2010 Rockies Player Review: Troy Tulowitzki

Denver's LBSU alumni chapter has some pretty nifty perks lately. That should continue over the next ten years.

You know by now the narrative of Troy Tulowitzki. He starts off slow, gets injured a month or two into the season, and then comes back a month or two later and gets into a groove and goes all smack happy silly on the National League at the end of the year. Draft him early for your fantasy team, but don't expect to get your production until late...

Because Tulowitzki plays well at a premium position and hits as well as he does, he's an elite player, he's just not an elite hitter. Overall at the plate, once he gets out of his early season rut, he settles nicely around his past two seasons' average wOBA range of .393 to .408 with a bit of a late season spike.

You can see this pretty clearly in the rolling wOBA chart from FanGraphs:Tulo_woba1_medium 

Pretty nice, no? As you can see, with the exception of his subpar 2008, it's the same story in both 2009 and 2010. Start out slow, heat up in the summer, and then finish with enough pop to post a very solid overall line. Although it looks like I cropped off a little from the edge in 2010. Let me repost that so you get the total picture:

 

 

Tulo_woba2_medium

Whoa. Okay, there it is. I knew there was going to be some sort of catch that prevents easy answers when it came to how to interpret  the past season and what to expect going forward from Tulo. In this case, that catch would be September 2010. 15 HR, 40 RBI, .468 wOBA September 2010. The safe route here would be to ignore it, to chalk it up to a small sample and move on, pretend it doesn't exist on its own like that as it were, and any good mathematician (ask Resolution or RhodeIslandRoxFan) will tell you that's what you ought to do. I'm not a good mathematician, however, or any sort of mathematician, actually, and so to me it sort of sticks out like a pleasantly sore thumb. Like a Tetris thumb after you've beaten your own record.

To me, the dilemma is threefold:

  1. I now know that Troy Tulowitzki is capable of what he did last September. I may have hypothesized that he could be capable of that level of production before then, but I never actually knew. Now I know, we all know, the cat's out of the bag, Troy Tulowitzki's ceiling is higher than any of us could know it was before he actually went there.
  2. I don't know if he will do it again, or how often.
  3. I don't know if that's all that he's capable of.

Here, let me show this dilemma to you in the wOBA chart again, this time drawing lines at the season's high and low points (after the first couple of weeks in April when the rolling average has settled). Troy Tulowitzki, in each of the last two seasons has raised the bars both at his floor and at his ceiling. His slow starts have been progressively less slow, his hot finishes progressively stronger:

Tulo_woba_medium

I don't know what can be gleaned from this other than a player that's been improving rapidly as a hitter, especially if you cut out the injury hiatuses. The issue now becomes if early September 2010 represents a high point that Tulowitzki will never again reach, or a new standard that he's capable of duplicating often, as his previous high point of  2009 proved to be. At the other end, there's an equally compelling issue of where his current floor is, is it the April 2010 Tulo, or the June 2010 version?

As an example of a player that peaked briefly for a time over that .450 wOBA line and then hasn't gone back there, one can look at the rolling wOBA chart of David Wright. In the middle of 2009, Wright was as good as anybody at the plate, but before and since, he's been a solid yet unspectacular hitter. For the example of a player that gradually rose to, and now frequently hits in that elite range, look at the chart of Miguel Cabrera. Tulo's small sample September 2010 will eventually make part of a larger sample that stretches into 2011, and while it's easy to write that month off as an unrepeatable anomaly, it's also easy to see it as the culmination of Tulo's progression as a hitter, meaning we might be seeing more double digit HR months, and that 40+ homers/season is a distinct possibility.

So which player is Tulo, David Wright or Miguel Cabrera? I think there's compelling evidence that he's more like Cabrera than Wright. Tulo hits better on the road than Wright, even with a Coors hangover effect. As RIRF pointed out in a comment Thursday, his HR/PA rate since his batting stance change mid-2009 has been consistently in Cabrera/Mark Teixeira territory. Mike Silver at the Hardball Times also noted this:

His 18.5 percent HR/FB rate puts him right above Miguel Cabrera, Ryan Braun, Kendry Morales and Mark Teixeira. While it's certainly possible that Tulo carries that kind of thump in his bat, it may be a bit optimistic. Expect some regression in this category.

