When Nik Turley took the mound for the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2020 it was his first time pitching in a professional game since 2017. Let’s examining the season that was for Turley and what his future could hold.
For much of the 2020 season the bullpen was in flux for the Pittsburgh Pirates. One of the pitchers who saw their role grow as the season progressed was left-handed pitcher Nik Turley. By the end of the season, Pirate manager Derek Shelton was using Turley in high-leverage situations.
2020 was the first time that Turley had pitched professionally since 2017. Turley pitched at the Double-A, Triple-A and MLB level for the Minnesota Twins in 2017. Following the 2017 season, the problems started to set in for Turley.
Turley was desiganted for assignment by the Twins in November of 2017. The Pittsburgh Pirates would then claim him off waivers. After being claimed by the Pirates, Turley would test positive for performance enhancing drugs. This led to him missing the entire 2018 season due to suspension.
Turley was then slated to start the 2019 season with Triple-A Indianapolis. Well, injuries had another idea. Due to injuries, Turley missed all of 2019 as well. This put him in a less than envious position entering 2020.
Entering the 2020 season Turley was out of minor league options. This, combined with extended rosters due to the COVID-19 pandemic, led to Turley making the Opening Day roster for the Pittsburgh Pirates when Opening Day finally rolled around in late July.
During the shortened 2020 season, Turley logged 21.2 innings of work in 25 games for the Pittsburgh Pirates. Turley posted a 4.98 ERA, 3.88 FIP and a 5.14 DRA. While his home run rate was a strong 0.42 HR/9, he struggled with control (12.0% walk rate) and his 21.7% strikeout rate was lower than you would like to see for a reliever.
Turley used two pitches in 2020 – a four-seamed fastball and a curveball. His four-seamer averaged 94.2 MPH which ranked in the 68th percentile in baseball, and this was paired with being in the 95th percentile in spin rate. With this combination, it is a surprise the pitch generated just a 22.6% whiff rate. That said, opposing batters did go just 8-for-54 against the pitch including just four extra base hits (.259 slugging percentage).
The curveball was also an effective pitch for Turley. Opposing batters were just 5-for-21 off the pitch, and the .381 slugging percentage was not terrible. The pitch generated a 37.1% whiff rate and was in the 84th percentile in baseball in spin rate.
Opposing batter had an average exit velocity against Turley of 98.1 MPH, which was right about leageue average. He limited hard contact to just 34.5% of the time, also right about leageu average, and his 5.2% barrel rate was better than league average.
Turley’s biggest issue in 2020 was, undoubtedly, his control. He threw just 47.5% of his pitches in the strike zone and his first pitch strike rate was 56.5%. While that is not a terrible first pitch strike rate, you definitely would like to see it be higher.
Entering 2021, Turley will need to improve his control. It is not a guarantee that he will enter spring training with a spot in the bullpen locked up with the Pittsburgh Pirates. That said, he should have an inside track to a spot. While he did struggle with control in 2020, he flashed enough in a small sample size to be an intriguing bullpen option moving forward.