Jacob Turner: A Miami Marlins Pessimist View

If certain trends do not correct themselves for Jacob Turner, he may find himself with his head down in the dugout more often. - Steve Mitchell-US PRESSWIRE

One of the Miami Marlins' most important players in 2013 is Jacob Turner, who is a former top pitching prospect and the second starter on the team. Unfortunately, in a pessimistic view, there is a bad comparison to a former Marlin that is tough to ignore.

The Miami Marlins have a number of important players on their 2013 roster, but these players are not important so much for their contribution to the 2013 team but rather for their development through this difficult season. The Marlins need to develop a few of these names into important cogs for the team's future competitive core if it has any hope of contending soon with this influx of prospects.

One of the prospects whose development will be critical is Jacob Turner, the starting pitcher acquired from the Detroit Tigers midseason trade. Earlier today, we discussed the best case scenario for a player like Turner, an optimistic viewpoint which sees him developing into an effective starter akin to Brad Penny. Penny, as you will recall, had many good years with the Marlins and Los Angeles Dodgers before flaming out in 2008, and he did so with what appeared to be lesser stuff than Turner's.

Of course, Turner's biggest problem heading into 2013 is the uncertainty regarding his strikeout capabilities. If you look at him from a pessimist's viewpoint, it is easy to see why Turner's top prospect status fell so quickly and why Marlins fans should be concerned given a previous example of a pitcher with high pedigree and low strikeouts.

The Pessimist's Case

It is impossible to ignore the trajectory of a player like Turner, who went from being an elite prospect with a supposed mid-90's fastball to a player who is best described as at worst a fourth or fifth starter. Sure, Turner's floor remains relatively high, and his performance so far in the majors can be excused by his young age, but the signs of decreasing skills are there, and one can look no further than in his most recent description by Baseball Prospectus's prospect maven Jason Parks in this year's Marlins top ten prospects.

Jacob Turner, Henderson Alvarez and Nathan Eovaldi look like potential third or fourth starters that should eat innings and keep the team in ball games behind Fernandez.

By no means is that a ringing endorsement of a player, especially when that player used to be an elite prospect.

But despite the supposedly strong pedigree of Turner, it is not as if he lit the world on fire as a prospect in the minors, either. His numbers were admittedly good, and especially when you consider them coming from a teenager and 20-year-old in the higher levels of the minors, but they remained just passable. Turner pitched 113 2/3 innings in Double-A, all coming in 2011. He posted a decent 3.48 ERA and 3.68 FIP, but his strikeout rate (19.0 percent) and walk rate (6.8 percent) were nothing to write home about. In fact, much of his good play came from home run suppression, a skill that he has yet to show in the majors. When you tack on his unimpressive work in Triple-A (2.85 ERA, 3.53 FIP), particularly in the strikeout department (17.1 percent), and you can see why evaluators were down on him heading into this season.

The optimist's view points at a positive development in 2012 with the Marlins, but that ignores how poorly he pitched in a short stint with the Tigers in 2012. Put the entire season together and he had a 4.42 ERA and an even worse 4.79 FIP. And while the walk rate was excellent and the strikeouts were at least encouraging, Turner also benefited from a very low .241 BABIP in front of defenses that no one would consider "strong." In addition, his struggles with the home run were highly discouraging, especially for a player with a supposed "sinking" fastball. With all that purported movement on the low-90's offering, all Turner got was a 44 percent ground ball rate, and even though he pitched in Marlins Park (home run factor 0.92) and Comerica Park (home run factor 1.00), he still allowed a well above average rate of gopher balls.

A Marlins Historical Comparison

As a counterpoint to this morning's historical comparison, here is another recently-mentioned former top Marlins pitching prospect who was once ranked as highly as 40th in Baseball America's rankings. This player had his rookie campaign at the fresh age of 21, much like Turner.

Marlins Player IP K% BB% *ERA- *FIP-
Mystery Player 84 1/3 14.3 9.9 67 88

This player posted a season with peripherals that were worse than Turner's, but ERA and FIP figures that were better. However, this player's xFIP. which is an ERA retrodictor that estimates what a player's ERA should look like after correcting for home run rate and using peripherals like strikeouts and walks, was a sound 4.55 and was only five percent worse than the league average that season. That sounds eerily familiar to Turner's overall 2012 numbers, as Turner put up an xFIP that was nine percent worse than the league.

The above mystery player was touted as a ground ball pitcher with decent control, an excellent curveball, and a projectable fastball. But despite the promising scouting reports, that player, Chris Volstad, never developed beyond being tall and "projectable." John Sickels of Minor League Ball describes what Baseball America said about him over the years.

So we will turn to the scouting reports and see if they have changed much. Volstad's Baseball America scouting reports entering 2006 rate him as a tall, projectable right-hander with an 89-91 MPH fastball that occasionally hits 94. His curveball and changeup were promising, but inconsistent. HIs BA scouting reports entering 2007 rate him as a tall, projectable right-hander with an 88-92 MPH fastball, along with moderate improvement in his curveball and changeup compared to 2006. His scouting reports entering 2008 show him at 89-92 MPH, occasionally hitting 94 MPH, and continued improvement in his curveball and changeup.

This was written before Volstad's 2008 debut. There were already growing concerns that, rather than developing, this tall righty was stalling out, in much the same way that Turner seemed to merely stall out in the minors.

While Volstad's numbers were never that impressive in the minors, they were of similar caliber to Turner's, including in terms of decline.

Volstad, Minors K% ERA FIP
2005 19.9 2.22 ---
2006 15.6 3.08 3.75
2007 15.9 4.16 3.68
2008 14.6 3.36 3.02

In his first season playing short-season ball, Volstad struck out a healthy 19.9 percent of batters faced. By the time he was promoted to the majors in mid-2008, his strikeout rate had dipped below 15 percent. Turner, at the supposedly similar competitive level of Triple-A, struck out just 15.0 percent of his batters before being permanently moved to the majors.

And this comparison does not even touch the significant home run issues that Volstad eventually had in the big leagues. Over the last four seasons, Volstad has the third highest home run per fly ball (HR/FB) rate among qualified starters, behind only Mike Leake and Rich Harden. Turner displayed significant struggles with the home run in his short time in the majors last year as well.

The Pessimist's Projection

Jacob Turner may have a shred of what made him an elite prospect years ago, but the Marlins bought him at his lowest point. Even if he does a passable job of overcoming the strikeout problems he currently has, the home run issue looms large. And Chris Volstad embodies the problems with the home run issue, as he struggled with them despite a reputation for ground balls.

If Turner's strikeout rates do not climb beyond, say, 16 percent, and he continues to struggle with the home run to the tune of a 12 percent HR/FB rate, then his numbers are drastically different from the one's offered in the optimistic viewpoint. With some modest assumptions, you are looking at an ERA of 4.50 or such, and such a number would be terrible in this lower run-scoring environment of today. If Turner cannot reign in those home runs and the strikeouts do not climb as previously expected, he will not have the tools to be a successful major leaguer in today's world.

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