2013 Colorado Rockies Player Reviews: Troy Tulowitzki

Ezra Shaw

Troy Tulowitzki would be a better hitter if he swung and missed a little more often. No, really, I'm dead serious.

As we continue Troy Tulowitzki week here at Purple Row with his player review, I'm going to shift gears and bend the format we've been following in this series a little assuming we all already know his 2013 narrative about as well as we know the days of the week by now. Instead, I want to focus on a Tulo topic that's been building for a few seasons and has received very little attention and deserves to be analyzed more.

I will however lead us off with a table that provides a crash course overview of Tulo's 2013 since it's a good segue into that other thing I want to discuss. Here we go.

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No surprise here. For the first two and a half months of 2013, Troy Tulowitzki was the best player in baseball. He was destroying opposing pitching staffs, getting big late inning home runs, posting the second highest WPA in baseball, and he was doing it all while playing his typical outstanding defense from the shortstop position. By mid June, Tulo was on pace to land somewhere between an 8.0 and 10.0 WAR season. If you want to read more about that Tulo, I'll leave you this link to a piece I wrote about him shortly after he suffered the rib injury that derailed his blockbuster season.

But today, I want to focus more on the end of his season and how it relates to a pattern that's developed since the end of 2010. Here's another chart splitting Tulo's 2013, but this time I'm only going to include the last 48 games of the season and throw out the first 17 when he returned from the DL. There's three reasons to do this. One, he hadn't caught up to the speed of the game in his first week or two back and posted uncharacteristically high strikeout numbers. Two, Tulo's last 48 games are about the point where the Rockies fell figuratively out of contention; and three, (in a development that may be related to number two) Tulo's approach at the plate changed.

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Here I've added K%, BB%, and pitches per plate appearance numbers and as you can see, we now have something interesting unfolding.

First off, a quick note on those pitches per plate appearance numbers. Tulo jumping from 3.69 to 4.02 may not seem like a big deal, but that's huge when it comes to this stat. When you take all the players to record at least 400 plate appearances in 2013, 3.62 pitches per plate appearance represents the tenth percentile, 3.85 represents the median, and 4.14 represents the 90th percentile. In addition, this stat just like BB% normalizes and becomes relevant after about 200 plate appearances.

So when you combine it with Tulo's huge jump in BB% and relatively flat K%, it's a large tip off to what was also visible watching the games during the last two months - Troy Tulowitzki adopted an insanely patient strategy at the plate down the stretch in 2013, maybe to point where it worked against him.

If we break it down in more detail, we'll find that Tulo walked 30 times in his last 48 games while only striking out 32 times. But the real eye popper comes when you pull those strike out numbers apart. Of the 32 strikeouts Tulo had during this final leg of the season, 17 were swinging, and 15 were looking.

On average, 75% of MLB strikeouts are of the swinging variety while just 25% are looking; so Tulo basically having an even number in each category during the final two months really shows you how out of his way he was willing to go in order to become a more patient hitter who draws a bunch of walks. Actually, that's not quite right. Tulo was already a patient hitter. The real roadblock here is his pitch selection.

* * * * * * *

There's a reason why Tulo is trying so desperately to improve his pitch selection. It's the only thing really stopping him from reaching the stratosphere as a hitter. See, over the last three years, Tulo has demonstrated he can do two things exceptionally well. He can hit with amazing power, and he can hit with amazing contact ability.

Normally, you get one or the other with a hitter if you're lucky, but Tulo can actually do both with the real elites of the elites. There is a catch however; he hasn't figured out how to do both at the same time yet. (More on that in a moment)

First, I want to expand on Tulo's ability to hit for both power and average a little more. What I've done here is take the top 30 power hitters in baseball over the last three seasons (2011 through 2013) and ranked them by K% from those who strike out the least to those who strike out the most.

In order to qualify, a player has to have hit at least 50 home runs over the last three seasons. From there, I took the total number of plate appearances and divided it by the number of home runs each player recorded. That's the number you see on the right column of the table and it's an excellent way to measure who the real power kings are in the game today. (The smaller the better. Tulo ranked 21st in this category across MLB. He doesn't quite have Miguel Cabrera, Chris Davis, or Giancarlo Stanton power, but he's absolutely living in the exclusive neighborhood here - And remember, these numbers include Tulo's 2012 season that saw his power numbers sapped because of his leg injury)

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The average MLB K% in 2013 rose to 20%, and that figure becomes even more unsightly when you're looking at just the best power hitters. However, there are a very select few who can both hit for power significantly better than most everyone else in baseball and avoid striking out significantly more than most everyone else in baseball.

