Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Baseball is speeding up in 2023, and new Phillie Trea Turner shows no signs of slowing down

Will new rules turn Turner into a 70-steal threat? He’s not so sure, but one thing is certain: His speed isn’t fading yet as he nears 30.

Trea Turner joined the Phillies on an 11-year, $300 million contract in the offseason.
Trea Turner joined the Phillies on an 11-year, $300 million contract in the offseason.Read moreJose F. Moreno / Staff Photographer

Larry Greenstein had coached high school baseball for more than 20 years by the spring of 2010 and never saw anyone run the 60-yard dash in 6.3 seconds.

Until Trea Turner showed up to Park Vista High in Lake Worth, Fla.

Barely 6 feet tall and slender like a book on a shelf, Turner didn’t look like much. But in a workout before his junior season, he crossed the finish line in 6.3 seconds, causing Greenstein to check that his stopwatch wasn’t busted.

“I must have screwed up,” Greenstein told his assistant coach.

» READ MORE: Trea Turner’s path to Phillies’ $300 million man began as a baby-faced freshman at N.C. State

They asked Turner to run it again. Another 6.3. Then, with another player looking for somebody to race, Turner raised his hand. For a third time, he clocked in at 6.3 seconds. This wasn’t a fluke. Turner really was a human blur.

“He was a 6.7 runner, and the next year, he’s 6.3 — three times in a row,” Greenstein recalled by phone. “I’m calling scouts and they’re going, ‘We never heard of this kid.’ I go, ‘I don’t care. You’ve got to see this kid. I’m telling you I’ve got a pro prospect here.’”

Turner never slowed down. Not in college at North Carolina State or in the minors. He leads all players with 230 stolen bases since his major league debut for the Nationals on Aug. 21, 2015, and ranks seventh in success rate (84.56%) among 149 players with 50 steal attempts since 2015. His average sprint speed, measured by Statcast, is 30.4 feet per second, tied for third fastest of any player since 2015.

Elite speed factored into the Phillies’ decision to lock in on Turner as their top free-agent target and sign him for 11 years and $300 million. There was also the .302 career batting average and .842 on-base-plus-slugging percentage, the solid defense at shortstop, and the World Series championship with Washington in 2019. But speed is undeniably Turner’s calling card.

It might even make him the face of baseball in 2023.

Everything about the sport will be faster this year. A clock will count down 15 seconds to deliver a pitch with the bases empty, 20 seconds with runners on. A ban on shifts will keep two infielders on either side of second base and lead to more action. Bigger bases and a limit of two unsuccessful pickoff throws per plate appearance will create more incentive to put runners in motion.

» READ MORE: ‘I just want to be a dangerous hitter:’ Why batting-order position doesn’t matter to Turner

Players who possess superior speed and athleticism figure to have an enhanced impact in this brave, new world. Turner, who will turn 30 at the end of June, is a model for both. He projects to get to as many balls at shortstop even while positioned more traditionally. And after averaging 44 stolen bases per 162 games, he should see an uptick in that area, too, right?

“I’m not sure yet,” Turner said. “It means I’ve got to probably run a lot more and a lot of people are going to expect a lot more stolen bases out of me. But I’m always about scoring runs. However you score the run, that’s most important. I don’t care how you do it.”

Indeed, Turner has long rejected the typical assumptions about how his speed should be applied. He isn’t about to stop now.

‘Dangerous’ over dynamic

Turner’s size made it difficult for Greenstein to persuade scouts to take him seriously. Pirates area scout Rolando Pino was one of the few believers, and still, Pittsburgh didn’t draft Turner until the 20th round in 2011.

The same biases existed when Turner arrived at N.C. State.

“First time I saw him was our official visit; he looks like a 12-year-old boy,” said Brett Austin, Turner’s college teammate and best friend and now an assistant coach at N.C. State. “I’m like, ‘You’re telling me this kid here is the fastest kid in the country? I don’t think so.’”

» READ MORE: Turner, the WBC’s brightest star, makes his high school coach flash back to the beginning

Then, Turner outleaped everyone in the broad jump and smoked center fielder Brett Williams, a 6.4-second finisher in the 60-yard dash, in sprints.

“We’re like, ‘Are you [kidding] me? Where is this explosion coming from?’” Austin said. “It caught all of us very off-guard. We’re like, ‘This kid’s the real deal, man.’”

