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Flash of brilliance

Champion native Turner breaking through at Kent State

Kent State Athletics / David Dermer Kent State University’s Michael Turner had a breakout sophomore season for the Golden Flashes. His junior year was cut short, or the Champion High School graduate might have been picked in the MLB Draft earlier this month.

The coronavirus pandemic has caused all sorts of problems for college athletes from the Mahoning Valley, and Michael Turner is certainly one of them.

The former Champion High School star was entering his junior season at Kent State after a breakout sophomore campaign that vaulted him into one of the top 200 rated players going into the Major League Baseball draft.

Then COVID-19 happened.

Bye, bye junior year. He and the Golden Flashes hadn’t even played a home game before play was stopped. Turner, a 6-foot-1, 195-pound catcher, was off to a bit of a slow start, hitting .259 through 14 games after batting .369 as a sophomore.

Normally, there would have been plenty of time for Turner to find a hot streak and lead Kent State to another promising season. Not this year.

Kent State Athletics / David Dermer Kent State University’s Michael Turner hit .369 as a sophomore and became one of Mid-American Conference's best hitters.

Then the MLB draft, which is normally 40 rounds, was cut down to five. Most experts had Turner going in rounds 6-10. The tough luck was frustrating, but it was also motivating for Turner, who wasn’t chosen in this month’s draft.

“I feel like this year that I should’ve been in the top five (rounds) honestly,” Turner said. “If I would’ve had a junior season, I would’ve proved that to a lot of people. That’s something I want to make a statement about next year. With everyone we have coming back, our team has a really good chance to be super successful.”

So does Turner.

He joined Kent after leading Champion to a state title in 2016. That senior year was the first time he had ever played catcher (at any level), but the Golden Flashes of Kent were so impressed by Turner’s skill set, they offered a scholarship right away.

“The way I committed to Kent is I went to a camp, and they wanted me to catch,” he recalled. “I had never caught in a game before, so I had to put that down as my secondary position (when registering). They saw that I had a really good pop time to second base, it was like a 1.7 or a 1.68 or something crazy, so they pulled me out of the game and offered me then. I straight-up told them, ‘Hey, I never really caught before.’ And they said, ‘We’ll teach you.’ So, I know that was something that they really liked, and that’s probably my best tool really is my arm strength.”

Kent State Athletics / David Dermer Kent State University’s Michael Turner is one of the Mid-American Conference's best catchers, but the versatile Champion High School graduate can also play third and first base.

The other nuances of catching took a little more time.

Simply “receiving” the ball isn’t as simple as some may think, he said. Framing a pitch and setting up in various areas are key parts of catching, and pitchers rely on a catcher’s ability to do both. In fact, pitchers and catchers rely on each other for a quite a bit, including knowing which pitches to call and when to call them.

Turner’s coach at Kent State, former New York Mets outfielder Jeff Duncan, was impressed that Turner came in as a true freshman and quickly learned the intricacies of the position.

“Our catchers, I’d say they call 98 percent of the game,” Duncan said. “Getting a feel for pitchers, developing a relationship with the staff is really important, and that was a big adjustment for Michael — becoming a catcher. We put a lot of stress on our catchers here. He’s handled it really well. What a lot of people think, especially in the professional world, is that he’s a really good baseball player, not just a catcher. He can catch, he can play third, he can play first. He’s very versatile.”

Turner just recently made some changes to his catching style.

Instead of the normal “crouch” position, he’s catching from one knee — a method that’s being used more in the major leagues over the past few years.

“You can make a pitch look a lot better,” Duncan said. “You can get a little lower, you can show a better target, you’ll be quieter behind the dish. It’s something that’s kind of new. He does both. He’ll go to your standard setup, and he can also go to one knee — each knee, really. That’s something that he worked on big time over the winter and then brought that into the spring. The art of catching has changed in the last few years.”

Not much has changed with his hitting.

Turner has always been productive at the plate. Duncan called him “as dynamic as they come” and “one of the best hitters in the league.” Turner said his swing is the same as it was when he was at Champion. His consistent approach is due, in large part, to his hitting coach being is his father, Brian Turner, a former pro player drafted by Yankees in 1989.

“If anything has changed, it’s been my mindset,” Turner said.

He batted .280 as a true freshman, with 30 hits and 21 RBIs in 29 starts. He hit .369 as a sophomore, with 12 doubles, four homers and 42 RBIs. He also walked more times than he struck out (25 to 23) and was named first-team all-conference.

Duncan wasn’t surprised by the early-season woes during his junior year. He has seen it before as a college coach.

“Sometimes when it’s your draft year, especially when you’re a junior and getting attention from professional teams, sometimes they tend to press early on, and they kind of figure it out as they go,” Duncan said. “I think that was his case. He was trying to do a little bit too much, which was abnormal for him.

“He’s a guy that uses the whole field — he’s gap to gap. He would hit home runs, a double that leaves the park type thing. He’s really good at that, and that’s his strength. He kind of left that a little bit, and I think a lot of it had to do with a little bit of pressure.”

He’ll have a chance to make up for it.

Turner will enter his senior year as one of the top prospects in the Mid-American Conference. He said he has put on 22 pounds of muscle since his freshman year. His focus on improving in all aspects has the 21-year-old on the verge of a big-league contract. He could have signed one after the draft, but Turner bet on himself and on Kent State.

“The whole draft thing was cool,” he said. “I liked watching the fifth round, just waiting to get a call. It didn’t happen, so I’m going back (to school), but the 14th (of June) was the first day teams could call for free-agent deals, and the most they could offer was $20,000, and I got a ton of calls asking for that.

I kind of want to bet on myself, and think I could do a little bit better than that next year. We’ll see how that goes. It was definitely exciting.”

Maybe COVID-19 was a blessing in disguise for Turner.

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