Five players made it onto this elite power chart while holding their K% under 15% for the last three seasons. Not only is Tulo one of them, but his status here actually becomes more impressive when you break these players down further.

With some help from our friends at fangraphs.com and statcorner.com, we can put a microscope on the way these five players have struck out over the last three seasons (swinging or looking) as well as view the overall percentage of pitches each player swings at and actually makes contact with when they do decide to swing.

Contact_and_k_percentage_resized_medium

Right away, Tulo's numbers should jump out at you. First of all, he's actually been better than all of these hitters at making contact. The only reason he doesn't have the lowest K% of the group is because he strikes out looking so often. In fact, Tulo's strikeout looking rate of 5.6% percent is below league average in general. A big reason why this number is so high is just how little Tulo swings at pitches. In a completely reversal from his minor league days when we first got to know him, Tulo's become one of the most patient hitters you will find. But he's actually become patient to a fault; because as good as he's gotten at making contact and doing significant damage when he does connect, he still hasn't mastered the art of pitch selection.

Ideally, Tulo would swing at more strikes and that K% looking number would be cut in half dragging down Tulo's overall K% number to around 10%. Either that, or you'd want his BB% to be higher than 10.2% over the last three seasons considering how many pitches Tulo takes. In short, Tulo is not rewarding himself enough for the level of patience he's shown at the plate. He's become ultra selective at the dish, but the problem is that he's not always selecting the right pitches to swing at.

As a result, Tulo often reaches a point where making so much contact and being ultra patient at the plate actually starts to work against him. Until he either starts swinging at more strikes or taking more pitches outside of the zone consistently (he was likely trying to adopt this second strategy during the last 48 games of this season but ultimately ended up swinging at less strikes as well), the best Tulo can do is settle for an equilibrium that involves trading contact for extra base hit type damage. (Which as you'll see in a moment is not really that terrible)

* * * * * * *

Two years ago, Bill Petti investigated some foul ball research and discovered something unexpected.

Contact percentage was negatively correlated with FB% (-.63). So the better a hitter is at making contact, the less foul balls they hit per swing. On the one hand you might think that hitting more foul balls would go hand in hand with contact percentage. But, as it turns out, that's not the case. Overall, better contact results in less foul balls.

This finding couldn't be more relevant to Tulo in recent seasons. There comes a point where a hitter can get so good at making contact that it actually becomes a drawback for two reasons. One, there's a certain trade off between doing extra base hit type damage and the ability to make contact, and two, if you're making contact almost all the time and also fouling off fewer pitches as a result, it becomes nearly impossible to post an extremely high walk percentage because almost every time you do swing at a pitch, the ball is going to go in play and the at bat is going to end. (The only way to really drive up your BB% in this scenario is to become absurdly patient at the plate and swing at less than 40% of the pitches you see - Which is exactly what Tulo dabbled with during his last 48 games this season)

To expand on what I'm talking about in that second point, think of every swing a batter takes as a trigger for only three possible outcomes.

One, the batter swings and misses. Unless there's two strikes, the at bat will continue after this happens.

Two, the batter fouls the pitch off. Here, the at bat will always continue.

Three, the batter puts the ball in play somewhere. It doesn't matter if it's a home run, a ground out, a line drive single, a routine fly to center or an infield popup; when this happens, the at bat always ends.

Tulo very rarely swings and misses, and as a result, he also very rarely fouls pitches off (as we learned from Bill Petti's study), and as you can see in the table below, this results in an incredibly high percentage of swings generating a ball in play.

With an average major league hitter, there's just under a one in three chance that a swing is going to produce a ball in play, but with Tulo, the chances are almost 50/50.

Nov_13_three_outcomes_medium

Along these same lines, look at how Tulo's BB% numbers hit a ceiling at just under 10% in this next table during the 2010 through 2012 seasons when he posted his highest Contact% scores and lowest K% numbers. (You can't walk very much if you are putting the ball in play on half of your swings)

Nov_13_k_and_bb_medium

More contact being a bad thing seems counter-intuitive, but if you really think it through it does start to make sense. There comes a point where you have to start trading slugging percentage to make more contact - It's different for every hitter but there's always going to be that trade off of trying to kill the ball while risking missing it completely. Then as we just discussed, there also comes a point where making so much contact can limit your walk rate (because of the lack of foul balls and the at bat ending quickly). So once more contact is actually costing you in both slugging percentage and on base percentage, it becomes completely useless and starts working against you. After all, those are the two things OPS is made of.

