The Miami Marlins have four pitchers on their roster who have adopted a strike zone-pounding style that emphasizes location down in the zone, weak contact, and shorter plate appearances. Those four pitchers are trying to follow through on that plan, though each of their successes have come in different styles as a result of the approach.
Tonight's starter in the first game of a 11-game road trip is the only player who has failed to convert to this style. Former top prospect Jacob Turner has yet to turn to the Marlins' zone-pounding approach despite its relative success with Henderson Alvarez, Tom Koehler, and Nathan Eovaldi. Marlin Maniac author Ehsan Kassim recently contacted me with the thought that perhaps Turner should also convert to this style, and there may be some merit to that thought.
Prospect Pedigree (Again)
We always have to consider Turner's pedigree when discussing him, even though time has almost fully worn that prospect sheen he once had. In 2012, Turner was coming off a season in which he walked 6.8 percent of batters in 17 starts in Double-A at age 20. He boasted strong control, which was something he was well known for beforehand. Baseball Prospectus had this to say in their 2012 annual (emphasis mine).
He has smooth mechanics and a prototypical power pitcher’s body and repertoire: a fastball that touches 95, a sharp curve he can throw for strikes, and a usable changeup that could be the key to his future. Turner’s strikeout rate is a little lower than you’d expect from a young flamethrower, but so is his walk rate, which is likely a better harbinger of his future. He’ll audition for the fifth starter position this spring, and if he stays healthy he can become Rick Porcello with more punchouts. That's even better than it sounds.
All of this is to say that Turner once had the reputation of a guy who threw pitches in the strike zone and avoided walks. All of that flew out the window the second he arrived in the majors; according to Pitch F/X, he owns a career 46.0 percent rate of pitches inside the strike zone. That would have landed him in the bottom 20 of zone percentage among 133 pitchers with at least 300 innings had he made that far. Not every pitcher was unsuccessful (Josh Johnson is near the bottom ten of that list), but very few were working with as little as Turner is.
The Right Stuff?
If the Marlins want Turner to work in the strike zone, which is something he did not do even in his successful late 2012 run with Miami, he will have to figure out the tools to work there. Each of the three pitchers discussed earlier today has at least one tool that allows them to work the strike zone. Nathan Eovaldi has an elite-velocity fastball that hitters have a hard time squaring up. Henderson Alvarez locates his two-seam fastball low in the strike zone with prejudice and gets great sink on the pitch. Tom Koehler has the benefit of decent velocity as well alongside strong secondary pitches, including a curveball.
If we reflect back on Turner's stuff from our initial Pitch F/X scouting report from before 2013, we can see that Turner had some tools and was missing some other ones. He worked with either one pitch with good sink or a two- and a four-seam fastball with separate properties, but the two-seam pitch showed very good sink and got ground ball results; in 2013, the pitch induced grounders on a 58 percent clip. The movement of the pitch for his career compares favorably with Henderson Alvarez's elite sinker (all data provided by Brooks Baseball).
|Horiz Break (in)
|Vert Break (in)
Alvarez is well known for throwing a hard sinker, so the velocity difference is not surprising. His sinker has a bit more run towards right-handers than Turner's, but Turner's supposedly sinks further than Alvarez's. Essentially, the tools look similar enough in raw data that they could be used in similar fashion. It seems Turner has at least one tool to become a strike-pounding pitcher.
It is clearly evident from his velocity that Turner does not Eovaldi's gift of inducing foul balls on pitches in the zone. Turner's fastball has gotten worse over time and has not been considered his best tool, so using it to simply blow past hitters (or at least make them foul pitches off) may be hard. But Turner does have something that relates to Tom Koehler's best tool: his secondary offerings.
|Turner vs. Koehler
Koehler's two breaking pitches are clearly superior to Turner's, but Turner does have some edges. He has used both the curve and the slider for swings and misses, meaning they can potentially be used as out pitches. Koehler's edge comes from his ability to hit the strike zone and induce weak contact. Still, both players show promise in using these pitches as ways to get strikeouts while ahead at least.
Can He Do It?
It seems Turner has decent out pitch options and a sinking fastball that he can use. The only question now is whether he actually can hit the strike zone with any of these pitches. It is perfectly possible that Turner is not trying to work outside the zone, but rather that he lacks the command to put his pitches in the strike zone in the first place. The 2013 season was a disaster for exactly that reason, as he failed to locate any of his pitches. The fact that it was not just one pitch but all pitches with which he struggled indicates a potential systemic concern.
The comparison between balls-to-called-strike ratio and zone percentage seems apt. Derek Lowe owns the lowest zone percentage among pitchers with at least 300 innings since 2011; he has thrown pitches in the zone at just about a 40 percent rate. However, when looking at his balls-to-called-strike ratio of 1.8, it compares favorably to Turner's sinker over the course of his career. Lowe's primary breaking ball offering, his slider, has a ratio of 1.6, which fares far better than Turner. It appears as though Lowe is planning to work out of the zone but making it count strategically, inducing swings when needed and reducing the number of balls he throws. Meanwhile, Turner looks like he is nibbling and sending it way out of the strike zone when it was intended to land on the corners. The fact that he has a reputation for command and control also lends to these weird Major League results.
How can the Marlins fix this? That is for a scouting analysis by the coaching staff and team scouts to determine. But it does appear as though Turner has the repertoire to turn things around and become a mix between Alvarez and Koehler with his legitimate sinking fastball. But control remains an issue, especially with his secondary offerings, and that limits what he can do to induce strikeouts.
The one approach aspect the Marlins could look to is to increase Turner's use of the fastball. It is the pitch he has the most control over and it seems to be the one he can best locate low in the zone; for his career. he has thrown 17.6 percent pitches located in the lower third of the zone, which is comparable to Alvaerz. Turner is currently throwing his fastballs at a 62 percent clip, but Alvarez and Eovaldi have turned to those pitches at closer to a 70 percent clip since 2011. It may be an option for a player who struggles to get strikes elsewhere, provided he can show ample command of the fastball.
What do you Fish Stripers think? Should Turner start pounding the zone as well, or do you think his stuff may be punished working too much in the zone? Let us know in the comments!