The best player in baseball so far has been Troy Tulowitzki. He made it to 4 WAR before any other player made it to 3 WAR. Tulowitzki isn’t the entire reason why the Rockies have been a pleasant surprise, but he’s more responsible for their success than any other player is responsible for his own team’s success, and as long as Tulowitzki is able to stay on the field, he ought to resemble an MVP candidate. Healthy Tulowitzki is always an MVP candidate.
Let’s break that WAR down a little bit. As the best player in baseball, Tulowitzki has been the best hitter in baseball. It’s true that he spends half his time in a hitter’s paradise, but we have numbers that adjust for that, and the adjustment is built into the fact. The most conspicuous part of Tulowitzki’s hot streak has been his offensive productivity. You don’t just overlook a .764 slugging percentage. But another thing that’s true is that Tulowitzki has been among the best defenders in baseball. He’s on track for a career-best UZR. He’s already at a dozen Defensive Runs Saved, after finishing last year at +6. We’ve long known that Tulowitzki is a good defensive shortstop, but thus far he’s been out of his mind, just as he’s been at the plate. So one wonders: just what has he been doing?
This is going to lean on some Inside Edge data, and this is going to look somewhat similar to last week’s piece about Andrelton Simmons. With Simmons, the idea was to explain the curiously modest DRS. With Tulowitzki, the idea is to explain the curiously amazing DRS. What has he done, specifically, and what might be learned from all this?
Let’s do a super-quick review. Inside Edge classifies defensive plays. One classification is Impossible — these are plays with a 0% chance of getting turned into outs. The next classification is Remote — these are plays with a 1-10% chance of getting turned into outs, in the opinion of the observer. The full list:
- Impossible (0%)
- Remote (1-10%)
- Unlikely (10-40%)
- Even (40-60%)
- Likely (60-90%)
- Routine (90-100%)
The classifications are subjective, but they tend to hold up pretty well. Indeed, remote plays are usually not made. Routine plays are usually routine. Last year, Brandon Crawford led baseball with five remote plays turned into outs. The year before, Mike Moustakas had five, and Alcides Escobar had six. Between 2012-2013, Troy Tulowitzki converted just one single remote play. He converted six unlikely plays. He was a good shortstop, but he didn’t make a habit of pulling off the extraordinary.
This year, Tulowitzki has already converted four remote plays. He’s added a pair of unlikely plays. The defensive numbers suggest Tulowitzki has done the near impossible, and Inside Edge backs that up. If you look at the plays counted against him, Tulowitzki has failed to convert a handful of impossible plays, and 11 remote plays, and two even plays. That’s it. All the easy stuff has been converted, all the slightly less-easy stuff has been converted, and a lot of the difficult stuff has been converted. Tulowitzki still hasn’t been charged with an error. He really has gone nuts across the board, performing at an overall superhuman level.
So as in the Simmons post, let’s look at some defensive plays. Here are Tulowitzki’s six most difficult converted plays, in chronological order. As noted earlier, four of these were classified as remote, and two were classified as unlikely. These plays are a big reason why Tulowitzki’s defensive numbers are absurd. Basically, we’re partially deconstructing DRS and UZR, so you can see the plays supporting the calculations.
.Gif warning, by the way. It’s too late, I guess.
Play No. 1
From April 1, it’s a remote play, converted against a quick Marcell Ozuna. The talent is readily obvious. Tulo covered a lot of ground, backhanded the ball cleanly, and threw across the infield in midair while falling away. It’s the Derek Jeter play, if the Derek Jeter play involved range, and Ozuna was out by a fraction of a step. It’s easy to see why this was valuable. It’s also easy to see how this could’ve gone differently. Notice that Tulowitzki was helped by the first baseman stepping into foul territory while keeping his foot on the bag. With very little difference, this could’ve been an infield single, for which no one would’ve blamed the shortstop.
Play No. 2
Hey, it’s kind of that same play again, this time on April 7, this time against a slower Jose Abreu. It’s an insane backhand and an insane off-balance throw, but once more, you can see how this could’ve been an RBI infield single. Tulo’s throw was mostly accurate, but it required both a stretch and a dig, since it was a little off target and short-hopped Justin Morneau. Tulo did almost all the hard work, but Morneau completed the play, and for him it wasn’t routine.
Play No. 3
The first two were considered remote — this was considered unlikely. Nevertheless, Tulo made a play behind second base and made another awkward throw to nail a runner by a fraction of a fraction of a second. Had the runner been someone other than Nick Hundley, he might’ve been safe, but had the runner been someone other than Nick Hundley, Tulowitzki might’ve lined up differently. This play is just nonsense. Also nonsense: the play that happened literally two pitches later.
Play No. 4
Right after the unlikely play on Hundley, there was this remote play on Robbie Erlin. Seriously, right after, separated by maybe a minute. The ball took a funny bounce off the mound, requiring Tulowitzki to adjust his path in an instant, and then he charged and bare-handed and got the pitcher-runner by a blink. The throw, once more, wasn’t perfect, but you can forgive the imperfection, on account of the perfection of everything else. Morneau had to stretch, but stretch he did.
Play No. 5
An unlikely fielder’s choice, with Joaquin Arias batting on April 22. The stop was flawless. The throw was flawless. Tulowitzki didn’t just save a run — he recorded an out, on a ball that probably usually gets through. Stop and think for a moment about how difficult this is. Look away from the computer and imagine that you’re Tulowitzki, doing this in this game. Wow, you’re amazing!
Play No. 6
This is classified as remote, and Tulowitzki recorded not one out, but two. The hard part was the diving catch — doubling off the runner was automatic, although it was cute of the runner to try. I will say I’m not sure this was a 1-10% play; it’s easier to make a diving catch than a diving stop and throw. But it’s definitely a low-percentage play, so Tulowitzki gets a mountain of credit.
That doesn’t completely explain Tulowitzki’s defensive numbers — there are also all the easier plays, each of which he’s made. Pitch-framing has two components: preserving strikes in the zone, and getting strikes out of the zone. Defense also has two components: not screwing up the routine, and pulling off the difficult. Tulowitzki’s done everything, so for that reason, he’s probably earned his defensive statistics. You can also see, though, why those numbers should settle down. Some of the amazing plays required assistance from the first baseman. Some just barely got the runner, where the slightest difference might’ve made the biggest difference. I think you can see, even in these six plays, that Tulowitzki is an outstanding shortstop who’s also gotten a little lucky. Sometimes, he’s going to be a little too slow. Sometimes, his throws are going to be a little bit off. He’s running too high a rate of converting the most difficult plays in the game, and that’s too extreme to sustain.
But it’s also something extreme that’s happened. Tulowitzki has made all these plays, and so many other ones. How do you explain Troy Tulowitzki already having 4 WAR? A slugging percentage that starts with a 7, an on-base percentage that almost starts with a 5, and an assortment of almost impossible defensive plays as a shortstop. No, Tulowitzki probably isn’t going to finish with the greatest single season ever. But he could certainly finish with the greatest single season of the season. What’s in the bag is in the bag, and what has yet to happen is going to involve Troy Tulowitzki, and all of his skills.
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