Tuesday, March 8, 2016

Why Math is not on Trea Turner's Side

It’s been a while since the Nationals had a gripping position battle play out in Spring Training but 2016 has all the makings of a barn burner. Instead of the usual Spring Training questions of who will fill the fifth starter role or which relief pitcher will be the 7th inning guy, the 2016 Nationals have a real competition on their hands for the starting shortstop role, a competition that will shape the future of the 2016 season.

In one corner is the once demoted Danny Espinosa now back in the spotlight after re-proving himself following the myriad injuries in 2015 that gave him his second shot at a starter role. In the other corner is the exciting youngster Trea Turner, less than one year removed from donning the curly W for the first time.

While we may debate exactly how much value Danny Espinosa provides on the Navy Yard Notes podcast, Espinosa is in some ways a known commodity. He is going to be great defensively, the ideal mix of agility, range, and strong throwing arm at the challenging shortstop position. He won’t post a big batting average but he knows how to take a walk and runs into his fair share of extra base hits. The question for Espinosa revolves around how often he can actually make contact as his past is full of months where he had trouble putting bat on ball.

Turner, on the other hand, is full of potential but has yet to actually prove anything at the major league level. The arguments in his favor come mostly from the scouts and personnel people who have ranked him as one of the top prospects in baseball since he was drafted only a short time ago. Splash in some impressive success at all of his minor league stops along the way and it’s not hard to understand why people are pulling for Turner to get the starting role right out of the gate.

Baseball’s convoluted and arcane service time rules may be too big of an obstacle, even for a prospect like Turner to overcome, however. Here is my attempt to summarize these rules as best as possible: players who are drafted and then promoted to the majors are under contract with their current team for six seasons and then become free agents with the ability to sign with any MLB team for their seventh season and beyond at whatever contract the market dictates. Simple enough concept, no? Except the definition of a “season” is anything but. In order to accrue one year of service time, a player needs to have spent 172 days on the major league team’s 25 man roster. It’s not until the winter following the player crossing the six year threshold that they become a free agent. There are a total of 183 days in the baseball season (162 games plus 21 off days) and players can accrue partial seasons and that is where the complexity kicks in.

For Turner, that’s also where the math turns against him. During his brief cup of coffee with the big league squad in 2015, Turner picked up 45 days of service time. If he starts in the Show from day one in 2016, he hits that six season mark six seasons from now. However, the Nationals have the ability to game the system, so to speak. If the Nationals wait until about May 29 to call up Turner, he will accumulate 171 career days of service time by the end of the 2016 season. That means his sixth season by these rules will actually hit in seven seasons from now. By holding Turner down in the minors for a month of games, the Nationals pick up a whole extra season of Trea Turner on his rookie deal.

Would the Nationals really do that if they thought Turner was a better player at short than Espinosa? Let’s turn to some quick math to find out. Since it’s impossible to know precisely how Espinosa or Turner will perform, I will turn to the ZiPS projection system. ZiPS is a pretty well established projection system and also sees Turner as a better player than Espinosa, precisely the situation this hypothetical is imagining. ZiPS projects Espinosa to accrue 1 WAR over the course of 120 games (.01 WAR per game) and Turner to get 1.9 WAR over 121 games (.02 WAR/G). If the Nationals do wait until the end of May to give Turner the call up, we are talking around 55 games Turner will miss. Over that course of time, Turner is projected to best Espinosa by 0.4 WAR. Essentially the Nationals wouldn’t be any worse off record wise with Espinosa over Turner over 55 games, even if you think Turner is twice as good as Espinosa. Don’t believe me? The Cubs did the same math with their stud of a prospect Kris Bryant (arguably a better player than Turner at this point in their careers) last year and held him down for the very same reason.

Of course, it is technically against the rules for the Nationals or any other team to hold a player back just to mess with his service time clock. It’s also impossible to prove this intent when it comes to young players. Just take a look at the 45 days Turner did spend in the majors and how badly he struggled against MLB level pitching to see how the Nationals argument for sending Turner back down for more seasoning works.

Finally, it doesn’t make sense to call up Turner to the big league squad on Opening Day, only to stick him on the bench and let him watch Espinosa all day. Starting Turner’s service time clock ticking again and keeping him off the field doesn’t help the team or Turner. Plus, between Espinosa, Anthony Rendon, Daniel Murphy, and Stephen Drew the Nationals have a versatile set of players capable of playing multiple positions and don't need Turner as depth off the bench.

Could Turner still claim the starting role on Opening Day? Of course he could. Scouts love him and when you pull out his 0-9 start to his big league career, his .290 batting average and .371 OBP look a lot prettier. That’s still a pretty small sample size, though, so Turner will have to prove in Spring Training he can handle big league pitching. He needs to cut down on his strike outs without sacrificing his above average walk rate. He needs to show he can at least hit for some doubles power (his highest ISO at any stop in the minors was .160 so power has never been his calling card). Scouts aren’t convinced across the board that he can handle shortstop at the major league level, so he will have to prove he can hold his own on defense too. He's just fighting an uphill battle as he has to not only beat Danny Espinosa but also the MLB salary structure.

Turner will play a role on the 2016 Nationals by the end of the season, there is no questioning that. The odds are just against him starting that role in April 2016.


  1. Turner already has impressed Baker with his speed. Suppose he has a great spring at the plate while Espinosa has an average spring. Would that change the Nats' thinking?

    1. I think he would have to blow them away for it to happen. Rizzo has proven to be somewhat conservative with these things (think Strasburg's handling or Bryce's mid season call up) and it's hard to ignore that extra year of service time. On the other hand, if he's clearly the better player he probably gets the nod.