Four-strikeout game highlights Turner’s breaking ball issue

The first strikeout came on a curveball, down and away, out of the zone.

The second strikeout came on a curveball, down and away, though barely in the zone.

The third strikeout actually came on a fastball, up in the zone, but only after he had seen three curveballs and a cutter down.

And the fourth strikeout came on a slider, the fifth such pitch Trea Turner saw from Braves reliever Luke Jackson during a seven-pitch at-bat that encapsulated the Nationals leadoff hitter’s frustrating Monday evening at the plate.

Thumbnail image for Trea-Turner-swing-blue-sidebar.jpg“I got, like, one pitch to hit in each of my at-bats for the most part, and just fouled off or missed it,” Turner said from Atlanta in a Zoom session with reporters following the Nats’ 5-3 loss to the Braves. “That happens more often than not. If you miss the pitch you need to hit in any at-bat - whether it’s the first one, second one, whenever it comes - if you miss it, it’s going to be a tough at-bat.”

Consider it a compliment, in many ways. Turner has become such a dangerous hitter over the last few years, and such a force against fastballs, opposing pitchers just aren’t giving him many opportunities to swing at them anymore.

So far this season, only 56.8 percent of the pitches Turner has seen have been fastballs, down four percentage points from last year. He’s still mashing many of the fastballs he gets, batting .337 and slugging .625 off heaters. But he’s just not getting many chances to hit them recently.

Recognizing his stats are much worse against breaking balls - a .263 average and .421 slugging percentage - opponents are inundating Turner with a steady stream of curveballs and sliders, hoping he’ll whiff at them as they dart down and away.

And it worked for the Braves on Monday when they induced Turner into only the fourth four-strikeout game of his career, his first since 2018.

“He’s chasing,” manager Davey Martinez said. “They’re throwing him a lot of breaking balls, and he’s just chasing outside the zone. He’s got to get the ball back in the zone.”

It sounds simple enough, but when you rarely get anything good to hit, you’re bound to start expanding the zone in a fruitless attempt to force the issue. The game’s best hitters all have to deal with it at some point, and Juan Soto is a great example of a teammate who generally won’t give in when pitchers feed him a steady diet of breaking balls off the plate.

But it’s still a learning process for Turner, who has blossomed into one of the game’s best all-around players but still is prone to expanding his strike zone at times.

“Trea, as we all know, he’s a good hitter,” Martinez said. “But he’s leading off, and he’s got to get the ball in the strike zone. If they want to walk him, like I tell all these other guys, take your walks. He’s got to get the ball in the strike zone.”

Martinez points out the added value Turner has when he just reaches base, even if it doesn’t come via hit.

“When he takes his walks, it’s a double,” the manager said, recognizing Turner’s ability to steal second in nearly any situation. “He’s got to understand what he’s really good at up there, ‘cause he’s really good.”

As with so much else in their struggling lineup, the Nationals can only hope this recent trend turns back in a positive direction soon.

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