Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Tulowitzki Terrorizing NL Pitching

Tulo has Colorado off to a rip-roaring start (KFFL)
I think people are finally catching on to just how good Troy Tulowitzki can be.

The Rockies are off to an amazing start--one game out of first in the NL West--and their star shortstop's big first month is a big reason why. After last night's 3-for-4 performance, Tulo's hitting an outrageous .421/.522/.794, easily the best batting line in baseball at the moment. He also has 11 doubles and nine home runs, leads the sport in total bases and has scored more runs than anyone in baseball. And April's National League Player of the Month is getting hotter, with seven multi-hit performances over his late eight games.

Barely a month into the season, he's already provided Colorado with close to four wins above replacement level. Tulowitzki's a great player--a three-time All-Star, two-time Gold Glove recipient and twice a top-five finisher in the MVP race--but he's never been this hot before (not even in September 2010, when he hit 14 home runs in a 15 game stretch and was named NL Player of the Month).

Now in his ninth season, Tulo has long been one of the more underrated talents in baseball. I have a lot of theories why for why that is:
  • He plays in Colorado, which is not on a coast and doesn't have a ton of people and lacks a proud baseball tradition. The Rockies are an expansion era team that's barely been around for 20 years and has never won a World Series game. They don't have the rich tradition or wide fan base that the Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals, and Cubs do.
  • Colorado simply hasn't been very good: before this year he had been on five losing teams in eight years, and one of the winning seasons produced only 83 victories. Tulo hasn't gotten much postseason exposure, playing in just 15 total playoff games. Last year the Red Sox played 16 postseason games. Tulo isn't a household name because he's not an October fixture like David Ortiz or Derek Jeter.
  • He plays half his game in Coors Field, a hitter's paradise, and so he gets dinged for that like every other Rockie who puts up big numbers. He's hit exceptionally well there over the course of his career and this year in particular, batting an absurd .608/.677/.1.098 in 15 home games so far.
  • Tulo isn't very flashy. Before this year he had never lead the league in any meaningful offenive cateogry. Offensively he's a .300-25-90 guy, which is obviously very good but won't win any batting titles or home run crowns. He plays good defense but doesn't dazzle the way Ozzie Smith did or Andrelton Simmons does. He's graceful and does everything well, a style that doesn't net much attention for whatever reason (see Carlos Beltran, Andruw Jones, Craig Biggio, etc.)
Still, it's kind of surprising that Tulo hasn't become one of the faces of baseball. I mean, a Gold Glove shortstop who's a career .298 hitter and averages 29 home runs and 104 RBI per 162 games ought to be a superstar, right?

Problem is, Tulowitzki has never played 162 games in a season. He's topped 150 twice, but both times were in the previous decade. From 2010 to 2013, he averaged just 110 games per season. His injury history on his Baseball Prospectus player page is scary long. He's been hurt pretty much everywhere at some point. I couldn't help but think of that old picture of Mickey Mantle with the arrows pointing to all his injuries.

I'm sure you could do something similar with Tulo, who's developed a reputation as one of those supremely talented guys who just cant stay on the field, similar to Larry Walker, Josh Hamilton, Barry Larkin and Jose Reyes. He missed 61 games in 2008, 40 in 2010, 19 the year after that, 115 in 2012, and 36 last year. That's the equivalent of about two full seasons, just in the past six years. And yet he's still managed five seasons with at least five bWAR, including four with more than six. When he's healthy, he's one of the best players in the game.

This year, health hasn't been an issue for the 29 year-old. He's played in 32 of Colorado's 35 games and been otherworldly, the driving force behind the National League's best offense. Plenty of Rockies are hitting well at the moment--Nolan Arenado and Justin Morneau and Charlie Blackmon and Carlos Gonzalez and Michael Cuddyer before he got hurt--but none of them can hold a candle to Tulo, who's reminding everyone that he's not just the best shortstop in baseball, but one of its best players period.

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