Mar. 7, 2012; Lakeland, FL, USA; Detroit Tigers starting pitcher Jacob Turner (50) pitches in the first inning against the Atlanta Braves at Joker Marchant Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Andrew Weber-US PRESSWIRE

Panicked About Jacob Turner? Don’t Be.


Maybe it’s just my perception from being on Twitter a lot this offseason, but it seems like there’s been an unusually high amount of handwringing about some of the game’s top prospects over the past half-year or so. Julio Teheran, for example, had a rough introduction to the big leagues, and several (most notably Adam Foster of Project Prospect) have questioned parts of his game and his ultimate ceiling. Reviews of Jameson Taillon have been mixed in spite of his draft status and excellent statistics. There’s been the usual worry of possible bullpen conversions of Carlos Martinez, Dellin Betances, Jeurys Familia, Keyvius Sampson, and others. In short, in the half-year we’ve all had to dissect guys without them actually doing anything in the meantime, there’s been a fair amount of caution preached.

We’re a month into spring, and many of the top pitching prospects haven’t particularly impressed. Teheran has been most notorious for allowing a whopping six homers in his first spring game, but really, there hasn’t been a whole lot of talk of the top pitching prospects really blowing guys away, has there? Shelby Miller‘s been hit around a bit, Robbie Erlin doesn’t have a single strikeout, Tyler Skaggs hasn’t fared well, Randall Delgado has struggled…I could go on, but that’s not the point of this post.

Other than Teheran, no top pitching prospect has caused more alarm this spring than Jacob Turner of the Tigers. Turner threw four rather putrid innings–6 H, 6 R, 6 BB, 2 K–before being shut down with a “dead arm” that was later attributed to shoulder tendinitis.

Now, I’m no medical expert, and I have no idea what the specifics of Turner’s injury are, so I’m not going to comment on that beyond the fact that there doesn’t seem (to me) to be any reason to believe the injury will do more than keep him out of the beginning of the season. There’s a very real chance he’ll be in the major leagues on his 21st birthday (May 21), if not sooner.

Obviously, as a fan of a team, there’s reason to get your guard up when your top prospect–especially a pitching prospect–suffers an injury. But it’s easy to take the injury as a convenient opportunity to let previous doubts about Turner bubble to the surface and become pessimistic about his future. To me, that is a mistake.

Now, if you’re a regular reader of this site, you probably know I think the world of Jacob Turner. I rated him as the top right-handed pitching prospect in baseball earlier this offseason, and he came in at #6 on my Top 100 Prospects. That’s higher than he usually appears on most lists, but most agree that he’s in the top 25 somewhere.

The thing is, if you’re not a prospect guru, it’s easy to fall into the trap of thinking that he’s really not all that impressive. I see three main reasons why.

1) He struggled in the major leagues. In three starts in the majors last year, Turner allowed 12 earned runs in 12 2/3 innings. If that’s all you look at, it’s easy to brand him as a guy who “can’t get it done in the majors.”

Of course, such a designation is rather ludicrous. First off, he had one good start and two bad starts. Two bad starts. TWO. If you’re going to write a guy off because he had two poor games in the majors, you really need to get a better understanding of the game of baseball. Second, Jacob Turner was the youngest player to throw a pitch in MLB in 2011. He was born May 21, 1991. In 2011, there were only five pitchers born after May 21, 1990 to make the majors–Turner, Teheran, Arodys Vizcaino, and Jordan Lyles. So not only was Turner the youngest pitcher–it wasn’t really even close. Those other three pitchers also took some lumps in their initial MLB exposure. The youngest pitcher that was really successful in the majors last year was Madison Bumgarner, who is nearly two years older than Turner.

Bumgarner’s an interesting player to fall into this discussion, actually. He initially was brought up to the majors in late 2009, shortly after his 20th birthday, and had his share of hiccups early on, largely thanks to a “dead arm” period where he mysteriously lost velocity. Sound familiar?

2) His minor league numbers weren’t all that impressive. Strikeouts are often utilized as the biggest measure of dominance in pitching, and it’s easy to equate high strikeout numbers with upside. I’m often guilty of this myself–it’s easy to fall into the trap of drawing an imaginary “upside line” at the strikeout-per-inning mark, saying anyone with 9 K/9 or above is a stud while grouping those that can’t meet that mark into a less impressive category.

In his minor league career, Jacob Turner has struck out 7.75 batters per nine innings. Pitchers often lose strikeout ability in the majors, so it can seem like Turner will likely fall to the 5.5-7 K/9 range. Few pitchers–Turner’s teammate Doug Fister being one of them–can post #2 starter or better numbers around such an unimpressive strikeout rate.

But again, this ignores the age factor. The Tigers are notorious for pushing prospects too quickly through the minor leagues–Rick Porcello, Andrew Miller, and even Brayan Villarreal are some recent examples. In an organization that treated him more cautiously, Turner might’ve spent 2010 carving up Low-A and 2011 dominating High-A with big strikeout numbers.

As a result, Turner’s strikeout numbers undersell his strikeout upside.

3) He doesn’t throw all that hard. Turner is a big, physical pitcher on the mound, and he comes with a great draft pedigree (9th overall in 2009), so you might expect him to be a 92-96 mph flamethrower. He’s really more of a 90-93 guy. Combine this with the good-not-great strikeout rates, and again you get the picture of a guy who looks like more of a #4 than a #1.

