To illustrate a point about baseball’s most overlooked superstar, Kevin Long reached for statistics no player has bundled in more than a century. Trea Turner, the Washington Nationals shortstop, is the fastest everyday player in the majors. He also hit .335 last season. Those skills can make a coach dream big.
“Let’s say he hits .330 with 75 stolen bases,” Long, the Nationals hitting coach, said by phone from spring training in West Palm Beach, Fla. “His No. 1 tool is his speed, no doubt about it. But is the industry recognizing that? No. Well, you know what, Trea, let’s use that tool and take this thing to another level. I don’t know if he’s willing to do that. I wish he was, because he’s that fast. And I think he could do it.”
The last player to hit .330 with 75 stolen bases in the same season was Ty Cobb in 1915. Players still hit .330 these days, but the notion of swiping 75 bases — which happened 20 times in the 1980s — is out of step with the modern game, with its all-too-precise replay cameras and general aversion to risk. No player has stolen 75 bases in a season since Jose Reyes in 2007.
Could Turner do it? Probably. And if he did, he might command the kind of attention that surrounds his shortstop peers, like the San Diego Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr., who signed a 14-year, $340 million contract extension last month, and the quintet of All-Stars eligible for free agency next winter: Javier Baez of the Chicago Cubs, Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros, Francisco Lindor of the Mets, Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Trevor Story of the Colorado Rockies.
Turner, 27, has been successful on 83.4 percent of his steal attempts, better than the percentage of the career stolen-base leader, Rickey Henderson (80.75 percent), who had seven seasons of at least 75 steals and a record 130 in 1982. But Turner can’t run back in time, and he sees the downside of exploiting his speed to chase old standards.
“You’re trying to play 162 games, and with that many sprints, dive-backs, all those things, it’s harder than people think,” he said by phone. “That percentage might be a little higher if I didn’t slide off the base. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve gotten caught stealing and I was probably safe, but then I pop off and I’m out.
“But I feel like you’ve got to reward those things if you want them in the game, and I think it’s very underrated. You’ve got a guy on first base that can steal a bag, and even if they don’t steal, that pitcher’s worried about it. The game in general changes when you have that speed on your team.”
No regular player has Turner’s speed. According to Statcast, his average sprint speed last year was 30.1 feet per second, the fastest of any player who started more than half of his team’s games. Speed is so integral to Turner’s identity that he and his wife, Kristen, chose the middle name Dash for their son, Beckham, who was born last month.
Yet Turner also led all major league shortstops in slugging percentage last season, at .588, while missing only one of the Nationals’ 60 games. He hit half of his 12 homers to the opposite field, surprising pop for a player with a 6-foot-2, 185-pound frame that reminds Long of a well-known pitcher.
“I call him the Jacob deGrom of position players, because he’s got that kind of build,” said Long, a former Mets coach. “He’s thin, he’s wiry, but he’s strong and he’s a game changer. He’s an M.V.P.-caliber player.”
Long was disappointed that Turner finished only seventh in voting for the National League Most Valuable Player Award last season, even though he had a higher average, on-base percentage and slugging percentage than Tatis, who placed fourth. A Nationals teammate, outfielder Juan Soto, ranked fifth.
Turner is used to being overshadowed in Washington. He has shared a lineup with electrifying offensive players like Soto and the departed Bryce Harper and Anthony Rendon. And the Nationals pitching staff includes Max Scherzer, a three-time Cy Young Award winner, and Stephen Strasburg, the M.V.P. of the 2019 World Series.
Likewise, the shortstops facing free agency will command attention for months. Will they sign extensions or be traded? Who will sign them, and for how much? Turner, who is eligible to be a free agent after the 2022 season, will keep up with the news.
“I want every player to get as much money as possible, just for the health of the game — if players are getting paid, then the game’s healthy and people are showing up and watching,” he said. “So I want everybody to get the most money possible, and I want everybody to be happy. So if those guys want to get the most money and change teams or stay where they’re at or take a discount, for me, it’s about the happiness.”
Turner grew up near West Palm Beach and rooted avidly for the Marlins; he went to all of their World Series games against the Yankees in 2003, watching from an upper-deck seat behind first base. A standout childhood memory, he said, was snagging a foul ball from one of his favorite players, Ken Griffey Jr., then with the Cincinnati Reds.
“I went to go stick out my hands to catch the ball and I was like, ‘Oh, that’s really going to hurt,’” Turner said. “So at the last second I moved them, and it hit the seat right next to me. It fell down and I got lucky; I just grabbed it real quick.”
Turner looked up to Griffey and Derek Jeter, he said, for their well-rounded skills. Griffey was a slugger but often hit .300, and Jeter was a hit machine who also had respectable power. Both had excellent speed, though neither was the game’s pre-eminent stolen base threat, as Turner has been for the past four seasons.
Of the seven players with at least 100 stolen bases since 2017, Turner has the highest slugging percentage (.469) and the most home runs (61). Besides Kansas City’s Whit Merrifield, who has solid extra-base power at spacious Kauffman Stadium, most current players known for speed tend to be singles hitters.
“That’s why I’ve always worked in the cage to be a dangerous hitter, not just slap the ball around,” Turner said. “I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard, ‘Hit the ball on the ground and just run.’ I’ve never wanted to do that.”
Turner has learned to use his lower half to generate power. He can rotate his hips especially quickly, Long said, which allows him to wait an extra instant on pitches and still drive them. More power, Turner knows, will help him stand out in a game that rarely seems to celebrate speed.
“Put it on Instagram; that’s all any kid cares about,” Turner said when asked how to revive the stolen base. “Growing up, they watch their favorite players. If you promote those players, that’s what’s going to happen. For the last however many years, decades, they’ve promoted home runs — and rightfully so, that’s what wins ballgames for the most part, getting that big three-run homer. But you’ve got to promote other things and show people how special our game is.”
If Turner can match his .588 slugging percentage from last year while managing 40 steals, he would be the first player with a season like that since the Hall of Famer Vladimir Guerrero in 2002. Such a performance would highlight Turner’s singular place in the game, making his value tough to measure.
Turner is open to talks on a contract extension — “I’m all ears; I’ll always listen,” he said — but he has been focused on his daily preparation as the Nationals try to recover from a lackluster 26-34 season.
To help them do it, Turner wants to play as many games as possible, which means picking his spots instead of running wild. Even Long concedes that is wiser than simply stealing every base he can.
“You know what, he’s probably right,” Long said. “I should probably back off. My stance on this is: I’d love to see him do it for a year. But in his mind, he knows. He’s really smart and intelligent, and he knows it’s not worth it, at the end of the day, to kill his body like that.
“Because there’s nobody to replace him. Even if we lost Juan Soto, we might be able to get by. If we lost Trea Turner, we have no shot.”
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