WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. — In baseball, you find out how good you are one day at a time.
That’s a burden for some. No one day can ever be good enough; the next day is just another mean exam. Others, like Trea Turner of the Washington Nationals, can’t imagine anything better than learning baseball every day. Joy is an excellent methodology.
“I never really played anything but baseball growing up. My parents would have let me play anything. My dad played all three sports,” Turner said. “But I loved baseball. I always wanted to play baseball. In Florida, I got a chance to do it year round. So it was fun for me.
“I didn’t do some of the things kids are doing now — all the lessons, like video my swing when I was 10 years old. I think that’s a little too much,” Turner added. “I just had fun with it.”
Did Trea mention that he loved baseball?
At 23, Turner has a job that matches his talent and his passion. So far, pressure has motivated him without inhibiting his ability. The years ahead look like a blank canvas full of promise where, a day at a time, you paint a self-portrait.
When some young players arrive at pressure-point moments in their careers, they don’t love the opportunity. They are fine athletes but not to-the-bone ballplayers who think that a tough learning curve is a difficult delight.
Turner is at one of those pressure points. This year, can he switch back to his lifelong position of shortstop? Can he feed off his preposterously excellent 2016 rather than be chewed on by unrealistic projections that he is Honus Wagner?
If Turner can be a solid big league shortstop and continue the kind of offensive production that his career to date predicts, then we can all just hold down the exclamation mark key for the next decade.
So far this spring, Turner is only hitting .229, and on the 17 groundballs hit to him, he has thrown two over the first baseman’s head. To these facts, Nationals General Manager Mike Rizzo holds up a hand in a “halt” gesture.
“I just want him healthy. Spring training means nothing,” Rizzo said. “He’s right where we want him to be, coming along perfectly. His baseball IQ is off the charts. He’s not a speedster trying to play baseball. He’s a baseball player that’s a ‘tooled-up’ player, too.”
Great, Mike. But you can bet the Nats watch Turner’s every move. During games, infield instructor and bench coach Chris Speier yells over and over as the pitch is delivered, “Groundball to Trea!”
But the ball goes everywhere else, as if by practical joke. Barely one grounder a game has gone to Turner. “Chris yells that the whole game,” Manager Dusty Baker said. “It’s not just the fans that want to see him [at shortstop]. It’s us, too.”
The stakes are huge. If Turner can’t handle shortstop, then every major decision of the offseason was a horrid miscalculation and a franchise premised on scouting has a crate of eggs on its face. And no plan whatsoever for whom its future shortstop will be.
However, if Turner develops into a good defensive shortstop as Speier, Rizzo and his staff believe he will — and have bet the farm on — then baseball may have one of its most exciting players for many years.
Let’s frame it this way: Projecting Turner’s future off 2016, when he hit .342, would be optimism bordering on hallucination. But use his 1,446 professional at-bats at all levels, and his .321 batting average, .376 on-base percentage and .477 slugging percentage (plus 119 steals) look like Derek Jeter at ages 20 to 22 going through the minors to AL rookie of the year.
If we opt for sanity and take an average of three good stat-projection sites, we get Turner at .292 with a .791 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, 52 extra-base hits, 15 homers and 38 steals.
This last set of numbers would be a pretty good center fielder, where Turner played last year in D.C., or a very nice second baseman, a position Turner could handle easily. But it’s only at shortstop where this sensible, wet-towel version of Turner’s future still generates an all-star-level player.
So how’s he doing out there? The most critical analyst may be Turner.
“When I was with the Padres, I had softer hands. You feel like there are no bad hops. Over the course of a year, I was trying to be too perfect. You get a little stiff instead of smooth,” Turner said. “This spring I’ve focused the most on just trying to have soft hands.
“When I’m going bad, I feel like I’m playing goalie. I’m trying to not let it by me. Whereas when I’m going good, [I’m] attacking the ball, picking the hops.”
How about his constantly scrutinized arm, you impolitely and correctly ask.
Speier and Baker compare Turner’s arm to Ozzie Smith’s. Maybe that’s wishful thinking. But the Wizard of Oz made up for average arm strength with precise, rapid footwork, a quick release and plenty of deliberate one-bounce throws to first base on long throws from the hole or behind second base.
“Trea has that baseball clock in his head. He knows how fast he needs to be to beat the runner by just enough,” Speier said. “ ‘Quick’ is in his DNA. So his quickness and range are at the top already. His speed on popups is off the chart.
“But what we want is to see the routine play made and the double play turned that should be turned.”
The Nats ask Turner just to “complete the play” consistently — catch it cleanly, throw it accurately and accept the outcome. If the runner beats his arm by a foot, just live with it. Make up for it elsewhere.
“Speier is really on me about that bounce throw,” Turner said. “Sometimes I’m too confident in myself and I should probably just bounce the throw — maybe a little more efficient, a little quicker. I’m still working on it.”
Most young players seldom admit to doubt. But Turner is so confident, perhaps as confident as his friend Bryce Harper, though in a different manner, that he looks for his own flaws.
Perhaps Turner’s greatest strength — and the best reason to think he will succeed at shortstop — is his passion for playing the game. He can’t get too much. It’s in vogue to focus on the process. But if you adore that process, how hard is it?
Spring training irks Turner not because it is so long, but because it’s too easy. He’d like to play two or three times as much. “I’ve always done better when I have a chance to get five at-bats a day over an extended period,” he said. “Playing every other day, getting three at-bats — it’s tough.”
Hang on, Trea, just two more weeks until Opening Day. You find out how good you are one day at a time. That’s why Trea Turner can’t wait for tomorrow.
For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.