Normally this is never an issue, but because Tulo has become so good at hitting for both contact and power, he's run into this conundrum.

I have one last table for you if I haven't already melted your brain with numbers. It's a look at Tulo's 2011 split before and after a point where he made a ton of contact and seem to shift his approach.

Nov_13_2011_numbers_medium

Unfortunately, fangraphs does not let you break down Contact% within a season, but we really don't need it to see what went on here. Early that season, Tulo made contact with pretty much everything he swung at. He saw little reward however because he traded  damage (slugging percentage) to get there and never saw his BB% rise for the reasons we've already discussed.

However, in the second half of that season, Tulo got a little more greedy at the plate and swung and missed more often. The results were considerably better however because when he did make contact, he launched balls over the wall and into the gaps more frequently. He also tended to hang around the plate a little bit longer so he could draw slightly more walks and in turn drive his on base percentage up even higher. It was a beautiful thing!

I bring this up because in many ways, Tulo's 2011 season at the plate was the exact opposite of his 2013 season. Two years ago, Tulo spent most of the first half of the season running into the "make too much contact" problem while he spent the second of that season in volcano mode. This year, he did the bulk of his damage early and then ran into the other side of the "make too much contact' coin late in the season.

Now when I say the other side of the coin, I'm specifically referring to the way Tulo's K% and BB% numbers moved. In early 2011, Tulo made so much contact that he brought his K% all the way down below 10% so that it was about even with his BB% number. However, late in 2013 Tulo did the opposite and became so patient at the plate that he brought his BB% numbers UP to his K% numbers.

Neither strategy worked too well though in terms of his OPS production. Instead, Tulo seems at his best when his K% is about 5% to 7% higher than his BB%. In that scenario, his OBP is still solid and he does so much damage when he does make contact that his OPS is going to be north of 1.000 just as it was in both late 2011 and early 2013.

There's still one Wild Card here however, and that's Tulo's potential to improve his pitch selection. This is not uncommon for hitters like him who combine power and contact because any improvement in swinging at the right pitches at all results in a bump of that "make too much contact" ceiling.

The more strikes you swing at, the more you can make good contact (as in extra base hit contact), and you don't have to sacrifice much to get that extra slugging percentage because the sample of pitches you are choosing to swing at is now an easier group to hammer. Once you show that you're more likely to clobber certain pitches, pitchers will stay away from them and throw you more pitches outside of the zone, and since in this case the hitter improved his pitch selection, he's not going to swing at those pitches and as a result will start walking more.

That should be Tulo's goal over the next few seasons, and there's still hope that he might be able to get there when you look at other players who are similar to him.

Remember the chart above with our top five power and contact players? Take a look at the best seasons at the plate of the other four. Cabrera just seems to get better with age and just came off his most productive campaign ever with a 1.078 OPS in his age 30 season, Edwin Encarnacion just had by far his two most productive seasons ever at the ages of 29 and 30. David Ortiz has been a better player in his 30's than his 20's, and four of Adrian Beltre's five best seasons have just come in his age 31 through 34 seasons.

There are certain advantages to being able to hit for both power and contact, and if Tulo can stay healthy, he's likely to reap their benefits one of these seasons. I don't think we've seen Tulo's best season at the plate yet, and if he ever unlocks the pitch selection door he's struggled with so far (not necessarily likely to happen), we haven't come close to seeing what he can do at the plate for a full season yet.

2013 Grade with the Rockies: B

I hate to do this, because if we're comparing Tulo to the rest of baseball he clearly deserves an "A", but Tulo himself says his goal is to be the MVP. He expects a higher level of production out of himself than most players, and because his season still left room for improvement, he gets a "B".

2014

One of these years Tulo is going to put it all together. He's going to avoid the DL, he's going to find that balance between his contact and power skill, and he's going to spend about 150 games terrorizing pitchers from start to finish while playing well above average defense at shortstop, and if it comes in a season where the Rockies are in contention for a playoff spot, he's going to win the MVP. Hopefully, that year is 2014, and hey, maybe if can be 2015 and 2016 too. I can dream right?

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