Is This Troy Tulowitzki’s Year?

In the early going, much of the coverage on the Rockies has centered around Charlie Blackmon‘s leap from irrelevance. Overshadowed during that time has been the even better start by Troy Tulowitzki. While generally regarded as one of the best players in the game, Tulowitzki frequently goes overlooked. But his hot start has put him in position to squarely insert himself in the Most Valuable Player Award discussion.

If you filter things a certain way, you can see that Tulowitzki is well on his way to being one of the best shortstops of all-time. If you filter for all qualified shortstops through age 28, as I have done here, you can see that Tulowitzki is tied for 12th all-time, and is in line with Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Lou Boudreau. That’s some pretty select company. If you sort that page by WAR however, you will see that Tulowitzki drops down to 25th place, just a shade under Jack Glasscock. One of the main reasons should be fairly simple to tease out — Tulowitzki just doesn’t have the career bulk that these players do. In fact, of the top 30 here, only four have fewer plate appearances than did Tulowitzki. When you filter by WAR/600 plate appearances, Tulowitzki sneaks up a few spots, to 20th. He likely doesn’t ascend any further because he has tried to play through some of these injury concerns, and that was particularly to his detriment in 2008 and 2012.

Those two seasons were the ones in which he has missed the most time, but more often than not, Tulowitzki has spent a good portion of each season in the dugout or trainers room, rather than on the field with his teammates. In his seven years as a full-time major leaguer heading into this one, Tulowitzki played 140 or more games in just three of them, and two of those three seasons were two of his first three seasons as a full-timer. This becomes more evident when you look at the individual greatest seasons by a shortstop. Tulowitzki’s best season by WAR was 2010, when he registered 5.9 WAR. It is just the 88th-best shortstop season of all-time. Certainly there’s no shame in that, but for a player as good as Tulowitzki you would think he would have at least one season higher on that list.

This just might be that season. Rockies watchers know that early in his career, Tulowitzki was dreadful in April. His worst full month in the majors is without question April 2008, when he hit just .152/.226/.238, which was “good” for just a 13 wRC+. He has improved his April numbers dramatically in recent years, and this year he came full circle. This April, he hit .364/.477/.727, good for a 212 wRC+ that is easily his best month ever, even better than his September run in 2010 when he hit 15 homers.

All of which makes you wonder if this is the year that he finally puts it all together. Certainly, there are a few markers working in his favor in the early going. He has walked seven more times than he has struck out. His walk rate is at a career high, as is his pitches per plate appearances seen. Both are numbers that increased last season, and that trend has continued in 2014’s infancy. His strikeout rate isn’t at its lowest, but it’s awfully close, as is his swinging strike percentage. And while his batting average on balls in play is currently high, it’s not so freakishly high that you couldn’t see him sustaining it for a full season, especially given the fact that his line drive percentage is so high. More importantly, he has cut way down on his infield fly ball percentage. This has always been a problem for Tulowitzki — since his debut, he has been among the league leaders in this regard.

This may lend more credence to the point Jeff Sullivan made last week, regarding the Rockies’ new hitting instructor. Certainly we’re going to need more than one month to determine whether or not Tulowitzki can keep his infield fly ball percentage under the league average for the first time in his career, but if he could, it would go a long way to helping his MVP campaign. Tulowitzki has finished as high as fifth in the MVP race, but thanks to his collection of injuries, he’s generally not discussed as an MVP candidate, even though he is generally acknowledged as one of the game’s best players. In our preseason staff predictions, only two of our 31 scribes pegged Tulowitzki as the NL MVP. Over at ESPN, only one of 42 predicted he would take home that hardware. In other words, it isn’t exactly shocking that Tulowitzki is playing this well, but at the same time it is a little surprising.

And, unlike years past, when Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds dominated the MVP discussion, the NL field is really wide open. There are a handful of players who you could peg as reasonably finishing with six to eight WAR apiece, and given good health, Tulowitzki should firmly be among that group. Of course, if Tulowitzki is to win the award, the Rockies will have to be reasonably in contention. Fortunately for him, the Rockies suddenly find themselves in the thick of things. The team didn’t start out with a very positive prognostication, but so far the team as a whole has been tearing the cover off the ball. In fact, star Carlos Gonzalez has been one of the team’s worst hitters. The bullpen has been solid as well. And while the rotation hasn’t been very good, it hasn’t been a disaster, and if they are able to get midseason boosts from Jon Gray and/or Eddie Butler, the Rockies may have the ammo to keep themselves in the hunt all season.

Of course, the most important factor in all of that is Tulowitzki’s health. While Tulowitzki doesn’t yet rival him in number of surgeries, he is building a career that could end up remarkably similar to another former Rockies player, Canadian masher Larry Walker. Walker had his one transcendent season in 1997, when he finally got into 150 games for the first time, and he took home the MVP for his troubles. If Tulowitzki can stay on the field, perhaps this will be his MVP year as well.

