Toledo, Ohio — Getting to the major leagues is often a winding road. For a few stars, it’s a fairly straight line, with a couple of bends — but more often than not, there’s a bump in the road, mixed in with some unexpected twists and turns.
That seems to be Jacob Turner’s journey back to the majors.
Things are coming full circle for Turner, who was the Tigers’ first-round pick (ninth overall) in the 2009 draft. After logging time with four teams in the past six seasons, he’s back in the Tigers organization.
Turner signed with the Miami Marlins as a free agent in December and was released in June after four just four outings, giving up 10 earned runs on 13 hits, with five walks and just two strikeouts. The Tigers picked Turner up four days later and he’s back with the Triple-A Toledo Mud Hens, looking to work his way back to the major leagues.
Turner, 27, was one of the team’s top pitching prospects in the minor leagues and was slated for a big role with the Tigers. He progressed through Double A Erie in 2011 at age 20, and made it to Toledo in 2012.
Then came a turn.
Turner was traded to the Marlins in the deal that brought pitcher Anibal Sanchez and infielder Omar Infante. The move worked for the Tigers, who strengthened their pitching rotation, won the Central Division and advanced to the World Series before being swept by the San Francisco Giants that season.
For Turner, it was a chance to pitch in the majors, starting seven games for the Marlins and pitching 42 innings. In 2013, he had 20 starts and a respectable 3.38 ERA, but finished just 3-8. He was getting the work, but not the results; as he’s bounced around the past few years, he’s looking to put it all together again with the Tigers
The familiarity with the organization helps.
“It’s made it a lot easier. A lot of the coaches I had are still here. It’s fun to see people you haven’t seen in a while,” Turner said. “It’s a good organization from top to bottom and they run it the right way — that’s a huge aspect.”
This season with the Mud Hens, Turner is 1-2 in eight starts, giving up 20 runs and 39 hits in 40⅓ innings. The numbers still aren’t pretty, but things look to be turning around.
In Tuesday’s outing against Scranton/Wilkes-Barre, Turner gave up three runs in the second inning, but just one run and two hits over the next four innings. Veteran catcher Jarrod Saltalamacchia was impressed by Turner’s ability to bounce back from a tough start and the progress Turner has made in Toledo.
“I was able to play with Jacob in Miami in 2014. I know what he’s got and he’s a little different now than he was then,” Saltalamacchia said. “He’s more crisp and has more velocity. He’s a smart pitcher and he does his homework and watches video and does scouting reports.
“He tells me what he wants to do and it’s spot-on. I trust him and he trusts me and we bounce things off each other. For him, it’s just an opportunity. He’s got the stuff and he’s proven he can pitch in the big leagues. He’s just got to get the opportunity to go back up.”
Turner’s pitching stuff looks to be different now, which is the key to his resurgence. He’s not trying to blow hitters away with velocity; rather, he’s trying to be smarter in his pitch selection and the situations in which he uses them.
“It’s really (just) mixing pitches, trying to keep hitters off balance and be unpredictable when I’m out on the mound and executing whatever pitch it is in that situation,” Turner said. “Baseball has changed a lot in the last five years; the way guys pitch now a lot different than when I got drafted.
“There’s more breaking balls and more high fastballs. It’s about the swing-and-miss and strikeouts as a pitcher; it’s about weak contact. We have the numbers to show that if you can create weak contact than swing-and-miss, your rate of success is better than loud outs.”
Baseball analytics has changed how pitchers approach the game — and Turner is no different.
He’s looking at former Tiger Justin Verlander’s success with the Houston Astros as a template for how he wants to continue to hone his game.
“It comes back to mixing pitches and throwing in quadrants of the zone that aren’t conventional,” he said. “Verlander is a great example in the success he’s had with Houston. Without talking to him, I’d have to say some of that is analytics-based.
“My approach is simplified; I go out there and try to bring it and compete whenever I’m out there.”
It’s a simple philosophy, but not a straight line.
Neither is Turner’s road back, but for Turner, it’s still worth the journey.