Trea Turner didn’t hesitate. He charged the groundball at full speed, corralled it with his glove and began his signature defensive play: the jump throw. He has leaned on it to make tough plays over and over again this season, almost always seamlessly. Only this time, in the bottom of the first inning at PNC Park on Wednesday, Turner’s transfer went awry. He dropped the ball and the Pittsburgh Pirates’ leadoff hitter, Josh Harrison, reached base.
Some would say the jump was unnecessary. Most shortstops don’t jump to make that play — jumps are typically limited to Jeter-esque plays in the hole. But Turner isn’t most shortstops. The jump throw isn’t for style points. It’s an adjustment he felt he needed to incorporate over the last couple years to evolve into what some statistics indicate he’s become this season: the best shortstop in the National League.
“Go back and look at the tape and tell me how many bad throws I’ve made,” the 25-year-old Turner said before Wednesday’s game. “… Nobody knows how many bad throws I’ve made, and I can tell you: one.”
Defensive stats are fickle. The science isn’t exact. Adequate sample sizes take multiple seasons. So to solely look at them to evaluate a player’s defensive performance using the available data before the all-star break isn’t the best method. But they’re a measuring stick, and the naked eye supports the idea that Turner, whose arm strength was repeatedly questioned before he became an established big leaguer, has at least improved substantially in his second full season as a major league shortstop.
If you’re to believe the defensive stats, Turner entered Thursday with 7.3 defensive runs saved — fifth among major league shortstops behind Andrelton Simmons, Jose Iglesias, Francisco Lindor and Marcus Semien — despite making nine errors. Last season, his 3.4 defensive runs ranked 19th among shortstops.
Such numbers this season boosted Turner’s FanGraphs WAR to 2.9 — also tops among National League shortstops — entering Thursday. Turner, however, didn’t make the all-star team, falling short in the Final Vote.
“I feel like I’ve made some plays that I didn’t make last year,” said Turner, who began Thursday batting .270 with 11 home runs, a .756 on-base-plus-slugging percentage and 22 stolen bases. “A couple barehand plays, maybe a couple balls farther out of my range. I feel like I’ve completed those plays a little bit more. And maybe that’s why. It’s not like I haven’t made any errors. So I would just say it’s more of the difficult plays that I’ve converted. Throwing on the run, too. I feel like in the past I haven’t thrown on the run great until like last year. I kind of feel like the jump throw helped me a lot. I feel like that’s helped me complete more plays.”
To reach this point in his defensive evolution, Turner has blocked the noise about his jump throw. Coaches have wondered if it hinders him, but they’ve given him freedom in the big leagues so he’s proceeded with it anyway. He insisted he gets throws off just as quickly and with the same zip. Above all, by jumping he avoids a problem that had plagued him. In the past, Turner said he had trouble syncing up his legs with his arm when charging a ball for do-or-die plays. He would jump off the wrong foot or take too long to figure it out. He used to just throw the ball in the dirt to the first baseman to overcome the missteps. Turner has worked on using his barehand more, but when he has time, he goes with the jump throw.
“I jump in the air so I can throw the ball and be synced up and I can make better throws,” Turner said. “I feel like I’m just trying to be more consistent, which I feel like I have been. So I don’t know. I just think it’s all about completing the play, and I feel like I’ve done more this year.”
Turner explained better positioning, not necessarily better range, has allowed him to get to more balls this season. He works with both the coaching and pitching staffs in that regard. But throwing, not getting to balls, had limited his defensive ceiling as he rose to the majors.
“It’s not so much getting to the ball,” Turner said. “It’s when you get to it, being able to throw it to first base, which I think as a younger player I really had a hard time with.”
Some jumping has made it easier for Turner and helped make him one of the better defensive shortstops in baseball.