Turner’s speed also led to a stereotype. At every level, coaches told him to hit the ball on the ground and use his legs. It made sense. He hit a total of one home run in four years of high school. So, as a freshman in college, he batted .336 with seven bunt singles, only 20 extra-base hits, and 57 steals in 61 attempts.

» READ MORE: Sizing up Phillies betting markets ahead of the 2023 MLB season

But Turner began to drive the ball by learning to rotate his hips. In three years at N.C. State, his homer totals crept up from five to seven to eight. He slugged .553 as a sophomore and .516 as a junior. He found he could take extra bases by hitting doubles and triples. He still ran, but not as often. And less wear and tear from diving into bases enabled him to stay fresher and healthier.

“Early in my career, everybody wanted me to bunt, be a speed guy, hit the ball on the ground and a lot of things like that,” Turner said. “I just always wanted to be a dangerous hitter.”

In 2017, Turner stole 46 bases and batted .284/.338/.451 with 11 homers for the Nationals. A year later, he led the league with 43 steals and batted .271/.344/.416 with 19 homers.

But his best full season came in 2021 with the Dodgers. He stole only 32 bases but won the batting title (.328), led the league in hits (195), slugged 28 homers, and played 148 games. He was fast, powerful, and durable, the first 30-steal/25-homer/190-hit/.320-hitting player since Mike Trout in 2013.

» READ MORE: How Phillies shortstop Trea Turner has built a rapport with double-play partner Bryson Stott

And anyone who still believes Turner should spray the ball and run like Secretariat missed the just-completed World Baseball Classic, where he bashed four homers in the final three games for power-packed Team USA.

“The game has changed a lot,” Turner said. “Last year, [the Phillies] had [Kyle] Schwarber at the top of the lineup, and that’s not your typical leadoff hitter. Now it’s just, be a good hitter, get on base as much as you can. Guys do it in different ways, whether it’s slugging, walking, singles. Just always want to be a dangerous hitter.”

Better with age?

OK, so maybe larger bases and the limit on pickoff throws, more common than ever last season because of the ease with which they could be called via PitchCom — and even matching red oven mitts to protect his hands and fingers — won’t compel Turner to become the first player in the majors to swipe 70 bags since Jacoby Ellsbury in 2009.

But elite speed remains the quality that most sets him apart.

It’s worth wondering, then, after the Phillies signed Turner to a contract that will take him through his 40th birthday, how his blazing speed will age. Turner will get slower over time. But how much slower? And, well, how quickly will it happen?

Statcast data goes back to 2015, which happens to be Turner’s first year in the majors. His recorded average sprint speeds from 2015 through last year, measured in feet per second: 30.7, 30.2, 30.4, 30.1, 30.4, 30.0, 30.7, 30.3. Compare that with, say, Mookie Betts, an elite runner whose sprint speed slipped from 28.7 feet per second at age 22 in 2015 to 27.3 at age 29 last year.

“He’s as fast today as he was at age 23, and there’s not many guys who are able to sustain that,” said Phillies general manager Sam Fuld, who stole 20 bases twice in eight major league seasons. “Do we think he’s going to be the fastest guy in the game when he’s 40? Probably not. But I think we’re betting on just athleticism and a desire to be really, really good for the entirety of his career.”

Austin credits Turner’s offseason program, which always centered more on agility than weight training, for the lack of drop-off in his speed.

Since high school, Turner has worked with conditioning coach Ed Smith at Athletes Advantage, a training facility in Wellington, Fla. One year, when Turner came back from college, they tweaked his running form to lengthen his strides. They have made other adjustments over the years. But the focus always remains the same.

» READ MORE: The five most indispensable Phillies

“I would always give him a hard time because he hated the weight room. Hated it,” Austin said. “I’d go, ‘Dude, you need to get big, you need to get strong,’ and he was like, ‘I don’t want to lose my speed.’” He would just do his explosion drills, his speed and agility, his laterals. That’s just allowed him to have the longevity and play 162 games a year and maintain his speed.”

That’s the goal for Turner. Maybe it won’t translate into Rickey Henderson-level stolen base totals. But it will keep him outrunning everyone in the sport.

» READ MORE: Kyle Schwarber’s MVP window just opened with Trea Turner’s arrival to the Phillies