The catch with this quote is that it's not recent, it came after Tulo's 2009 season, not 2010. At this point there's little question that Tulo "carries that kind of thump in his bat." What about other components though? Tulowitzki's walk rate declined in 2010 at the same time his contact took a step forward. While the BB% is a bit of a negative, the increased contact is a huge, overlooked step forward, as we suddenly have not only a 30+ HR shortstop, but a .300 plus batting average shortstop as well. Prior to the stance change, Tulo hit over .300 in only four of the fifteen months he played in. Since June 2009, he's hit over .300 in eight out of ten months. 

In 2010, Tulowitzki took swings at more pitches outside the strike zone (27.8%) than in any previous season, but he also did more damage on the swings he took. Does the increased swing percentage outside the strike zone foretell a collapse? Well, as a comparison, let's put up Tulo's 2010 contact rates up against Mystery Slugger X (from FanGraphs, O = outside the strikezone, Z = in the zone, F = first strike):


O-swing% Z-swing% swing % O-contact% Z-contact% contact% zone% F-strike% Sw-strike% AVG OBP SLG
2010 - Troy Tulowitzki 27.8% 60.6% 43.2% 76.1% 91.1% 86.0% 47.1% 57.8% 5.9% .315 .381 .568
2010 - Mystery Slugger X 27.5% 63.0% 43.2% 76.0% 90.6% 85.4% 44.2% 48.0% 5.8% .312 .414 .596

The major difference between Troy Tulowitzki and the game's best hitter isn't in his approach, but in the respect and fear that pitchers give to him. Other than that, and of course the fact that Tulo plays half his games in Coors Field while the game's best hitter plays half of his in Busch Stadium, it's become an uncanny similarity in the amount and types of pitches that they swing at. So no, I don't believe that there are necessarily signs of impending collapse for Tulowitzki as long as the damage done when he makes contact continues to be as high as it has been, especially if it remains as high as it was at the end of last season, and if he can show increased patience as pitchers stop challenging him,

...which brings me back to my original dilemma.

What should we expect from Tulowitzki in 2011?

Given that I believe that the narrative for Tulo should be one of a gradually improving player who has just recently reached a new peak rather than one of a player that starts off cold and finishes hot, I could still answer this two ways. It could be that he's a Wright type of player that will only briefly shine to that degree before falling back to earth, or he could be a Cabrera that's been gathering steam and now will have a fantastic prime. The big difference between Cabrera and Wright the last few seasons has been that Cabrera's been increasing his walk percentage while lowering his K rate, while Wright has been doing just the opposite.

Tulo's walk rate went down in 2010, but so did his strikeout rate. Given his consistent power output, we can probably expect pitchers to be less willing to throw strikes to Tulowitzki in 2011. If he continues the gradual improvement that he's shown, the next step will show a spike in his BB% without much difference in his strikeout rate and batting average. If he stagnates, we'll see a lot more weak contact (a lower batting average) as he stretches for pitches out of the zone (likely high FB's or glove side sliders, as Albert Lyu points out) and a corresponding increase in his K%. For an example of this, one need only look at his performance in his last 13 games of 2010. It's for this reason that the difference between stagnation and continued improvement will show up more in his floor than his ceiling. Even if the floor drops back to the .304/.350/.435 hitter he was last April, that represents a penthouse at the position he plays.

Either way, with health, Tulowitzki should still be one of the NL's MVP favorites heading into 2011. If he's consistently as elite a hitter as he showed he could be the last couple of months of 2010, and if he shores up his weakness in pitch selectivity, takes a few more walks, then he's the best player in the game, bar none. The way that he maintained a high baseline wOBA from May on makes me think this is a stronger possibility than a lot of people might be aware of right now.

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