Timing is everything for late-blooming Justin Turner

GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The Grand Canyon was formed by millions of years of slow erosion, making it a curious locale for Justin Turner to propose to his girlfriend this spring.

The setting was no doubt spectacular, and worthy of the momentous occasion -- except that Turner has reached his current confluence of success, fortune and lifelong companionship by using anything but a deliberate, plodding approach.

A seventh-round draft pick out of Cal State Fullerton whose first six years in the major leagues could best be described as unfulfilled, he found his way by giving himself less time to rise to the occasion, not more.

Yearning to be a better hitter, Turner actually moved up in the batter’s box, closer to the pitcher, in recent years, giving him a split second less to see pitches. To improve his defense, Turner forced himself to move in on balls hit to his left or right, intensifying the margin for error.

He neared his 30th birthday before unlocking his true potential, yet that does not mean quickness wasn’t the key.

The production that resulted from his refined game convinced the Los Angeles Dodgers to retain the Long Beach, California, native on a $64 million deal.

“In a perfect world, you say, 'Oh man, I wish I figured this out 10 years ago,'” Turner said with a chuckle. "But who knows what would have happened if I did that. So I think this was the path I was supposed to take and I am happy where I am right now. I’m not worried about four, five, six years ago.”

Surely something needed to be done after Turner was set adrift by the New York Mets following the 2012 season. He ultimately joined the Dodgers, but only after then-coach Tim Wallach saw Turner at a Fullerton alumni game and asked if he had locked on to a team.

At that point, Turner had played in parts of six major league seasons so he had been doing something right. He just knew he had more to give.

And while Turner won’t call the changes to his game a reinvention, he went to great lengths to make his timing adjustments feel natural.

"It wasn’t minor," Turner said. “I was in the cage five days a week for 3½ months trying to get right. I got into a pretty good position, had a good year [in 2015], but still didn’t think I was in the best position I could be in. And then last year, I was in a spot where I felt like I was really good.”

There is no doubting Turner’s rise in production. In three seasons with the Dodgers, Turner’s run production has increased every year. His overall WAR has also increased to last season’s 5.0 mark, a number helped by improved defense that made him a Gold Glove Award finalist.

Turner’s decision to move up in the batter’s box has done wonders for his ability to handle breaking balls by allowing him to get to them before the pitch movement neutralizes him.

Prior to joining the Dodgers, Turner had a .216 career batting average against breaking balls with a .542 OPS. In his three years in Los Angeles, he is batting .319 against breaking balls with an .870 OPS. Going deeper into the numbers, Turner had just one home run against a breaking ball over his first six seasons, but he has belted 13 of them as a member of the Dodgers.

If that looks like success that simply came with more playing time, consider this: The ESPN Stats & Information department calculated Turner’s hard-hit rate against breaking balls as 8 percent before joining the Dodgers and 15 percent since. He is hitting a lower percentage of ground balls and fly balls, while his line-drive percentage has gone up 25 percent.

The defensive metrics show a similar shift. In games at third base before joining the Dodgers, Turner had zero defensive runs saved to 18 DRS as a member of the Dodgers. And, according to Baseball Info Solutions, he has 8 DRS while wearing a Dodgers uniform based on "range and positioning."

Turner credited his previous work with Wallach for helping him to read bat angles. He credits current third-base coach Chris Woodward for getting him to reach forward on ground balls instead of backward.

“Woody changed me and got me to play more in, more this way,” Turner said, pointing his arms in 45 degree angles in front of him. “That was huge, defensively. It cleaned up my throwing. I didn’t make as many throwing errors last year as I did the year before. It just made throwing easier because I am throwing from a better position on the field every time I am catching ground balls."

The Dodgers’ defense is not known for its outstanding range but still managed to be a top defensive club in 2016 because of positioning and good hands. It was a boon to the pitching staff, including a bullpen that had the lowest combined ERA in baseball.

The pitchers and coaching staff appreciated the hard work Turner put in to make himself better in all aspects of his game.

“It kind of obviously transformed his career,” manager Dave Roberts said about Turner’s evolution from a non-tendered player with the Mets to a $64 million man with the Dodgers. “You don’t see that very often with players, but I think that it is just a credit to JT that he was open-minded to say, ‘I have a little service time as a major league player, but how am I going to get to the next level?’ And it’s tough to be open to swing changes and things like that, but JT did that and it obviously worked out.”

It sure is working out nicely for Turner, as his recent trip to the Grand Canyon would attest. And having it come together for him in his 30s gives him an even greater appreciation for it all.

He is trending upward in more ways than one as the first season of his new contract approaches.

"I tell guys all the time, especially young guys, 'Don't be mad if you’re not playing every day,'" Turner said. "It’s better to be a bench guy or a role guy in the big leagues than an everyday guy in the minor leagues. Just embrace the role you’re in and, when the opportunity comes, be prepared for it. If you’re a negative guy and you have those negative thoughts and you have that opportunity, it makes it that much harder on you."