The Nationals shortstop is taking aim at a batting title the league hasn’t seen since 1935.
Analytics have killed the cool quotient of batting titles. Batting average has gone the way of CDs, coins, letter writing, newspapers on your doorstep, rock and roll bands, and proper grammar: not exactly gone, but underappreciated.
A least one person is taking special note of what Trea Turner is doing this year for the Washington Nationals. In a season in which the National League batting average has never been worse since the mound was lowered in 1969, Turner could be the league’s first batting champion in 85 years to hit better than .350 while playing shortstop.
“It only matters to my mother,” Turner told SI. “She loves all that’s stuff. I would love to win it for my mom. She’s a little old school.”
Turner also happened to lead the majors in the decidedly new school weighted Runs Above Average entering Sunday. Might Donna Turner also be rooting for her son to lead the league in wRAA?
“Sure,” Turner said. “She’ll be following me in any category.”
By any measure, be it old or new school, Turner is putting together a huge season that places him near the top of the greatest class of shortstops ever assembled. Turner leads all shortstops in batting average (.365), hits (58), on-base percentage (.417), wOBA (.442) and wRAA (17.5) and is second to Fernando Tatís Jr. in home runs (9), slugging (.635), OPS (1.052), OPS+ (174), total bases (101), WAR (1.9) and weighted runs created (39).
Talk about really old school: the last NL shortstop to hit .350 or better was Arky Vaughn in 1935 (.385). Insert your own pandemic short-season disclaimer here, but there can be no argument that after having his mangled index finger surgically repaired one week after winning the World Series last year Turner has elevated his game to elite status.
“Last year I felt like I tried to do a lot of protecting of the finger,” Turner said. “I had to make sure not to hit the ball off the end of the bat or get jammed. … This year, there is not a thought of that. It feels good. The surgery helped. I have more range of motion in the finger and more confidence because of it.”
Turner hit .233 last postseason while keeping his broken right index finger off the bat when he hit. Doctors repaired the finger by removing a bone spur and releasing a scarred tendon.
“My immediate goals offensively were to strike out less and just have good at-bats consistently,” Turner said. “I feel like I’ve done that. I want to keep that up and continue. Defense is probably number one right now. Baserunning, I feel like I haven’t been in rhythm yet.”
Just six years ago, in 2014, shortstop was the worst-hitting position on the diamond–for a fifth straight year. The next year Turner, Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor and Corey Seager made their major league debuts, joining the ranks of young shortstops Xander Bogaerts, Javier Báez and Jorge Polanco. The year after that Tim Anderson, Trevor Story and Dansby Swanson checked in.
As this class of shortstops become young veterans in their prime, with Tatís Jr. and Bo Bichette making immediate impacts and Gleyber Torres switching there this year, the position never has been so stacked. The adjusted OPS at the position this year is at an all-time high (104). Six qualified shortstops have an OPS greater than .900 (Willy Adames, Anderson, Seager, Story, Tatís and Turner). In only three previous seasons did even three shortstops finish with an OPS that high: 1930, 1998 and 1999.
The position reflects several changes in the game’s orthodoxy: tall players remain at the position rather than being pushed to a corner, players are fast-tracked to the big leagues because of more advanced amateur training, and teams prefer youth over experience, in part because younger players tend to be healthier and from a metrics standpoint, more dynamic (speed, first-step quickness, arm strength, etc.). Shortstop reflects how the aging curve in baseball has been redefined. Sixteen of the 19 qualified shortstops this year are between 21 and 29. Of the 10 shortstops with the highest WAR, all of them are in their 20s.
So deep with stars is the shortstop position that Báez, an MVP runner-up two years ago, ranks 11th in career OPS among active shortstops. (Turner is eighth; Tatís is first.)
Asked if he followed his fellow shortstops, Turner said, “I do because I’m a baseball fan. I do appreciate when players are good. I appreciate when a guy goes out there and makes a great play or runs the bases correctly. I try to keep up with guys around the league. So I pay attention, but not for any other reason.
“I think that’s not really my job to measure myself against them. There are so many categories you can pick whatever you like to show who’s best. You can make an argument for so many different guys. That competition is fun.”
The competition will soon move off the field in a big way. Story, Seager, Correa, Lindor and Baez are free agents after next season. Turner will be eligible after the 2022 season.
In the meantime, Turner has put himself in fast company with his rare combination of power and speed. Through his age 27 season, Turner has 72 homers, 164 steals and an OPS of .833. Only one active player reached those thresholds at the same age: Mike Trout. Only seven others ever did so since 1900–all since 1973–and it’s a roll call of some of the most exciting players in the free agent era: Hanley Ramírez, Carlos Beltrán, Alex Rodríguez, Barry Bonds, Eric Davis, Darryl Strawberry and Bobby Bonds.
Among that group, only Turner and Strawberry also earned a World Series championship ring before 27–not that you are likely to catch Turner wearing his.
“I have not worn it,” he said. “A lot of guys around the locker room they do wear it. I’m scared I’m going to break it or lose it.”
The irony is that the Nationals won the World Series while Turner played with a broken finger and they have all but played themselves out of contention while Turner is having an elite season. The 14-25 Nationals likely will extend the record drought without a repeat World Series champion to 20 years.
“Usually people talk about the short offseason playing a role in that, but we were rested,” Turner said. “It’s a different year. The preparation was different. We haven’t adjusted as well as other teams so quickly. I think we’re playing hard. We’re competing. We’re in the majority of games. It feels like the beginning of last year. But last year we knew we had a lot of time left. Unfortunately, that’s not the case this year.”
No matter the standings, every at-bat for Turner down the stretch will matter. With a 21-point lead on Donovan Solano of San Francisco in the batting race, Turner is chasing old school history and making his mom proud.