LOS ANGELES -- Many baseball analysts have come to view the statistic weighted runs created plus, or wRC+, as the best overarching measure of a hitter's contribution to a team's ability to score runs. It is a spin-off of something the father of sabermetrics, Bill James, came up with and is modified to take into account influences such as park factors, league factors and the ebb and flow of offense over different eras.
Since the start of the 2014 season, only two hitters with at least 500 plate appearances have a better wRC+ than Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner: Paul Goldschmidt and Mike Trout. That's it. The next three hitters on the list after Turner are Andrew McCutchen, Bryce Harper and Miguel Cabrera.
On a team that went into this season with the highest payroll in the sport's history, obligated to pay its players roughly $270 million, the Dodgers lately have chosen Turner, a journeyman utility player up until now, as their No. 3 hitter, the spot in the lineup typically held for a team's best pure hitter. Making $2.5 million, Turner is the Dodgers' 10th highest-paid hitter and 21st highest-paid player.
Meanwhile, the team that showed Turner the door two Novembers ago, the New York Mets, has been scrambling to deal with the loss of superstar David Wright and the sporadic availability of Daniel Murphy. One of their chosen infield replacements, Eric Campbell, was hitting .171 with two home runs through his first 129 at-bats. Another, Danny Muno, batted .083 and was handed an airplane ticket back to Triple-A Las Vegas.
Presented with several opportunities to gloat about the juxtaposition of his emergence and the Mets' need as his former team arrives in L.A. for a three-game series this weekend, Turner refused to revel in it. For one thing, Turner knows and likes several of the players the Mets have plugged into those holes and thinks over time they could become good players. For another, he hasn't exactly reached a point in his career when he can afford to pat himself on the back.
"It doesn't do anyone any good," Turner said. "It was what it was, I'm here and I'm happy."
Besides, the Dodgers can't honestly say they saw this kind of production coming from Turner. They seized an opportunity going into spring training of 2014, signing Turner to a minor-league deal to compete for a second-base job vacated by Mark Ellis. After bench coach Tim Wallach ran into him at a Cal State Fullerton alumni event, he placed a call to then-general manager Ned Colletti. Wallach liked Turner's toughness, his effort level, the way he applied himself in all facets. He had seen that when Turner was in college. When the Dodgers played the Mets, Wallach said Turner inevitably had good at-bats. Even when he fell behind in the count, it would inevitably turn into a long at-bat that, many times, resulted in him getting on base.
"I knew we needed a decent utility guy and, when I found out he didn't have a job, I was surprised," Wallach said. "I couldn't believe a guy like him wouldn't have a job."
Of course, the gap from "decent utility guy" to No. 3 hitter is more a matter of yards than inches and Turner is at a loss to explain why his career has blossomed toward the end of his prime years. He dismisses the comfort factor of playing close to where he grew up in Long Beach. He doesn't think it has anything to do with getting out from under New York's media scrutiny or with not having to conform to the Mets' view of an ideal hitter. He does, however, acknowledge that his approach at the plate didn't always mesh with what general manager Sandy Alderson was looking for.
"I mean, he came over from Oakland. He's a 'Moneyball' guy. I don't know if 'Looking to walk' is the right way of saying it, but he talks about on-base percentage." Turner said. "I'm never looking to walk. Sometimes when you miss pitches you should hit, you end up walking. I wasn't worried about on-base percentage or anything like that. I was just trying to have good at-bats."
Arizona Diamondbacks reliever Oliver Perez's career has followed a somewhat similar path to Turner's, as he has performed better since leaving the Mets. Unlike Turner, whose numbers were stout in a Mets uniform, Perez had drastically underperformed in New York. He said getting to a new environment can bring out a player's talents.
"Sometimes, it's good to change scenery to a different team. When you're doing bad, a lot of times you start thinking a lot. When you get on a new team, you start to think fresh," Perez said. "That didn't just happen to Turner. That happened to a lot of players, including me."
People who know Turner also believe he benefited by getting to know outfielder Marlon Byrd, who resurrected his career on the Mets in 2013 after the Boston Red Sox had released him. Byrd played winter ball in Mexico between his Red Sox and Mets seasons in an attempt to get back into baseball.
Rafael Arroyo, a former Mets bullpen catcher who now works as a private strength and conditioning coach, said Byrd was a key mentor on the Mets for some of the team's younger players, including Turner. Byrd helped motivate Turner to get into better physical condition two offseasons ago when the players worked out together in Southern California's San Fernando Valley. Last winter, Turner was among the most frequent visitors to Dodger Stadium, where he worked closely with Dodgers strength and conditioning coach Brandon McDaniel.
Arroyo also competed against Turner in the minor leagues when Turner was in the Baltimore Orioles organization. He said Turner had a confidence about him that spoke to his Southern California roots.
"You can always recognize guys from California out there playing on the East Coast. He always had that little swagger to him," Arroyo said. "The success he's having now I think is a surprise to everyone but himself."