Tuesday Rockpile: The Troy Tulowitzki conundrum

Doug Pensinger

Troy Tulowitzki is everything you could ever want as a player, everything expect durable. If you take a look at his career though, there's good reason not to count him out yet.

Nearly two decades ago, a fifth grade class was assigned with writing about what they wanted to be when they grew up. When one student told his teacher, Mr. Walker, that he was going to be a major league shortstop, he was scolded and told that he had to pick something more realistic instead. It didn't really matter what Mr Walker thought was realistic though, because as it turns out, this child would stop at nothing to prove people wrong and realize his dream of not only becoming a major league shortstop, but also becoming the best player in baseball. Each rejection, each "you can't stay at that position", and each perceived snub only fueled him more.

Fast forward to present day, and Troy Tulowitzki has already accomplished more than many would have ever dreamed possible. As a young player, Tulo was constantly told that he would have to move away from shortstop because of his size. He didn't like that idea very much, so he went to work and made sure that he'd always be the best defensive option at shortstop for whatever team he played for, giving coaches no choice but to play him at the position he felt was home.

When Tulowitzki reached his senior year of high school, he felt the sting of rejection once again. 50 rounds came and went in the MLB draft that spring, and not a single team took a flyer on Troy Tulowitzki. You can just imagine how well that went over - I'm sure Troy was radioactive that day.

Tulowitzki had this to say about those subjects in a TV interview a few years ago...

"Those things stick with you. I still keep those things in the back of my head. They help make me the player I am."

* * * * * * * *

In many ways, the Troy Tulowitzki story already has a happy ending. He could never play another game again and he'd easily be considered one of the greatest Rockies ever to put on the uniform. But at the same time, Troy Tulowitzki now faces a problem unlike any he's faced before. The cruel and almost taunting reality that lies somewhere near the intersection of awesome and agonizing can be best summed up in the following two tables.

We'll start with the happy chart that shows just how close Tulowitzki is to reaching his goal of becoming the best player in baseball. What I did here was take the fWAR (fangraphs Wins Above Replacement) of all the players over the last three years (June 18th, 2010 to June 18th, 2013) with at least 1,250 plate appearances and calculated how many wins above replacement they've averaged over 1,000 plate appearances.

War_1000_june_18_medium

Obviously you would rather have the higher "Total WAR" score here, but turning WAR into a rate stat does have its advantages, most notably, it tells you who the best players in baseball are when healthy. Over the last three years, Troy Tulowitzki has been as good as anyone at racking up "Wins Above Replacement" when he's on the field, but that's just it, he's had trouble staying on the field. We know the story all too well, and this simple chart pounds home the sad reality of how Tulo's body keeps betraying him.

Games_played_average_medium

It's not going to get much better in 2013 either. If Tulo returns from his current rib injury as scheduled and then stays healthy in the second half of the season, he'll likely end up playing between 120 and 125 games this year. That's now a seven year sample size of games played in which Tulo has missed about 25% of the season with injuries.

This is usually the point in the conversation where people will suggest Tulo change positions, but I'm not in that camp at all. If you look at Tulo's injuries throughout his career, they could have just as easily come playing elsewhere on the diamond. The final play of his 2012 season that resulted in surgery came when he was running out of the batter's box and his rib fracture this season could have come diving for a ball at a corner infield position.

I firmly believe that the best course of action here is to ride with Tulowitzki at shortstop as long as possible. It's where he wants to stay and he's good enough that 70% of a season from Tulo at short is still going to land you more production than 100% of a season from just about anybody else you're going to put at that position for the foreseeable future. If Tulo is truly doomed to break, he's going break and there's nothing we can do to prevent it.

* * * * * * * *

Perhaps my favorite thing about Troy Tulowitzki is his ability to overcome adversity. We all hate failure, but Troy Tulowitzki takes it to another level. Anything, and I do mean anything that stands between him and the player he wants to become is going to be viciously attacked until it's eliminated from his game. He doesn't always get it right the first time, he has to work to refine his skills, but in the long term, he's one of the best athletes I've ever seen at making himself better. For me, this makes Tulowitzki an extremely easy player to root for. Here's just a few more examples of what I'm talking about.

Did you know that Tulowitzki made 25 errors in just 102 games at AA Tulsa in 2006? It almost seems impossible now that Tulowitzki has the best fielding percentage of any shortstop in the history of baseball with at least 500 games, but there was a time not long before Tulo reached the big leagues where this was a big problem for him.

There's no way Tulo was going let that many errors be acceptable at the big league level though, and in the 2006 / 2007 off season, he went to work and became possibly the best shortstop the game has ever seen at avoiding simple mistakes.

