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Brice Turang’s Quantum Leap | FanGraphs Baseball

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Katie Stratman-USA TODAY Sports

Pat Murphy is nominally in his first season as a full-time MLB manager, having previously helmed the Padres for a 96-game interim stint in 2015. But it’s not like he just fell off the turnip truck; he started coaching so long ago I’m not sure they even had trucks or turnips back then. Murphy had been Craig Counsell’s bench coach for eight seasons when he got promoted this past winter. When he took that job, he’d already been working in baseball for 33 seasons, all but one of them as either a minor league manager or college head coach.

Murphy’s seen some stuff.

About halfway through spring training, when Murphy named Brice Turang his starting second baseman, he accompanied the announcement with some glowing praise: “I think this kid’s gonna make a quantum leap… His swing decisions will be better, his contact will be better, and his damage will come.”

At the time, it seemed like puffery, an attempt to build confidence in a former first-round pick who’d been sub-replacement level in his first major league season. Now, it looks like Murphy, endowed with the wisdom of four decades’ experience, can predict the future.

As a rookie, Turang built a reputation for good baserunning and defense, and deservedly so. He stole 26 bags in 30 attempts and graded out as two runs above average by Statcast’s Fielding Run Value. But speed and defense are the kind of qualities that get talked up more when a player — particularly a starter at an up-the-middle position — is providing less value at the plate. First codified as Nichols’ Law of Catcher Defense, it’s a mental placeholder that fills in the blank for: “This guy couldn’t hit water if he fell out of a boat; surely there’s some reason he’s still in the lineup.”

Because, intending no undue disrespect to Turang, he was absolute cheeks last year. This year… well, I struggle to think of a better description than “quantum leap.”

Brice Turang’s Quantum Leap

YearBB%K%AVGOBPSLGwRC+
20238.521.0.218.285.30060
20249.514.3.320.381.467137

So how did he achieve these gains? Well, some of those gains are literal; Turang says he gained 20 pounds over the offseason.

I also lived in Wisconsin for a year in my mid-20s and… same, dude. Shout out cheese curds and Madison’s Vintage Brewing Co. The tricky part is putting that weight on while retaining 95th-percentile sprint speed, and this Turang has been able to accomplish. He’s just as fast as before, and even more impactful on the bases; heading into Thursday’s action, Turang is 12-for-12 in stolen base attempts and leading the league in baserunning value.

This is great news, and I’m sure it comes as a great relief to the concerned grandmothers of America that Turang is eating more. But what do you call a second baseman with plus-plus speed and a 60 wRC+? That’s right: Someone who probably should’ve gone to college and played football. None of this matters if the second part of Murphy’s prediction — better swing decisions, better contact, more damage — doesn’t come true.

Turang isn’t hitting the ball that much harder in 2024. He’s currently 232nd out of 279 hitters with an EV50 of 97.0 mph; that’s up from 96.2 mph last year, which was 247th out of 258. He’s in the 17th percentile for barrel rate and the 15th for HardHit%.

But he’s picked off probably the two lowest-hanging pieces of fruit available to a hitter.

First, he’s not getting absolutely dominated by four-seamers. When a prospect gets promoted to a new level (usually the big steps come at Double-A and the majors), one of the big questions is usually whether he can hit spin. That’s because professional pitchers throw unwholesome breaking balls, and you never know for sure whether a hitter will sink or swim until he comes up against it. But also because it’s usually taken for granted that a professional hitter at any level can hit a fastball.

In 2023, Turang was 17 runs below average against fastballs. That was literally the worst mark in baseball. Second worst was Martín Maldonado, who is incidentally my mental stand-in for the concept of an automatic out. Turang was, as hard as it is to believe, even more automatic of an out against heaters.

This year, he’s holding his own. Now, this is a speed guy who struggled against fastballs, then improved after putting on weight. The obvious explanation is that he’s no longer getting the bat knocked out of his hands, right? Well, that’s true, but only to an extent.

Brice Turang vs. The Heater

YearPitch %BAxBAOBPxOBPSLGxSLGWhiff%
202334.8.198.207.281.288.267.32922.0
202439.1.407.250.467.325.481.3528.7

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

The eye-popping number is that whiff rate. The players who put up single-digit whiff rates against four-seamers are the elite contact hitters — Steven Kwan, Jeff McNeil, TJ Friedl — guys like that. And while Turang has been making more contact, he’s been more selective. (The two probably go hand in hand.) He’s dropped his first-pitch swing rate almost nine points year to year, and his chase rate almost six points.

In 2023, Turang ran a first-pitch strike rate of 66.9%, which was one of the 10 highest in baseball. This year, that number is down to an even 50%, which is the second-most extreme drop in the league. Previously, Turang was either putting the ball in play early — which didn’t work out that well for him — or starting his at-bat in the hole. A more patient, selective Turang is getting much better results, to say nothing of cutting his strikeout rate by a third.

I don’t expect Turang to keep hitting well over .300 with power. He’s not making that level of contact, no matter how fast he is. He’s overperforming his expected stats across the board and his BABIP has jumped from .268 to .355. Can a fast left-handed groundball hitter sustain a BABIP like that? Sure, but I’m not going to jump to any conclusions after four weeks.

But there’s plenty of precedent for a fast lefty groundball hitter to parlay high contact rates and weak contact into a dangerous offensive profile; maybe this is the start of Turang’s metamorphosis into a poor man’s Friedl.

If Turang is even an average hitter with that kind of speed, that’s an above-average starter at second base. In the past 10 full seasons (2013 through 2023, excluding 2020), there have been 15 seasons by second basemen with a wRC+ between 90 and 110 with a positive defensive WAR and 20 or more stolen bases. The average WAR in those seasons is a hair under 3.3. Think Bryson Stott last year, or Whit Merrifield in 2017, or Kolten Wong in 2019. That list includes a couple Tommy Edman seasons as well.

Any team would want a player like that in its lineup. That much should be obvious, even to people who don’t have 40 years of coaching experience to lean on.

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