The ball flew off Jesus Aguilar’s bat at 105 mph, but Trea Turner was there. Heels already on the lip of the outfield grass, the Washington Nationals shortstop stepped quickly to his right, dove to snare the ball, then fired across the infield to nab the runner.
MLB’s Statcast estimated Aguilar’s swing on Saturday in the second game of Washington’s series with the Miami Marlins had a 65% chance of leading to a hit. But Turner ensured the slugger trotted back to the dugout rather than remain at first.
With Turner’s speed and athleticism, he’s made standout defensive plays throughout his career. But after a 2020 season in which Turner struggled in the field, particularly with lapses on comparatively routine plays, Turner’s defensive improvement adds another tool to a do-it-all shortstop who’s staking his claim as one of the best in baseball.
“We always talk about Trea being an MVP. I think he’s an MVP-caliber player,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “I think him playing defense is a big part of him becoming that guy, and I think he understands that. So he takes a lot of pride in his defense, and he wants to get better at it.”
Even with shakier defense than normal last season, Turner put himself in the MVP conversation with his bat. He finished with 78 hits, the most in the majors, during the coronavirus-shortened 2020 campaign. Turner posted a .982 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, and he finished seventh in MVP voting.
His production at the plate is still here in 2021, with Turner hitting at a .309 clip with six home runs and 10 RBIs in 24 games this year. But the next piece to his game is his considerable improvement in the field.
Turner finished last season with minus-five defensive runs saved above average, a metric that calculates how many runs better or worse a player is compared to the average player at any given position.
Turner now has five defensive runs saved above average so far this season, tied for the most among shortstops around the league.
His ultimate zone rating per 150 plays — another metric that calculates defensive performance — sat at minus-7 last season but has risen to 13.3 this year, the best rating in MLB, according to FanGraphs. His defensive wins above replacement has gone from minus-0.1 last season to 0.8 — again, tied for the best mark in baseball.
“I felt like in the offseason I made some good adjustments and kind of built a better foundation going into the year,” Turner said. “Now it’s just continuing that, and I feel like when you do that you have a little bit more confidence and you seem to make some more plays here and there.”
Turner has continued that work into the season with Nationals first base coach Tim Bogar. Turner is positioned deeper in the infield now, which allows him to use his speed to get to more balls. He can cut off angles, charge slow rollers and work deep in the hole.
He works on turning two, and he takes “backhands, backhands, backhands” every day, Martinez said.
“When he’s ready on defense, he has so much range,” Martinez said. “He’s worked his tail off to get better. And understanding how he can get better, that’s the big thing. We want him to work hard, but we want him to work smart, as well. Not just go out there and take ground balls. There are certain things that he and Bogey work on every day that make him that much better.”
The progress is most noticeable with each web gem he converts, and his last week has been full of them.
There was that diving play to rob Aguilar of a hit on Saturday, but he also used a jump throw to turn two one inning later. On April 28, with two outs and the bases loaded against the Toronto Blue Jays, Turner charged a dribbler, barehanded the ball and ended the threat with a strike to first. And two days later, a nifty backhand snare of a sharply hit grounder led to a double play.
Those plays, on top of what Turner brings at the plate, skyrocket Turner’s value — which could be a complicating factor should the Nationals look to keep the 27-year-old around as a franchise cornerstone after his one-year deal ends this offseason. But those plays also cement Martinez’s claim that Turner is an MVP-caliber player.
“You never know what he’s going to do on a daily basis, whether it’s offensively or defensively,” Ryan Zimmerman said. “He’s one of the most exciting players in the game, and it’s a treat to watch him every day.”