Without making an exhaustive list, a lot more has gone wrong for the Colorado Rockies this year than has gone right. But through it all, Troy Tulowitzki has been the team’s anchor, and he is well on his way to the best season in his still young career.
While he’s never had poor discipline, one of the reasons for the improvement in Tulowitzki’s game has been his judgment at the dish. In his four full seasons prior to this one, Tulowitzki’s strikeout percentage was 16.64%. His strikeout rate had dropped steadily from his abbreviated call-up in 2006 through 2008 before spiking in 2009. But taking this season into account, that 2009 spike stands out as an outlier, as his strikeout rates in the other three years are 13.3%, 14.7% and 10.9%. That 10.9% is this year’s mark, and it represents a career low. As a result, his walk-to-strikeout ratio is at a career-high 0.87, and it ranks 18th overall in the Majors among qualified hitters.
The improved discipline does not scream fluky either, as Tulowitzki’s approach has also changed for the better. One rate that has dropped or stayed nearly the same in every year of his career is his SwStr%. From 10.9% in his ’06 call-up, Tulowitzki has slowly but surely reduced his percentage down to its veritable nubs. This season, he is swinging less, and making contact more than he ever has before. As a result, his SwStr% is down to a measly 4.2%, which is a remarkable number for someone with his power. It’s the 16th-lowest mark in the game among qualified hitters, but most of the players who perform better in this area are featherweights — only Ian Kinsler qualifies as a bopper. Taken together, the 15 are slugging just .386, and have a lowly .105 ISO. Contrast that to Tulowitzki’s .540 and .238 marks, respectively, and you can see just how unique his skill set has become.
Of course, that doesn’t mean he’s perfect. One area where Tulowitzki’s game is ripe for criticism is his performance in high leverage situations. No Rockies fan is likely to ever forget how Tulowitzki waved at a Brad Lidge slider with the potential winning run on first base to end the 2009 National League Division Series. He is sometimes accused of trying too hard to succeed in pressure situations, and that is borne out in the numbers. For his career, Tulowitzki has a -2.94 Clutch score. He was next to last among qualified hitters in the metric in 2009, and only six hitters fared worse last season. He is performing better this season, but is still in the bottom 25. All things considered, it’s a minor concern, but it does show that Tulowitzki does have at least one aspect of his game that he can still iron out. Because the rest of his game is more than ironed out at this point.
Early in his career, consistency was a watch word with Tulowitzki. He was branded as a slow starter, and wRC+ marks of 77, eight (yes, eight) and 82 in April ’07, ’08 and ’09 supported that claim. Through May 2009, Tulowitzki had mixed spells of brilliance — like July of 2008, when he hit .418/.468/.582 — with periods of fallowness. For instance, the very next month — August 2008 — he hit .258/.336/.361. Up through May of 2009, he never had more than two consecutive months with a wRC+ mark of 100 or better. But in his 15 months of baseball since, he has only failed to produce a wRC+ mark of 100 twice — a 98 in April of last year, and a 64 in May of this year. Critics used that poor May to once again harp on Tulo’s supposed lack of consistency, but compared to earlier in his career, it’s a blip on the radar. While his performance may swing skyward from month-to-month, the matching downward swings have all but evaporated.
In fact, Tulowitzki may just be the best player in the National League. Using WAR, he and Roy Halladay stand atop the heap as six-win players this year. On the offensive side, his wOBA, wRC+ and ISO are all top 25, and on defense, he ranks fourth overall in UZR and is tied for eighth in DRS. He is poised to have just the 31st season with 30 or more homers by a shortstop in the Integrated Era (1947-present), and if he does so, he will become just the sixth shortstop in that time frame to do so in consecutive seasons, joining Vern Stephens, Ernie Banks, Nomar Garciaparra, Alex Rodriguez and Miguel Tejada. But, as Eno Sarris showed yesterday, seasons themselves can be arbitrary endpoints. What happens if we sort by the past calendar year? Well, the results are even better — the top two names on the leader board are Jose Bautista, 9.3 WAR, and Troy Tulowitzki, 9.2. And over the past two calendar years, Tulo vaults the top, as his 15.0 WAR in that timeframe is tied with Justin Verlander for number one in baseball. No matter how you slice it, Tulowitzki has put himself in rarified air.
To say that Tulowitzki is the best, or one of the best shortstops in the game has become cliché. In what may turn out to be his best season, it’s time to remove the word “shortstop” from the description. And when one considers that he’s still just 26 years old, and that he’s still getting better, we may be witnessing this greatness for many years to come.
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