burst onto the national scene by stealing 57 bases in 61 attempts in a 63-game season. Two years later, the Padres took Turner 13th in the 2014 MLB draft, then traded him to Washington in a complicated three-way deal that netted the Padres Wil Myers, but forced Turner to wait six months to join the Nationals organization and ultimately led MLB to change its trade rules. But once he got there, Turner took off. He made it to the majors on August 21 of last year, and Baseball America rated him the no. 9 prospect in the game this past offseason.
The great Cardinals manager Whitey Herzog once said that speed is the only tool that shows up both on offense and defense. Not only that, speed tantalizes us in a way few other tools do. For all its good qualities, baseball is a game of hurry-up-and-wait; with few exceptions, it’s played at a canter, not a dead run. The placid rhythms of the game — the soft line drive dropping in the gap, the easy ground ball to third — are taken for granted because they’re routine.
And nothing is quite as scary or seductive as a disruption of things we take for granted. Chaos is scary — it’s why chaos is either a tool or a motivating factor for most Batman villains. And it’s why Turner’s speed is tantalizing; he’s got enough of it to upset the expected beats and rhythms of a baseball game. He is one of few players who’s fast enough to chase down those sinking line drives in the field and to beat out those routine grounders on the base paths.
It wasn’t that long ago that Cincinnati’s Billy Hamilton was the most intriguing prospect in the game. He was fast enough that the normal rules of prospect development might not have applied to him. For his first year in the big leagues, we watched Hamilton like I imagine the nobles at Versailles watched the Montgolfier brothers’ hot air balloon demonstration: “This is probably going to end in fiery carnage, but if it doesn’t, it’s going to change the world.”
As it turns out, the rules do apply to Hamilton, whose career high in steals is 57 (impressive, particularly in this day and age, but hardly unprecedented), and who can’t completely outrun his other limitations, specifically his career 73 OPS+.
Turner isn’t as fast as Hamilton, but he has still has as many stolen bases in 37 games as the Baltimore Orioles — all of them put together — have in 126 games. He also doesn’t have those other limitations. Hamilton is playing center field because he couldn’t quite hack it at shortstop, while Turner is playing center because he’s a bigger upgrade over Ben Revere than Danny Espinosa, and Nationals manager Dusty Baker had to get him in the lineup somehow. But more importantly, Turner can hit; he’s always been able to. He hit .342/.435/.507 with more walks than strikeouts in college; he hit .316/.380/.460 in the minors, and after mostly riding the bench during a brief cameo in Washington last year, this season he’s hitting .335/.359/.544 in 167 plate appearances for the Nationals.
On Tuesday and Wednesday, Turnerrecorded hits in eight consecutive at-bats, tying a franchise record set in 2007 by Dmitri Young, who certainly did not have Turner’s punt-returner speed. Looking at those hits gives a pretty good sample of what makes Turner so dangerous.
In those eight at-bats, you see a couple of lucky bloopers (every hot streak has a few), one opposite-field double off the outfield wall, line drives sprayed to left, right, and center, and two hits — one bunt, one slow grounder — that Turner legged out on speed alone. The bunt went straight back to the mound, and Turner reached without a throw, while the ground ball caught Manny Machado, of all people, on his heels. Turner doesn’t have to hit the ball hard, or even place it well, to get on base.
That’s how he manages to compensate for a lack of top-end power. Not only does his ability to beat out grounders allow him to get on base more; once he’s there Turner exudes an aura not unlike the Scarecrow’s drug in Batman Begins, sowing panic in his wake wherever he goes. (Which, of course, makes Bryce Harper Ra’s al Ghul in this metaphor.) After all, there’s more than one way to get into scoring position, and the specter of that kind of chaos on the base paths in front of Harper, Daniel Murphy, and Wilson Ramos in a playoff series ought to keep the Cubs and whoever emerges from the NL West thunderdome up at night. Turner isn’t actually a character out of Batman, but he’s at least as much fun to watch.
Stats are current through Thursday afternoon.