The Brewers relied heavily on rookies in 2023, but their only prospects to break camp with the team were Garrett Mitchell and Brice Turang. After trading incumbent Kolten Wong to the Seattle Mariners, Milwaukee handed the keys to second base to its 2018 first-round pick.
Turang lived up to his prospect reputation and then some defensively. He racked up 12 defensive runs saved, tying Nico Hoerner for the most by a National League second baseman despite playing 250 fewer innings.
As outstanding as he was in the field, Turang was anemic at the plate. He slashed .218/.285/.300 for a 60 wRC+. By that measurement, he tied Tim Anderson as the second-worst offensive player in baseball to receive at least 400 plate appearances.
Save for a three-week demotion to Triple-A Nashville in June, Turang remained the regular starter at second base against right-handed pitching. The Brewers stuck with him due to his elite glove and a lack of desirable alternatives. That may not be the case next season.
It’s hardly surprising that Turang struggled in his first exposure to big-league pitching. His offensive profile as a prospect never foreshadowed immediate MLB success. Furthermore, many prospects experience a good deal of failure as rookies. It’s a necessary part of the development process.
Turang’s offensive shortcomings do not fall so cleanly into that category. They raise serious questions about his long-term outlook. So alarming was the nature of Turang’s struggles that his grip on a starting role—or even a roster spot—is not safe.
Young hitters are often unpolished, and big-league pitchers can pick them apart by attacking their weaknesses with better location and sequencing than the competition in the upper minors.
Turang’s fellow freshmen serve as examples.
Joey Wiemer held his own against fastballs as a rookie, slugging .487 with a .355 wOBA. He slugged .222 against breaking pitches. Sal Frelick batted .351 against fastballs but hit .145 against breaking balls.
Wiemer whiffed on nearly 40% of his swings against breaking balls. His load and swing make him vulnerable to soft stuff going away from him, and he needs notable mechanical adjustments to fix that.
Frelick made contact on breaking pitches at an exceptional rate, but his 80-mph average against velocity and 3-degree average launch angle against such pitches indicate that he couldn’t catch them on the sweet spot of the bat, often rolling over them instead.
Pitchers exposed both young hitters with high-caliber breaking pitches, albeit in slightly different ways.
Turang differs from them in that he didn’t hit much of anything pitchers threw at him. He slugged .302 against breaking balls, which is better than Wiemer and Frelick but still exceptionally poor. He slugged .278 with a 27.6% whiff rate against off-speed pitches. Most alarming was his inability to do any damage against fastballs.
Turang was one of the worst fastball hitters in the sport. He slugged .306 with a .287 wOBA, and his -20.7 run value against fastballs was the third-worst tally among all hitters.
He especially struggled with velocity, hitting .117 and slugging .133 for a .200 wOBA in plate appearances ending with fastballs of 95 mph or greater.
Turang’s swing looked long and slow early in the season, but making contact doesn’t appear to be a major concern after he made some adjustments during and after his demotion. He closed off his stance, brought his bat a touch closer to his shoulder and experimented with a toe-tap instead of a leg kick in two-strike counts.
His contact levels improved after the changes. Turang cut his swinging strike rate from 10% to 7% after returning and his strikeout rate from 27% to 17%.
What didn’t improve was his ability to hit. Turang posted a 51 wRC+ before his demotion and a 67 wRC+ afterward. While his plate discipline improved, his already poor quality of contact worsened.
Turang bottomed out in September, slashing .211/.269/.225 with one extra-base hit. By that point, the Brewers seemingly came to terms with the fact that he was not going to hit. After laying down three bunts all year through Sept. 13, Turang bunted five times within the final two-and-a-half weeks of the regular season, twice for a hit and thrice for a sacrifice.
While it’s perfectly normal for rookie hitters to experience difficulties, they must show semi-regular glimpses of potential and demonstrate they have tools that can blossom with more experience. The troubling reality is that Turang showed next to nothing offensively and lacked a discernible base for growth.
Turang made contact at a solid rate, particularly after his midseason adjustments, but barely demonstrated any power. He finished near the bottom of the league in most quality of contact metrics and in the 37th percentile in max exit velocity. He was one of the game’s worst fastball hitters, nor did he hit mistakes, finishing with the worst run value in baseball on pitches over the heart of the plate.
Those last two abilities are prerequisites for hitting at a competent level, and Turang’s inability to do either is a bright red flag regardless of his rookie status. The Brewers know that and are seemingly establishing contingency plans.
In November, they acquired Oliver Dunn in a minor trade with the Philadelphia Phillies. Dunn spent all of 2023 in Double-A as a 25-year-old, lacks Turang’s defensive pedigree, and has no MLB experience. However, he has shown tools that could translate to production in the big leagues. Dunn smacked 21 home runs and posted a .396 on-base percentage, producing a 148 wRC+. He sustained that output with a monster showing in the Arizona Fall League.
Like Turang, Dunn is a left-handed hitting infielder who can play second base. He could be in direct competition with Turang to start at the keystone in 2024.
The Brewers still have some room for patience with Turang, as they can option him to the minor leagues for two more seasons. Still, his rookie showing inspired more doubt than optimism about his long-term future, and he must ease those concerns soon to remain part of the organization’s plans.