Here are my updated shortstop tier rankings:
Tier One: Troy Tulowitzki
Tier Two: Everyone else
Tulowitzki has been that damn good, and while Paul Swydan did a great job covering Tulowitzki’s early breakout last week, it’s worth putting the hot start – 236 wRC+ and 3.1 WAR and all – in context for fantasy baseball.
Before we dive in, allow me a Barry Horowitz – Tulowitzki being fantasy baseball’s top player was one of my 10 Bold Predictions before the season. At the time, I wrote:
Tulowitzki hasn’t had 600 plate appearances since 2011 and has only reached that mark three times in his career. That’s an issue, but injuries are somewhat random, and Tulo was the league’s 24th most valuable player on a per-game basis in 2013. Hanley Ramirez represents a threat to the top of the shortstop ranks, but I’ll roll the dice with Tulowitzki as the premiere option. Would 30 homers, a half dozen steals and a .300 average be enough to make him the league’s top fantasy option? It was close-but-not-quite in 2011, when Tulowitzki’s runs stayed artificially low, but that also feels like the 50th-percentile 600-plate appearance projection.
Well, that .300-30HR-6SB estimate seems off now, doesn’t it? Tulowitzki is hitting an unsustainable .408 and Steamer and ZiPS project him to finish at .329 and .333, respectively. As for the homers, 30 now seems certain even without a clean bill of health the rest of the way, and the run and RBI totals would each crack 100 safely if he played a full season.
Add it all up and Tulowitzki has not just been fantasy baseball’s best shortstop by a mile, he’s fantasy baseball’s best overall player by a significant margin. He’s the only player currently with a standard score greater than 2.0, something only Miguel Cabrera accomplished last season and something that wasn’t done at all in 2012.
Meanwhile, Hanley Ramirez, the man assumed to be Tulowitzki’s counterpart in the top tier of shortstops, hasn’t quite lived up to the lofty standards his 2013 half-season set. He’s been good, but a batted ball distance decline is worrisome, and he’s just the 14th-best shortstop so far. The next tier of names – Jean Segura, Ian Desmond and Everth Cabrera – have all failed to meet early expectations, too. In fact, six of the consensus top-20 shortstops don’t currently rank in the top-20 and only three of the preseason top-10 rank in the top-10. That’s to be expected given the noise apparent over a one-month sample (and given the general fallibility of the position), but it also highlights how if you spent your money on Tulowitzki, you’ve been gifted a huge edge over those who purchased in the next tiers and still an edge over those who waited out the Jonathan Villars and Jimmy Rollinses of the world.
If I were re-tiering the position, which I’ll do next week, Tulowitzki would, in fact, be in his own class. He’s been that damn good, and it’s not like this level of performance is new – since 2009, Tulowitzki has a 140 wRC+, and Ramirez’ 130 mark is the only shortstop mark anywhere close (Jose Reyes clocks in third at 114). His 26.9 WAR is six more than anyone else at the position in that span. And this, despite ranking just 15th among shortstops in plate appearances in that time.
And that’s obviously the one major factor. We know there’s probably no shortstop who can hit like Tulowitzki over a long stretch, but we have no idea how much he’ll be able to play. He’s averaged just 512 plate appearances per season since becoming a regular and has cracked 530 just three times. The injuries are mostly unrelated, with DL trips coming from a thigh strain, a thumb cut, a wrist fracture, groin surgery, and a rib fracture. He’s also had minor issues with his hip and multiple non-DL thigh strains on both sides. But this isn’t a Reyes situation where the same injuries keep flaring up year after year. We don’t know a lot about injuries, so we can’t say Tulowitzki is just “injury prone,” since he may just be unlucky (or, you know, a big giant wussy, right?).
The point is, you could sell high on Tulowitzki, anticipating an injury, but the drop-off between him and the next group of shortstops is so extreme right now – and his trade value surely not commensurate with his performance given his health record – that you’re better off riding this out and enjoying the insane production for as long as he stays on the field. Which might be 600 plate appearances, anyway, in which case, congratulations on your likely podium finish.
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