Under-the-radar Nationals star Trea Turner is sprinting toward MVP contention

·5 min read

The first step for assembling a baseball MVP ballot is nearly universal now: Pull up the WAR leaderboard and pull the list of candidates off the top. It is an individual award, after all, and WAR (wins above replacement) is the most efficient way of getting an overview of a player’s contributions.

The shortened 2020 season boosted Freddie Freeman's and Jose Abreu’s outlier offensive performances and strong narratives in a way that is unlikely to repeat in 2021. But the short season also narrowed our depth of field when it comes to true contenders for this year — blurring breakouts and hot streaks, slumps and declines. It turned the journey to identify 2021’s best players into a drive in the dark.

Still in the shadows, one figure is threatening to burst into full view. Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner has been known as a speedster, a top-of-the-order type who might own the stolen bases leaderboard, just not the ones devoted to more general offensive production. Now though? He’s among the NL WAR leaders by both FanGraphs and Baseball-Reference models — virtually tied with or ahead of the favorite, Braves star Ronald Acuña Jr. (+250).

Yet with the 27-year-old’s NL MVP odds down to +1500 at BetMGM, bettors still seem to think he’s on the fringe of the race. As of Monday, only 1 percent of the bets and 0.1 percent of the money on the race were on Turner. Meanwhile, the evidence is mounting that he has burgeoned into a real, lasting contender — whether we realize it yet or not.

PHOENIX, ARIZONA - MAY 16: Trea Turner #7 of the Washington Nationals bats against the Arizona Diamondbacks during the MLB game at Chase Field on May 16, 2021 in Phoenix, Arizona. The Nationals defeated the Diamondbacks 3-0.  (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Long considered a speed threat, Trea Turner is hitting the ball with authority. (Photo by Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

Why Trea Turner’s breakout looks legit

This is not a 2021 phenomenon. In 2020, Turner ripped off an all-around great season, posting a 163 OPS+ (meaning he hit 63 percent better than the average hitter) and finishing seventh in MVP voting. 

That got a bit overshadowed by Juan Soto’s Barry Bonds impersonation and the Nationals’ bummer of a season, and it also wasn’t clear if it had any lasting meaning. Turner had a similarly stellar partial rookie season in 2016 before settling in as a league-average hitter — very useful for a shortstop with speed, but not changing the world.

Well, turns out it was significant. If we combine the last season and what we have seen of 2021, we have 99 games and 434 plate appearances of Turner as … the best player in the National League. That margin over Acuña is fairly negligible, but the point stands: He has leveled up.

Behind the gaudy batting average and improved power numbers lies a significant change in approach. 

Turner is suddenly swinging more often than ever before at pitches over the heart of the plate — exactly 77 percent in both 2020 and 2021 after he previously hovered around 70 percent. That’s still not a particularly high rate in the scope of the league, but it illuminates the conundrum the Nationals leadoff man has been presented by his own abundance of talents.

See, Turner is an excellent contact hitter. He connects on more than 88 percent of his swings at pitches in the strike zone (where league average is 83.5 percent and sinking fast), and he has an above-average eye that forces pitchers to throw it over the plate. His other defining quality is speed. Before he gets to the base-stealing portion of his journey, that speed also helps him overachieve his quality of contact. So a middling grounder that would be an out for most hitters could be a hit for Turner; a looping liner that finds grass is a single for most hitters, and a double for Turner, etc. 

But not all hits are created equal, and neither are all strikes. He’s now hunting pitches he can drive, and pouncing regardless of count. Which allows him to feast on offerings like this first-pitch meatball.

He’s turning a ton of his swings into hard contact, instead of just contact. So after posting a .291/.348/.467 line from 2015 to 2019, he’s slashing .332/.385/.577 since the start of 2020.

Put another way: He's no longer passing up chances to do real damage, even though he could put just about any strike in play.

ATLANTA, GA - JULY 19: Ronald Acuna Jr. #13 of the Atlanta Braves is tagged out while attempting to steal second base by Trea Turner #7 of the Washington Nationals in the third inning during a game at SunTrust Park on July 19, 2019 in Atlanta, Georgia. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)
Trea Turner could be in a power-speed duel all year with the Braves' Ronald Acuna Jr. (Photo by Carmen Mandato/Getty Images)

Could he win NL MVP?

It’s too soon to narrow the contenders by much, but Turner is clearly in the running. With 10 homers and eight steals already tallied, he’s tracking toward a transfixing 30/30 season, and a yin-yang sort of power-speed duel with Acuña.

The biggest narrative obstacle to his case is likely to be the Nationals’ record. Even as the baseball world is dissuaded of the notion the most valuable player must be on a playoff team, the award still tends to land with a contender. Washington is currently in last, but the standings are frankly a mess. It could be that, say, Acuña’s Braves roar into the playoff picture, but at the moment they are only one game better.

On the competition front, there are certainly more exciting and more surefire options. But injuries always thin things out, sometimes significantly. Among the players with better BetMGM odds than Turner, Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. (+850) and Mets ace Jacob deGrom (+800) have already missed chunks of time. Another contender, resurgent Cubs slugger Kris Bryant (+1500), is expected to be a trade candidate.

Phillies star Bryce Harper (+1200) and newly acquired Cardinals third baseman Nolan Arenado (+900) also have to be considered serious threats at this point.

Of note is that Turner has improved in May, getting on base even more often than he did in April as pitchers become more and more wary of his abilities and struggle to adjust. There’s a long way to go before voting time, but this is what the beginning of a dark-horse run to hardware looks like.

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