Justin Turner took his turn as the Mets’ defensive goat last night, making the latest soul-crushing, late game misplay of the week. With the bases loaded in the ninth and the Mets clinging to a one-run lead, Turner fielded a soft ground ball, and looking to turn two, threw the ball to regular first basemen Daniel Murphy, who at that point was in the dugout with the night off. Two runs scored on the error, the Mets got no outs, and they lost another heartbreaker — a much better song than way to lose — their third such game in a row. These sort of losses hurt, but at least this Mets team is compelling enough to make them hurt, something that hasn’t always been true.
Anyway, at this point Justin Turner has more or less become the regular second baseman, starting 25 of the Mets’ last 28 games at the position, with Willie Harris stealing a few starts here and there. But I think it’s worth asking if Turner is the Mets’ best option the rest of the way, or if running Daniel Murphy at second base on occasion makes more sense. That position isn’t necessarily settled for next year the way first base would be settled with a healthy Ike Davis, so if Turner or Murphy has a starting role with the 2012 Mets, it’s probably going to be at second base. And it might be worth Terry Collins and the Mensa gang figuring out which one is the better option.
Offensively, it’s not all that close this season:
Daniel Murphy: 413 plate appearances, .319/.361/.450, 28 doubles, 6 home runs
Justin Turner: 332 plate appearances, .272/.332/.358, 20 doubles, 2 home runs
Murphy is outhitting Turner by a sizable margin in every meaningful category. You can argue that Murphy’s line is batting average driven — and it is — but neither player strikes out or walks all that often, so both their lines are batting average driven, and Murphy holds an advantage in power. I don’t see a compelling argument for Turner over Murphy offensively.
Which means that the only argument for Turner would be defensively. First the traditional numbers:
Murphy: 168 innings, 55 assists, 36 putouts, 2 errors, 5 double plays, .978 fielding percentage
Turner: 375 innings, 120 assists, 82 putouts, 6 errors, 18 double plays, .971 fielding percentage
On an inning per inning basis, Murphy and Turner get to a nearly identical number of balls, with Turner being involved in more double plays and Murphy making fewer errors. But that’s a fairly small number of innings for both. The advanced defensive numbers are similarly inconclusive:
Murphy: -3 defensive runs saved, 1.8 UZR
Turner: -6 defensive runs saved, -2.6 UZR
Turner has cost double the runs by defensive runs saved (DRS), but he’s played more than twice as many innings. So on an innings per inning basis, Turner is the better second baseman by DRS’s count, Murphy the better fielder by UZR’s. Small sample size again though. It’s hard to tell the better fielder by the numbers, making this more a question for the eyes. And, based on my eyes, I don’t really want to see the ball hit to either of them.
But here’s the thing: In 1120 major league plate appearances, Daniel Murphy has created 143 runs, and in 372 major league plate appearances, Justin Turner has created 36 runs. Per 600 trips to the plate, Murphy would create 77 runs and Turner would create 58 runs. So the question isn’t, “Is Justin Turner a better defensive second baseman than Daniel Murphy?”, but, “Is Justin Turner 19 runs better defensively at second base than Daniel Murphy?” Even if you cut the difference in half, thinking Murphy won’t hit as well and Turner will improve with his bat . . . it’s still a nine run difference that would need to be made up on defense.
The difference between a Gold Glover and Luis Castillo is about 20 runs per season. The difference between an average defender and Luis Castillo is about 10 runs. Turner has looked average, at best, so the question is really if Daniel Murphy will field worse than Luis Castillo at second base. Is there at least a nine run difference in the field between Murphy and Turner to make up for the difference with the bat?
I don’t know. It’s difficult to say because Murphy hasn’t started a game at second base in nearly three months, and has played just one inning there since May 10. Maybe the Mets didn’t like what they saw, but with pesky slap-hitter Jason Bay in left field, Ike Davis at first base, and Lucas Duda possibly at both next year, Murphy’s future with the Mets is going to be second or bust. Or DH, if any sort of weird realignment were to take place in the immediate future. But probably second base.
I don’t necessarily disagree with what the Mets are doing right now: Playing Murphy at first base for the final few months allows the Mets to keep Turner, Duda, and Murphy in the same lineup, seeing what all three young players can do offensively for the team. And that has real value this season and beyond. On the other hand, for the sake of 2012, it might be more valuable to see what Murphy can do defensively at second a little bit more. I don’t know if he’s the answer, but it’s probably worth taking the time to find out.