- The Washington Times - Tuesday, August 9, 2016

By the time Dusty Baker turned 23 years old in September 1972, his emphatic arrival in the major leagues was well under way.

His prior four visits to baseball’s top level were brief. But in 1972, the roots of his 19-year career took hold when he hit .321. Baker finished third in the National League batting race, trailing Billy Williams and teammate Ralph Garr. He was ahead of players like Lou Brock and Pete Rose.

So, he knows hype. Its allure, the fight to temper it. How it can derail, inflate ego or be a wind to the back. Tuesday afternoon, he tried to calm questions about Trea Turner, the Nationals‘ sprightly 23-year-old leadoff hitter.

“Let’s leave him alone for a while,” Baker said. “Leave him alone, enjoy it without too much fanfare. He’s doing great. I don’t want to ridicule him or praise him too quick. Just enjoy it.”

If there is anything evident about Turner, it’s that his learning curve has a moderate bend, to this point. The Nationals determined his offensive skill was ready for their level. They also concluded that Michael A. Taylor and Ben Revere were out of turnaround chances after the All-Star break. That’s when Turner, a shortstop, found himself in center field.

A handful of minor league games in center field preceded the seven he has played since coming back to Washington on July 8. More often, he has played at second base because of Ryan Zimmerman’s injuries. Though, once Zimmerman returns, Turner will pivot back to center for the first-place Nationals. He’s on a path to be the starting center fielder for a division champion once the playoffs arrive, despite six minor league games at the position, which means he needs to learn quickly.

Veteran center fielders often have defensive alignment decisions turned over to them midway through the game. The bounty of information coaches in the dugout deliver to players pregame and use in the game can be usurped by what’s happening that night. If an opposition player is often late on his swings or a particular pitch is being used more often than usual by the starting pitcher, the center fielder is expected to adjust accordingly. Coaches will defer to the perfect view delivered from deep behind second base.

Self-positioning takes time. In addition, Turner has to learn the depth, wrinkles and weather influence at parks across the league. For now, first-base coach Davey Lopes is serving as Turner’s positional guide when he plays in center.

“A, he’s a good athlete,” Lopes said. “So the transition is probably easier for him to go play center than the two corners. The only ball he has to be concerned about is the ball coming at him on a line and raising up over his head.

“You play the middle infield, most athletes can go out and play the center field, the criterion being speed.”

Turner fulfills that. He was recently shown to be just behind Ichiro Suzuki’s and Mickey Mantle’s pace to first base from the batter’s box. He’s 8-for-9 in stolen bases this season, his only out coming after a replay review showed a tag contacting him a split-second before his fingertips reached second base.

In center, Turner’s speed allows him to recover if his read or route is slightly off. Though, he’s loathe to rely on his fleet movement alone.

“I don’t like that too much,” Turner said. “I know a lot of guys that are really fast that can’t steal bases and a lot of guys that can’t do different things. I think it’s more in your head. More preparation, reps, reading. I think it’s more so that than anything.

“Yeah, sure, you’ve got makeup speed but a lot smaller room for error up here. Makeup speed isn’t going to help you too, too much unless the ball is hit fairly high. Anything hit on a line, you don’t have time for makeup speed.”

The Nationals are encouraging Turner to make personal adjustments in center to go along with Lopes’ instruction. They also want him to better gauge when to take a chance on making a catch versus playing a fly ball to keep it in front of him. All things that make time Turner’s ultimate learning tool in center field, hype or no hype.

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