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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for the Boston Globe. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.

36 Responses to “Is This Troy Tulowitzki’s Year?”

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  1. Kevin Towers says:

    But can he stay healthy? THAT’S the question.

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    • Steve says:

      Why are you asking this? You trade away everyone you could’ve used when your injured players went down, See ya, Ian Kennedy. Peace, Skaggs.

      -9 Vote -1 Vote +1

  2. GilaMonster says:

    You forgot that Tulo doesn’t playing for a winning team.

    Put up an 8 WAR season? Sorry we’re going to give it to some bum because they “carried” their team to the playoffs.

    -20 Vote -1 Vote +1

  3. d_i says:

    Just had to jinx it didn’t you.

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  4. Ghost Hands says:

    Heh. Glasscock.

    +13 Vote -1 Vote +1

  5. KD says:

    Tulo is definitely a player, but can any of you think his HOME .556/.630/1.056 1.686 OPS can be maintained? The Colorado home field affects have given Tulo a major boost so far this year and all through his career. Tulo is the “flavor of the month” now, but as injuries and recognition of the home field boost he is getting will just have him be an all-star and “great player” but not MVP (nor Hall of Fame) People saw that with Larry Walker and will soon recognize Todd Helton as merely great but not HOF worthy for the same reasons.

    -31 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Cicero says:

      You realize that his road games came mainly in SF, MIA, SD, and LAD and he is “only” a .900OPS premier defensive SS?

      +15 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Stank Asten says:

      He hit better in his away games than Jeter.

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    • The Party Bird says:

      The fact that you seem to think those numbers are because of Coors and not because he only has half of a month of home data is alarming.

      +16 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • Robert Hombre says:

      You’re also aware that wRC+ also takes Coors into account, I assume.

      +14 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • LG says:

      “Tulo is definitely a player, ”

      Good, we can all agree on that

      +31 Vote -1 Vote +1

    • chuckb says:

      “recognition of the home field boost…”

      Yeah, because people just haven’t figured out that Tulo plays for the Rockies or that Coors Field is hitter-friendly. Once those messages get out, people will realize just how mediocre Tulo really is.

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    • Alex says:

      Yeah, you’re right. We should totally discount him because EVERYONE goes into Coors and hits 556/630/1.056.

      Anyone who says “Tulo” and “flavor of the month” in the same sentence should be shot.

      Also, go back and look up Walker’s 1997 splits. He hit just as well on the road as he did at home.

      Vote -1 Vote +1

  6. Antonio Bananas says:

    I only read this article because “Glasscock” was highlighted on the preview paragraph. Maybe there’s a correlation between the number of times “Glasscock” or associated words are seen in the preview and article views.

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    • Richard Glasscock says:

      Excellent, I’ve recently submitted my resume to Fangraphs. My articles will be a hit!

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  7. Jim Garman says:

    Rip won an MVP in 91 and the O’s were putrid. This is a bad example, I know,Rip was unconscious . It could happen for Tulo.

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  8. Reese says:

    There is no “Most Valuable Player discussion” on May 2nd, because of the small amount of games played. There shouldn’t be an earnest discussion until August 2nd.

    Also, Tulo would have this award on lock down nearly every year if he didn’t get hurt…every year. His annual owie is around the corner.

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    • Jason B says:

      August 1: we can’t discuss the MVP award! Not enough games played!

      August 2: that’s plenty of data now. Who’s taking home the hardware?

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    • Cicero says:

      ZIPS now has him at 7.5WAR in 134 games projected that is worth talking about

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  9. Nostress says:

    Everyone’s always known that Troy Tulowitzki is an elite player, the only concern about him was his health. What I find most interesting recently though, is the fact that the normally lefty-food Shin Soo Choo has been hitting over 400 against lefties this season, and is putting up quite nice offensive numbers overall in the AL leadersboard.

    Sure, statisticians always love to say ‘small sample’, but this year it seems like he’s really overcome his weakness. I don’t know the exact numbers, but he has hit more doubles and triples against lefties than the counterparts, and even hit a home run against a lefty for the first time in 3~4 years(?)

    Is this kind of thing an improvement at his age 31 season? I’m quite confused why there is no mention of him in fangraphs, although he’s pretty well known (mostly for his contract) throughout baseball and his numbers seem to skyrocket.

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    • Cicero says:

      Choo has always hit LHP, just not anywhere near as well as RHP his current .483/.590/.655 line vLHP is beautiful but his .172ISO(measure of power) is still much lower than his .193ISO vRHP despite his .585BABIP vLHP seems to indicate that about twice the league average amount of hits vs LHP are falling for him

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  10. griggs says:

    The thing I keep waiting for from the Saber community regarding Tulo is an explanation for why SS defense is easier at elevation.

    Vote -1 Vote +1

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