MLB Pitching Prospect: Jacob Turner

Thursday, June 9th, 2011 at 12:00 AM
MLB Pitching Prospect: Jacob Turner by Jay Stevens
Contributed photo

Jacob Turner stands on the mound against the first batter of the game, Reading Phillie Michael Spidale. It's a muggy Sunday afternoon at Jerry Uht Park – a relief after what seems like a month of rain. The SeaWolves are wearing pink-trimmed uniforms for Breast Cancer Awareness weekend, and the fans, many also pink-capped, crowd into the shade under the third-base grandstand.

First pitch is a fastball, fouled over the backstop; strike one. Second pitch, fastball, fouled over the backstop; strike two. Third pitch, high fastball, and Spidale lays off; ball one. Fourth pitch, a knee-buckling tight curve that slices over, down, and away from Spidale, and the Phillie left fielder watches himself wave his bat at the pitch. Strike three.

Meet the future of Detroit Tigers baseball.

From up in the stands, he looks like any other whipcord-thin, 6-foot-5-inch right-handed pitcher who throws strikes. Notice the easy delivery—the pitching motion that's so relaxed he looks like he could be playing Frisbee on a campus green somewhere—and, at age 20, that's exactly what he'd be doing if he didn't have the preternatural gift of a major-league fastball. The delivery is so nonchalant, and the resultant parade of popups, easy grounders, and foul tips so undramatic, the game seems rehearsed, scripted. Batter, exit stage right.

It's not until you get up close that you see the artistry in the pitcher, the talent that will take him to Detroit for the Tigers, and soon. (Some say if he continues to pitch well – a 2.69 ERA through 60 innings so far in 2011 – he'll see the majors this season.) Up close – in the seats behind home plate, say – you'll see his repertoire: a two-seam and four-seam fastball, a curve ball, and a change up, each darting in a different direction and at a different speed. You'll see the velocity first-hand, see the ball sit in the mid to low 90s, hear the sharp pop of the catcher's glove. You'll see the command, you'll see the pitches hit the corners, staying down in the strike zone where hitters rarely hit balls for power. 

And you'll see the intensity on the face of the pitcher himself. A kind of constantly irritated look, the kind of face you wear when you deal with some regular, pitiful annoyance. Damn kids! Get off my plate!
“The thing with him,” says SeaWolves’ pitching coach Ray Burris, “I don't have to worry about the tenacity he's going to have on the mound.” That's the notable thing about Jacob Turner, his composure. “You don't see that very often coming out of high school,” says Burris. “It's refreshing to see him perform day in and day out. And still come back the next day with a great attitude to get ready to work and ready for his next outing.”

That tenacity is evident in the locker room, too – at least with the media – he lets a smile break across his otherwise guarded expression as often as he throws pitches into the heart of the strike zone. That is to say, not often, and even then only in brief and brilliant flashes. “No matter what happens on the mound,” he says of all this talk about composure, “you've got to act like nothing happened. You've got to get the next guy.”

No big deal, huh? “It's something that's always been instilled in me,” he admits. “So it kind of comes natural, I guess.”

On this particular Sunday, Turner pitches seven strong innings of 3-run, 8-strikeout ball. The first six innings pass uneventfully. The Phillies manage three hits, one a solo home run by Spidale on a grooved 3-0 fastball for Reading's only score. Turner walks one and strikes out seven.

“When you get to a level like this, you've got to learn how to pitch. Velocity is great, but if you can't pitch, it can't help you,” says Turner. “You've got to be able to locate in and out. With these guys, if you try to throw it by them, these guys will crush it. You've got to be able to do something to get them off balance.”

Turner seems designed to pitch. He's got long, lanky arms and strong hands and a big, tall frame that promises to fill out and enable him to regularly shoulder 200-plus major league innings. He threw his first 90-mile-per-hour fastball when he was 15. “It was awesome,” says Turner. He hit as high as 98 on the scouts' radar guns during a stellar high school career at St. Louis' Westminster Christian Academy, where former big-league closer Todd Worrell—who also played in Erie in 1982—was his pitching coach. “He taught me about pitching and how to conduct yourself, and he really helped me with my breaking ball,” Turner says of him. Even then Turner was noted for his dedication to the sport and his intense workout regimen. “I've always considered myself a hard worker,” Turner says. In 2009, represented by mega-agent Scott Boras, Turner eschewed college to sign a contract with the Detroit Tigers, receiving a then-record bonus for a high school pitcher of $5.5 million, a decision made as much for Detroit's development program as it was for the money. Since then, Turner has excelled at every level of the minor leagues and in such fashion that ESPN's Keith Law recently wrote of the pitcher, “this looks like a No. 1 starter in the making.” High praise for a kid who can't buy a beer.

The seventh inning doesn't go well for Turner. He enters with a 3-to-1 lead, and promptly gives up two groundball singles and walks a batter. Bad luck and shaky command combine to load the bases with none out.

Nobody stirs in the bullpen. Ray Burris sits on his hands in the dugout. The kid is on his own. “At that point, it's my game, you know?” says Turner, when asked about it later. “It's my game to lose. When you get in situations like that, a little bit of adversity, it helps you get better.”

“That's baseball teaching kids how to play the game,” says manager Chris Cron on his decision to leave Turner out there to dangle.

Turner battles Reading's Derrick Mitchell to a full count before the center fielder pokes a single to plate a run. Three to two, Erie. Still nobody out.

The next two batters go meekly. Designated hitter Tuffy Gosewisch pops up to second, and catcher Tim Kennelly whiffs. Two outs, bases loaded, Erie still with a one-run lead. Next up, old friend Michael Spidale, who had two of Reading's three hits in the previous six innings, including the home run.

Turner tries to nibble, tosses a curveball and then a fastball for balls before Spidale trickles a groundball single past the shortstop for the tying run.

At this point someone with less composure might kick at the mound or yell at the shortstop. Or worse. You might see that big sigh and collapsed shoulders of a pitcher who's just bled his confidence all over the mound. Bad outings can ruin a pitcher as surely as a bum elbow.

But Turner doesn't do any of those things. Instead, looks in at the next batter, Niuman Romero, a journeyman minor leaguer six years his senior, with that expression – Damn kid! – and induces a groundball out on the very next pitch.

Turner's done, and the SeaWolves take the game in extra innings.

“The seventh inning there is what minor league baseball is all about,” says Cron. “Learning how to pitch for a 20-year-old kid. Found a way out of it, gave us a chance to win.” Cron sits in front of a television camera and a loose semi-circle of reporters, looking directly at each one of us. “He's moving up the ladder, boys!” he says, genuine enthusiasm overcoming his professional persona.

Indeed, Turner won’t be in Erie for long. And he probably won't look back. “It's cold and rainy,” he says of his short stint here. “It warms up a little bit here, right?”

To catch Turner in action, check the Erie SeaWolves website for game schedules and ticket information.

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