Troy Tulowitzki: The Change

Today's Counting Rocks is gonna be a lot of just that: number vomit. But I think everyone will appreciate it because we'll be talking about everybody's favorite shortstop, Omar Qu Troy Tulowitzki.

Now there's a lot to look at here, stuff that we know, stuff that we don't know, things that we may not have recognized as the season wore on. My goal here is to shed a little light on areas where Tulo has grown and areas where he could still stand to improve.

Now there are only 2 areas I can really address for Tulowitzki, given the nature of this column: his offense, and his defense. Now, because I want to leave you all on the more exciting note, I'll start with his defense, because it's not all that exciting. It is more controversial, however. Also, if I end up writing way too much about fielding, we might have to stretch this into two articles.

Let's begin.

Now as per usual, I'm going to cite fielding metrics. If you're not a fan already, you might just want to skip this week's installment. I myself will admit that I'm not a giant fan of defensive metrics (especially in terms of quantifying fielding), there's a lot missing still, but at the very least, they can display trends, so they're worth discussing.

So for starters, let's go with an easy positive. The double play.

After 2007, we thought we'd never see a DP combination like Kazuo Matusi and Tulo. Well, thank our front office for not giving up on Clint Barmes, because offense aside, we didn't miss a step when he took over the ol' 4 spot.

Anyhow, numbers. Sorting the Rockies' UZR metrics by their Double Play range, Tulo and Barmes are both in the black, and they lead the team in that area. Which makes perfect sense, because the 6-4-3/4-6-3 is obviously the most common DP, and Ubaldo Jimenez, Jason Marquis, and Aaron Cook just kept serving up ground balls for those two to convert into two quick outs. It's obviously biased in that regard, but Tulo was worth 1.1 runs above average and Barmes 0.7 runs. Interestingly enough, Barmes was worth an additional 0.3 runs in his 108 innings at SS.

Moving on. Join past the jump and we'll look at the rest of Tulo's statistical picture.

Fielding percentage, the classic fielding stat, showed Tulo at .986, missing his 2007 number by .001. UZR tells us that his soft hands were worth another 2.6 runs above average, which is just another nice cherry to put on top of the Tulo Sundae.

Before we go much farther, let's talk about 2007 in the field really quickly here. Tulowitzki was DISGUSTINGLY good at SS. We all saw it, we were blown away by that kid's ferocity. Talking with other bloggers/internet people with no real connection to the Rockies, I've read that Tulo's 2007 was kind of the standard for an excellent fielding season, in this day and age of fielding metrics. While Omar Vizquel and Tony Pena Jr. posted better season (as far as UZR goes), people recognized Tulo as an elite-level glove.

In 2007, according to Fangraphs, Tulo was worth 7 runs in just range alone, 5.8 runs as far as his error rate goes, and 2.1 runs on the double play. The Hardball Times rated Tulo as a .861 RZR fielder with 87 out-of-zone plays. That's 11 more than Jack Wilson, notorious gloveman at the shortest of stops. Sean Smith (of CHONE fame) and his Total Runs metric rated Tulo as being 19.7 runs above average. Baseball Prospectus' FRAA (Fielding Runs Above Average) put him at 36 runs above average. 36. That's unreal.

Oh, and that .987 FP%? Led the majors.

Wow. We certainly knew that we had a gem on our hands going forward.

So let's pretend 2008 never happened and move on to 2009. How elite is Tulo?

Well, there's some good news and bad news. As we saw above, his FP% is still great, the DP is still awesome, and he's still snapping Helton's glove on the 6-3. But what about the rest?

Well, this is where it gets a little dicey. According to UZR, Tulo's range dropped from that 7 run figure to -4.8. Yes, 4.8 runs BELOW average.  Overall, Tulo's fielding was worth -1.2 runs. Out of qualifying shortstops, that put Tulo at 13th.

But then again, that's just UZR. We don't like UZR, right? We know better, right? They're just wrong, right?

Well, let's check the other metrics.

Based on just RZR, Tulo was a .800 SS, 16th out of 22. He made 42 out of zone plays, which is 1 less than Nationals SS Christian Guzman made in 300 fewer innings.

THT? Balderdash, right?

Baseball Prospectus puts him at 2 runs above average. That's getting better, right?

Well, Total Runs (available on Baseball Reference) put Tulo's 2009 at 14.6 runs, 3rd in the majors.

Yeah, we can all get on board that!

It's tough to say. Part of me wants to say that they're all bunk, that they don't know what's up, that our eyes, that the other fielders KNOW that Tulo is still an elite shortstop, while the numbers say he's anywhere from sub-par to magnificent. There's also a lot of bias in play there.

Part of these metrics is how they're actually formulated. RZR and UZR are attempting to rate a fielder based on what you'd expect their zone of coverage to be, and then further rewarding as they venture out of said zone to make spectacular plays. FRAA and TotalZone (now, correct me if I'm mistaken on this) use more play-by-play data, crediting runs to the fielders who make the plays. So while one is based on more "who did what", the other is far more subjective to the eye and evaluation of the scorekeeper. There's more to it than that, but again, unless I'm just hopelessly wrong, we can at least get an idea of what's going on with Tulo's fielding.

My concern isn't so much with what the overall numbers tell us, whether he's worth a win in the field alone or he's average or whatever. My concern is with the trends that UZR and RZR (OOZ) are showing me: Tulo may still have absolutely deft hands, is still a smart fielder, and still a leader on the field, but his range seems to have dropped off pretty powerfully since he tore his quad. While I'm willing to write off any and everything about 2008 as a growing year, as a maturing step, as injury plagued, 2009 should've showed us some strong steps in the right direction. Instead, it looks like it's on the downslope already.

So let's think about reasons why. What caused this decline in fielding range? Well, maybe some of it came from that maturation process, based on the fact that Tulo got his big shiny new contract (and Maserati) and perhaps he thought he could coast, and got himself into some bad habits. Maybe his 2009 fielding took a dip because he opted to focus on his bat (yeah, we're gonna have to get to that next week). I just can't believe that he got lazy.

People on the inside (or at least close to the team) don't believe that Tulo's really down for the count. Troy Renck of the Denver Post sees Tulowitzki's 2009 in the field as being reminiscent of 2007, citing good range to the left and great range to the right. This more or less follows up with what we're seeing, too.

So, I guess it's kind of hard to pinpoint something that may cause this statistical decline. Is it real? Is it just the perception of those gathering the data? So what if the individual numbers don't match up? Why are they so different than what we're observing? Is it really that big of a deal?

Well, there's two big things to take into consideration, both from opposite ends. First, the Rockies just posted the lowest team ERA in Rockies history. Second, the Rockies were below average as far as DPs turned would tell us this season. Take those as you will.

So, conclusions? Well, it'd be sad to really say that Tulo's on the fielding decline, it just doesn't make sense. But I'd posit that once Tulo balances his offensive game, his new role as a Team Leader, and general awesomeitude out, his fielding will spring back to where we know it should be. But for now, there's apparently room for our boy to improve... or rebound... or however we want to phrase it, if only to shut the metrics up.

Join us next week as get really excited at how well Tulo batted in 2009.

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