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Dodgers’ Trea Turner hopes to break bad habits and be his old self come playoffs

Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner talks to Gavin Lux in the dugout.
Dodgers shortstop Trea Turner in the dugout during a game at Dodger Stadium.
(Wally Skalij / Los Angeles Times)

Four hours before the first pitch, Trea Turner was already at the plate.

Normally, early batting practice isn’t the place you find two-time All-Stars with near .300 batting averages and a hitting title already on their resume.

But for the last several weeks of the regular season, it became a familiar part of Turner’s pregame routine — another indication that, in spite of another solid season for a 29-year-old considered to be one of the game’s best hitters, he hasn’t felt like the best version of himself for much of the year.

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“I don’t know,” he said last week, shaking his head moments after another of his early batting practice sessions in an empty Dodger Stadium. “I feel like I haven’t done very much right this year, in my head.”

Turner’s baseline statistics bely such frustration.

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He hit .298 with a career-high 100 RBIs. He was voted a starter for the midsummer classic for the first time in his career. And, in his last year of team control, he is still in line for a monstrous payday in the offseason, be it with the Dodgers or one of the many other MLB clubs expected to vie for his services in free agency.

“If he can do what he’s capable of doing,” manager Dave Roberts said, “he’s one of the best players on the planet.”

Recently, though, Turner hasn’t been shy about nit-picking his own game — quipping he has been “trying to suck less” amid a quiet second half of the campaign.

He cited a few specific annoyances, from an inconsistent two-strike approach (he had his worst walk-to-strikeout ratio for a full season in his career), to a penchant for misfiring on hittable pitches (he had his lowest average exit velocity since his rookie year), to a decline in power and ability to drive the baseball (he had his lowest slugging percentage since 2018).

It didn’t torpedo his overall season by any means.

Turner still ranked second in the majors in hits and fifth in the National League in batting average.

According to Baseball Reference’s all-encompassing OPS+ metric, he was still 21% better than the average big-league hitter.

By Fangraphs’ version of wins above replacement, he ranked third among MLB shortstops, behind only Francisco Lindor of the New York Mets and Dansby Swanson of the Atlanta Braves.

Dodgers' Trea Turner bats during a game against the San Francisco Giants.
Dodgers’ Trea Turner bats during a game against the San Francisco Giants on Sept. 7 at Dodger Stadium.
(Marcio Jose Sanchez / Associated Press)

Yet, as he discussed the totality of his season, Turner was soon shaking his head again.

“I know what the numbers are,” he said. “But compared to the last 2½ seasons or so, it just feels like I’ve left a lot on the table.”

Of the many potential contributing factors, Turner was quick to eliminate his looming free agency as a culprit, insisting it hasn’t clouded his focus or influenced his play.

“It’s more pride in myself,” he said. “I think I can play better baseball. I think I can play better defense. I think I can run the bases better. And obviously I think I can hit better.”

In the long-term, though, his future is still shrouded in uncertainty, after he and the Dodgers failed to make much progress in talks over a potential contract extension this year.

If Turner does reach the open market this winter, he will do so as one of the best available options (along with Swanson and potentially Carlos Correa and Xander Bogaerts) at a premium position, one that has seen multiple $300-plus million contracts doled out in the last couple of years.

Turner, however, reiterated it hasn’t occupied his mind.

Chris Taylor is confident he will play in the NLDS after dealing with neck stiffness, but the Dodgers aren’t sure if Blake Treinen or Dustin May will pitch.

“I think I’ve made plenty of money in this game and I feel like I’ve played pretty well up to this point in my career,” he said. “People kind of know who I am. It’s a matter of my own expectations. I’ve always been hard on myself, more hard than anybody else.”

So what has been missing in Turner’s game?

He cited some “bad habits” in his mechanics, leading to a frustrating cycle in which he’ll fix one problem only to realize another has developed.

He said recently, he has tried to find answers by studying his swing from last year, when he won the National League batting title with a .328 mark (which was actually lower than his career-best .335 in the pandemic-shortened 2020) and finished fifth in MVP voting.

And he thinks he has made strides during both his early BP sessions, as well as in the weight room, where he’s worked with vice president of player performance Brandon McDaniel and the rest of the team’s strength staff to refine his movements and develop a more consistent pattern.

Assistant hitting coach Aaron Bates, one of several observers of Turner’s latest early batting practice session on Tuesday, identified Turner’s hand placement as the biggest area of focus.

Tony Gonsolin, pitching in his first game in more than a month, had an uneven two-inning outing for the Dodgers in a 2-1 loss to the Colorado Rockies.

Bates said Turner’s hands — which waggle low and loose in his set-up stance, before rising up as he loads onto his back leg and helicoptering around his body when he swings — aren’t getting up enough through his motion.

“[When] his hands return up as he goes forward, it gets him into that athletic position to allow his body and hands to work freely,” Bates said. “Then he’s in a position where he can really fire from.”

Roberts has noticed Turner laboring of late, too, pointing out Tuesday that “when he’s going well, he’s not a guy that’s out here taking extra batting practice.”

“But right now,” Roberts continued, “he’s trying to feel something.”

In Wednesday’s regular-season finale, Turner was encouraged by his opposite field home run, noting he hit it “where I feel like, in my brain, you know, that ball is supposed to go,” he said. “It’s nice.”

With the playoffs on the horizon, the Dodgers are hoping there is more to come.

For all Turner has accomplished in his career, his postseason history is checkered.

In 39 career playoff games, he has batted just .228 with a .561 OPS. He was key in the Washington Nationals’ run to a World Series title in 2019 (he hit .286 through the NLCS that year before cooling off in the Fall Classic) but went just 11 for 51 in his return to the playoffs with the Dodgers last fall.

Freddie Freeman thought he would end his career with the Atlanta Braves, but he has since grown comfortable with the Dodgers.

Even Roberts acknowledged that Turner “didn’t have a good postseason last year” despite being “the hottest hitter on the planet” entering October.

Roberts, however, then changed tones.

“Hopefully, we flip it on its head this year,” he said.

And, in what could be his final act as a Dodger, how close is Turner to rediscovering top form?

“One swing,” Bates said. “He’ll know it’s right with one swing. And then, it will be a steamroll effect.”


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