To this point, I say: Jacob Turner averaged 91.7 mph on his fastball last year. The average velocity of the top 10 ERA pitchers last year? 91.7 mph.

~~~~~~~~~~~~~~

I think that should discount the pessimism. But what is it that makes me so optimistic?

First, as I’ve already cited a couple of times, age is a big factor. Jacob Turner had a 3.44 ERA, 3.45 FIP, and 3.14 K/BB ratio between Double-A and Triple-A last year despite not turning 20 until the season was several weeks old. If there was a metric that encapsulated “performance-relative-to-age-relative-to-level,” his only competitors among minor league pitchers last year would be Teheran and Skaggs. Teheran is four months older and performed slightly worse, but spent the year entirely in Triple-A; Skaggs is two months younger and performed better, but split the year between High-A and Double-A.

What makes Turner particularly impressive is how he’s been totally undaunted by the aggressive promotion schedule. It’s not just that he’s succeeded–it’s how he’s succeeded. He’s consistently pounded the zone with his fastball and kept his walk rate very low–even in the majors, he only walked four batters in 12 2/3 innings last year.

Since 1990, only 40 20-year-old starters have pitched in Triple-A on a non-spot start/emergency basis. Not only is Turner one of the 40, but he also has the distinction of having the highest strikeout-to-walk ratio of them all, at 20/3 in 17 innings. Small sample, yes, but impressive nonetheless. The only other pitchers out of the 40 that had a K/BB ratio above three: Zack Greinke, Jeff Suppan, Steve Avery, and Ismael Valdez, all of whom had very productive big league careers.

So while the “raw” numbers that Turner has put up don’t indicate great upside, they look absolutely fantastic when put into context.

Of course, the numbers aren’t the only thing of importance here–there’s the small matter of how he grades out on scouting terms. If Turner did all this with an 86-mph fastball, I wouldn’t be gushing so much about him.

I discussed his “lack” of velocity above, and it’s true that Turner isn’t the sort of flamethrower that his teammate Justin Verlander is. The key with Turner is that his fastball moves all over the place, as he gets a ton of sink on his “regular” four-seamer and also throws a hard cutter that he can bust inside on lefthanders. Since everything he throws has a ton of sink on it, he gets a lot of groundballs–a statistical area that often gets unnoticed with minor leaguers but is obviously quite important.

Turner’s offspeed offerings–a curve and a changeup that acts a lot like a splitter–also show a lot of promise. The curve is a legitimate plus pitch, the changeup is solid-average, and he trusts both pitches. He needs to better adapt his sequencing against major leaguers–given how effortlessly he handled challenges in the minor leagues, his patterning wasn’t particularly well-designed against major leaguers, which is what I attribute his two poor starts to–but he has years to figure that out.

Want a bold statement? I sincerely believe that Jacob Turner is the most likely pitcher in baseball to turn into the next Roy Halladay.

Don’t confuse that statement with “I think he will be the next Roy Halladay.” No, he doesn’t have a good chance of that, really. But nobody does–to reach that level is a ludicrously optimistic outcome for even the best of prospects. But chances are someone in the current prospect group will end up as a Halladay sort of pitcher, and if I had to pick one guy to do that, it would be Turner.

But I really see a lot of similarities with Turner and Halladay. Turner is 6’5″ 215 and still filling out; Halladay is 6’6″ 230. Both have clean deliveries and traditional high arm slots. And here’s a velocity comparison (2011):

FB             CT                CB               CH
Halladay      92.0         90.8            77.0          83.2
Turner          91.7         90.2            78.9           86.6

Pretty similar here as well, with Turner throwing his offspeed offerings slightly harder.

Why has Halladay succeeded so well? It’s not because he blows the ball by hitters–it’s because 1) He almost never walks guys, 2) He consistently gets 50-55% groundball rates, and 3) He’s got enough movement and sequencing ability to rack up above-average strikeout numbers.

One can make a pretty strong case for Turner excelling in all three areas in the future. He has a history of very low walk rates despite being pushed very hard, his pitches have a ton of sink and he gets great downward plane, and his curveball gives him a legitimate swing-and-miss offering, with the fastball and changeup also having some ability to get strikeouts.

And let’s not forget that Roy Halladay wasn’t always Roy Halladay. I mentioned earlier how Turner has the best K/BB ratio of any 20-year-old Triple-A starting pitcher since 1990. Out of the 40 pitchers on that list, Roy Halladay ranks 35th. In 1997, when he was 20, Halladay struck out all of 64 batters in 125 2/3 innings in Triple-A, issuing 53 walks in the process.

Famously, Halladay still was far from figuring it out three years later, when he posted a 10.64 ERA in 67 2/3 innings as a 23-year-old in 2000–the worst in MLB history for a pitcher who made 10 or more starts in a season. It’s not like the signs of greatness have to be at a Strasburgian level for a pitcher to ultimately end up as an ace–quite often, there are significant bumps along the way, and it’s rather stunning how few Turner has had to this point.

Most likely, as I said, Turner isn’t Halladay 2.0. More realistically, I’d project him to be in the next tier back, as a Dan Haren sort of pitcher. Haren, of course, averages just 90 mph with his four-seam fastball and regularly works at just 84-87 (!) with his bread-and-butter pitch, the cutter. He also has–stop me if this is familiar–a 77-80 mph curve and a mid-80′s splitter, and it all comes from a 6’5″ 215 pitcher with a clean delivery and high arm slot.

Attrition happens, and even the best prospects can fail, so it’s not a lock that Turner meets these expectations. But it should be stressed that his chances are as good as those of anyone not named Matt Moore. So, if you don’t like all of this that Turner brings to the table, what pitching prospects do you like?

It’s totally understandable why there would be trepidation over Turner’s tendinitis. But those worries should not lead to excessive concern–or really much of any concern–about what a healthy Turner is capable of down the line. I can’t stress enough how excellent his track record and skillset are, and due to some contextual oddities, these positives get overlooked to a surprisingly high degree for a former #9 overall pick who shot to the majors. Don’t fall into that trap–he really looks like he could be a truly special MLB pitcher.

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