A little over over a quarter of the 2014 season is in the books, and the sample sizes are creeping toward a representative level. Over the past couple of weeks, we have been taking somewhat deeper looks at some of this season’s more noteworthy players and performances to date. “Noteworthy” doesn’t always mean “best”, though it does in most cases. Today, we’ll take a look at the first quarter performance of Troy Tulowitzki, who has torn the National League limb from limb in the early going. Though he’s played at an All Star level for years now, he has taken things to a whole new level in 2014. Is this at all sustainable? Are the improvements in his offensive game real, or is this small sample size theater? How much does Coors Field have to do with all of this?
Troy Tulowitzki was selected with the seventh overall pick in the memorable 2005 draft. I will always have the order of a good chunk of that first round firmly embedded in my memory bank – One, Justin Upton, two, Alex Gordon, three, Jeff Clement, four, Ryan Zimmerman, five, Ryan Braun, six, Ricky Romero, seven, Tulo. Andrew McCutchen went 11th, Jay Bruce went 12th, Jacoby Ellsbury went 23rd, Matt Garza went 25th, Colby Rasmus went 28th……pretty good first round. I was a member of the Brewers’ front office then and remember that first round unfolding. For us, it was a very tough call between Braun and Tulowitzki. Though you really couldn’t go wrong with that coin flip, I’m pretty sure that most parties would agree that Tulowitzki has turned out to be the very best player among that group. Impact offense and defense, and still playing shortstop at age 29, with no position shift anywhere on the horizon.
It took Tulowitzki barely a calendar year and only 590 minor league at bats before arriving in Colorado to stay. He’s provided exceptional offense, not only for a shortstop, but for any position, hitting 24 or more homers five times, scoring 100 or more runs twice, driving in 100 runs once, hitting .300 three times, and slugging .500 five times. He is under contract with the Rockies through 2020, and is the face of the franchise.
As a shortstop, these numbers mark you as a true star. After all, in 2334 full-time shortstop seasons since 1901, the average OPS+ is 86.6. Among shortstops with a 10 or more full-time seasons at the position, only Honus Wagner (151) and Arky Vaughan (136) have higher career OPS+ figures than Tulowitzki’s 125. Ernie Banks and Alex Rodriguez would also rank higher, but both only had eight full-time shortstop seasons. Now Tulo’s got a few years before he has his decade in, but no one is moving him off of his position before then, so his slot is secure. He ranks ahead of the likes of Cal Ripken (118), Derek Jeter (116), Barry Larkin (116), Alan Trammell (110).
Tulo has posted OPS+ figures of 130 or better four times, all in a narrow band between 131 and 140. Though he is certainly aided and abetted by Coors Field (career .322-.397-.564 line), he hasn’t been too shabby on the road (.275-.349-.474). His platoon differential is real, but he has handled both lefties (.317-.403-.552) and righties (.292-.362-.507) quite well over his career. One of the few questions surrounding Tulowitzki entering this season was whether he had another gear, a higher, yet unattained level. This question has been answered with resounding authority.
What factors have driven his new level of production? Are they sustainable? Let’s take a look at his 2014 plate appearance outcome frequency and production by BIP type data for some hints. Keep in mind that the sample sizes remain small, so most of the contextual information incorporated below is from the 2013 season. No matter – we’re not searching for exactitude here, just looking for some indicators.
|FREQ – 2014|
|PROD – 2014|
|Tulowitzki||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
There are some interesting takeaways from the frequency table. First and foremost are the exceptional K and BB rates. He ranks very high among MLB regulars in both categories with percentile ranks of 13 and 98, respectively, and his K/BB ratio is the very best among NL regulars. Though his K and BB rates have always been solid, he has taken them to a new level this season, setting a strong foundation for his overall offensive game. Tulo has always had high popup rates – his career low percentile rank in this category is 63 – but his 90 percentile rank thus far in 2014 is a career high. His very high line drive rate (99 percentile rank) thus far in 2014 also stands out. This is a major departure for him, as he hasn’t posted an above MLB average liner rate since 2008. Best guess is that he will regress in this category as the season unfolds, taking some air out of his overall numbers.
The second table lists the production from and hints at the authority of Tulowitzki’s batted balls. The actual production allowed for each BIP type is listed in the “AVG” and “SLG” columns, and is converted into run values, compared to MLB average and scaled to 100 in the “REL PRD” column. Estimates of context, i.e., ballpark, player speed, team defense, simple regression and luck are applied in the “ADJ PRD” column in an attempt to isolate his true batting talent. For the purposes of this exercise, HBP are excluded from the OBP calculation, and SH and SF are counted as outs. Again – this is relatively small sample, with much subjectivity in the contextual adjustments, so let’s not get caught up in absolute precision here.
