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Sports

The Invaluable Justin Turner, the Dodgers' Swiss Army Infielder

Justin Turner was run out of New York by the Mets, but he's proving his worth for the first-place Dodgers.

by W.M. Akers
Aug 13 2014, 6:55pm

Photo by Brett Davis-USA TODAY Sports

The most famous highlight of Justin Turner's Met career came last July. With two on in the bottom of the ninth, Mets behind by one, the scraggly redhead looped a long double into the gap in left center field. The ball hung in the air long enough for the viewer's eye to draw a line between it and the ground, to see that it was going to land snugly between the two Braves outfielders, to fully visualize the cheering and stomping and pie-tossing that would follow the inevitable Mets walk-off.

Another entertaining baseball figure? Lou Piniella. Read more.

While visions of victory danced around my brain, bionic genius Jason Heyward ran 83.2 feet in four seconds, laying out for a catch that made me wish the season would go ahead and end already. I know Heyward ran 83.2 feet because his catch was used as a demonstration for MLB Advanced Media's nifty new defense tracking system, in a clip that celebrated his geometric brilliance with golden lines and swirling circles and graphics straight out of LCARS. In the future, it seems, this technology will mean that every outfielder will run like Heyward, Atlantan god. He is the future, and poor Justin Turner—watching the catch, mouth hanging open in disbelief—is the past.

Turner is a utility man, a phrase that suggests extreme usefulness—a universal remote kind of baseball player—but really just means a light-hitting middle infielder who plays when the big boys have the days off. It would be more accurate to describe Turner as a handyman, since he is cheerful, adaptable, and apparently happy no matter what he's doing, so long as he gets to wear a baseball uniform while he's doing it.

For two seasons, this was Turner the Met: a jovial Twitter presence who celebrated walk-offs with pies, and occasionally chipped in with a pinch hit. In 2013, a team-wide rash of injuries meant more and more starts for him, and he responded with the best season of his career, hitting .280 and rating, by OPS+, as an average major league bat. On the 2013 Mets, average was something to be proud of.

His improvement was not rewarded. By August, the fan base had turned on the ginger prankster, for the same reason that all back-up players eventually wear out their welcome: his name in the lineup means one of your favorites isn't playing. Turner hadn't changed, but he had made the mistake of becoming a symbol. Every time he started in place of a prospect—and never mind that the Mets have no viable infield prospects—the franchise was sacrificing the bright, bright future for the dark, dark present. Every time he appeared to pinch hit, it was a reminder that Mets manager Terry Collins is a slave to the hot hand, unable to shake the idea that Turner was not just wide-eyed and eager, but clutch.

By the time MLB AM trotted out their shiny future-tech, splashing Turner's walk-off-that-wasn't all over the baseball Internet, Turner's time in Flushing was done. He was non-tendered by the Mets in the ceremonial December salary dump, a tweet announcing that he had been cast off in a life raft with equally-reviled infielders Omar Quintanilla and Jordany Valdespin, who had committed the respective sins of being terrible and being annoying. Anyone wondering about the wisdom of including Turner in that group was silenced. "He was not clutch," boomed the verdict. "He must be cast out. Turn your back. He is gone."

As the Mets do, they tagged Turner with a half-hearted character assassination on his way out the door, leaking to ESPN that the always-hustling infielder hadn't hustled quite enough. In March, speaking to Howard Megdal, Turner reflected on the Mets' Steinbrennerian habit of smearing their own players.

"All I can do is say if I was running an organization, in charge of it, I would look at all my players as assets, and want to build them up," he said. "So even if I didn't want them to be on my team, they would have value. But for some reason, I don't know, that's not the thought process over there."

Because the Mets needed an untalented back-up shortstop, Quintanilla was brought back for a handful of games in April and May, while Turner floated to a safe haven in Chavez Ravine. During a Dodgers/Angels game last week, turned on for the soothing 11 o'clock sounds of Vin Scully, the cheerful handyman was spotted batting leadoff—setting the table for Puig and Gonzalez, facing off against Pujols and Trout. Like Heyward, these are the gods of baseball, and the extremely human Justin Turner is keeping pace.

In a Mets uniform his appeal was strictly intangible—throwing pies harder, grinning bigger, and clapping louder than anyone else on the team—and a bad team has short patience for such charms. Good teams can carry soft-hitting, friendly players. They are the ones who, after a World Series is won, are called glue guys. But Turner, since trading Mets blue for Dodger blue, has done something few utility men ever do: he's gotten good.

For the second year in a row, he is having the best season of his life. Filling in at whatever infield slot is available, he's made it into 78 games, proving that whatever made him irresistible to Terry Collins works on Don Mattingly as well. He's their most effective pinch hitter, and he's played well whenever called on to start. His walk rate has doubled, his baserunning has improved, and he's hitting like he knows his job depends on it. Average no more, he's putting up an OPS+ of 129, and Dodger fans—I hope—love him for it.

Just to dig the knife a little deeper for the forlorn Flushing fandom, do you know how many Mets have as many plate appearances as Turner, and an OPS+ higher than 129? Only Lucas Duda. David Wright, Daniel Murphy and Curtis Granderson are all hitting worse than the Dodgers' back-up infielder.

He didn't make the highlight reel for the Anaheim game, but he drew a handy walk as part of a third inning rally, and Scully called him "invaluable." No matter how the Mets scorned him, the ginger goon never stopped smiling. Now, at last, he's got a reason.

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