The most eyecatching line item reflects Tulo’s production on fly balls to date – a .500 AVG and 1.750 SLG, good for a REL PRD figure of 454, which would have ranked first in the majors in 2013, and is even better than Yasiel Puig‘s 2014 performance, which we took a look at last week. Coors Field is obviously of some help here – in particular, Tulowitzki has hit a couple of opposite field homers there this season that would have cleared the fence in a very small number of ballparks. Still, even after adjustment for context, his ADJ PRD on fly balls is 259. For comparison purposes, the closest 2013 regulars to this figure were David Ortiz (268), Mark Trumbo (258) and Hanley Ramirez (253). All guys who hit the ball really hard in the air last season.
Tulo also is achieving high levels of production on liners (126 REL PRD) and grounders (173), though adjustment for context brings those figures down to 107 and 122, respectively. Overall, he is batting an amazing .438 AVG-.862 SLG on all BIP, a 231 REL PRD that is adjusted down to 165 for context. Among 2013 regulars, Jay Bruce’s 164 ADJ PRD on all BIP was closest to Tulowitzki’s year-to-date 2014 mark. This is where the magic of Tulo’s K and BB rates kicks in – after adding the K and BB back to the equation, his overall ADJ PRD spikes upward to 198. Bruce’s 2013 185/63 K/BB ratio dropped his overall ADJ PRD to 129. Elite contact frequency and patience merged with elite ball-striking skills equals elite offensive player.
Let’s take a quick gander at the same info for 2013 to determine the sources of his improvement.
|FREQ – 2013|
|PROD – 2013|
|Tulowitzki||AVG||OBP||SLG||REL PRD||ADJ PRD|
You can see the major steps forward in K and BB rate, which are likely sustainable, and the increased liner rate, which likely isn’t. There are also significant steps forward this season in production on fly balls and line drives, which could well be real. Not shown in these numbers is Tulowitzki’s ongoing significant pull tendency, which has become more pronounced this season.
As many power hitters in their prime do, he has shown the ability to selectively pull in the air for distance. In 2013, he had a “pull ratio” – balls hit to LF/LCF divided by balls hit to RCF/RF, for a righty hitter – of 4.00 on the ground. This is a little above average, but doesn’t call for an infield overshift. In 2014, however, his pull ratio is up to 7.20 on the ground, into overshift territory. Tulowitzki is clearly becoming more pull-focused, which should open up areas of opportunity for opposing pitchers over time. For now, though, his elite contact frequency and plate discipline have fought off any negative effects. Going forward, however, his popup tendency and dead-pull profile offers above average batted-ball risk to go along with the high reward he brings. He will need that K and BB foundation – and his home park won’t hurt, either – somewhere down the road, as crazy as it might seem now as he enjoys his peak.
One last table, before we go. As I write this, Tulowitzki’s OPS+ stands at an utterly ridiculous 210. If the season ended today – which it doesn’t – this would be the best single-season mark ever posted by a shortstop. Below are the Top Ten:
There are only five names on this list, as Honus Wagner appears six times. Consider that all of his listed seasons were at or after age 30 – many of his best seasons were before 1901. Alex Rodriguez’ best season ranked 13th (2000, age 24, 162), Cal Ripken’s ranked 14th (1991, age 30, 162), Ernie Banks’ ranked 21st (1959, age 27, 156), and Derek Jeter’s ranked 27th (1999, age 25, 153). Tulowitzki’s previous best season ranked 59th (2013, age 28, 140). Tulo is crashing this list and crashing it hard this season. There is no position change in his immediate or intermediate future, and he is just attaining a new level of offensive dominance from which it will take awhile to descend.
There is no question – Coors make Troy Tulowitzki look better than he actually is. Probably about 25-30% better, offensively. There is also no question that his level of current offensive performance is unsustainable. His line drive rate, in particular, is going to be coming down. Injuries have also been a bugaboo, as he has been limited to 126 or fewer games in three of the last four, and four of the last six seasons entering 2014. On the other hand, the Rockies have only played 23 games at home so far this season, among the lowest in the majors. Most critically, however, he needs to be evaluated with the bat and glove relative to his peers at the shortstop position. Defensively, he is on pace for 21.1 UZR/150 this season. He remains a true plus shortstop. And offensively, no matter what nits we can pick with regard to his offensive game, it must be remember that the typical starting shortstop posts a 86.6 OPS+.
In a vacuum, a player with Tulowitzki’s offensive skills is a superstar, regardless of position. That player, playing the game’s most important defensive position, and playing it at a very high level, with no position shift in sight, is a generational player, if he can remain healthy. This is probably the best we will ever see from Troy Tulowitzki as an all-around player. Take a good look, enjoy it, and realize that it could well be a very long time before we ever again see anything like it.
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