Another good example of how Tulo completely transformed himself as a player can be seen through his aggression at the plate. As this article from 2006 amusingly points out, Tulowitzki wanted to get a hit so badly when he was at the plate in the minors that he would literally swing at anything that came his way.

In spring training, members of the Rockies front office joked that if a paper airplane came floating out of the stands toward home plate, Tulowitzki would swing at it.

Despite the reputation that still follows him today, Tulowitzki has actually become a much more patient hitter. In fact, since the start of the 2011 season, Tulowitzki has swung at just 41.8% of the pitches he's seen, ranking him 31st out of 181 players in terms of patience (or in the 83rd percentile). He still doesn't have a very high "pitches per plate appearance" number because when he does swing, he puts the ball in play with amazing regularity, but Tulowitzki has very quietly gotten better and better over the years at selecting the right pitches to pull the trigger on.

On a related topic, he's also gotten better and better at making contact. Tulo has dropped his strikeout rate every year he's been in the majors except two - 2009 and 2013 - and both times he traded it for dramatic increases in his extra base hit percentage. Basically, he's worked to swing and miss less every year, and then when he feels he has things under control, he gets more aggressive and exchanges a few more swings an misses with a whole bunch of damage when he does make contact.

I wrote about the change he made to his stance in 2009 here (another example of Tulo tweaking his game to get better) that led to a dramatic rise in power, but there's not enough space in this article to go into detail about all the little things he's done to get better at the plate this season. It's pretty obvious that he's as dialed in as ever though.

K_percentage_medium

Need more proof of Tulo always working to make himself and his team better? Take a look at the Coors Effect. Early in his career, Tulo was like most Colorado hitters, he couldn't hit on the road - But Tulo was not going to let that prevent him from reaching his quest to become the best player in the game either. Over time, Tulo has gotten better and better at hitting through the most pitcher friendly road schedule in all of baseball. Here's his year by year road OPS numbers.

Road_offense_medium

One of the last and loudest complaints surrounding Tulowitzki was always that he got too anxious in clutch situations, wanted it too much, and got himself out. While in 2013, he's even been able to tackle that gremlin. He has a .967 OPS with runners in scoring position, a 1.194 OPS with the bases loaded, and a 1.140 OPS with two outs and runners in scoring position. Tulo also has a .933 OPS in innings 1-3, an 1.125 OPS in innings 4-6, and an 1.129 OPS in innings 7-9, so he's now posting enormous offensive numbers at all points in the game.

Perhaps the best stat to sum everything up though is the following table. Once again, we're looking at fWAR over 1,000 plate appearances in order to glean production from when he's on the field through different periods. Only this time, I broke it up into the before and after each time Tulo went on the DL for at least a month with an injury.

Injuries_large

It's as if every time Tulo get's knocked down, it makes the fire that burns within him to be the best get stronger. The hot streaks get longer and the slumps are get shorter - Another strong sign of a player unlocking more doors to reach another level of production. Tulo has overcome just about everything he's needed to in his career to become the player he wants to be, everything that is, except his own "brittle body".

* * * * * * * *

At this point, Tulo's career has all the elements of a Greek fable. A player who has been able to overcome all obstacles and doubters to reach soaring heights, only to have something within himself threaten to thwart his accomplishments.

This is why I get so angry when I read and hear people ripping Tulowitzki for being so injury prone. It's the absolute last thing he wants to be known for. As Troy Renck pointed out last month, Tulo "idolized Cal Ripken Jr. so much that he named his boxer puppy after him". He wants to be out there for his team more than anything, and like everything else we've covered here, Tulo was aggressive in his quest to fix the problem.

He did everything he could to stay on the field this season. He started extensive physical therapy last fall, he's gone through different trainers, he's tried yoga and swimming to make his body more susceptible to playing at the major league level, and this year, he even toned his game down a notch when he had to in an all out effort to stay on the field. In his weekend piece, Troy Renck pointed out that Tulo had not even attempted to steal a base this season because there was no point where he felt it was a smart decision.

Tulo took extreme measures this year to make sure a muscle injury didn't bite him, and what he did to come back and become the player he was for the first two and a half months should be celebrated around baseball. Instead, he's back on the shelf with a rib fracture and he's getting ripped for being so fragile.

It all just seems so unfair. Just the thought that Tulo could come so far only to have his career sabotaged by injuries breaks my heart. He's overcome so many obstacles, but this is the demon that has real potential to take him down. Of all the challenges he's faced, this is his Mt. Everest.

So far he's losing the battle, and there's many out there who logically believe that it's only going to get worse for him as he gets older with some of the predictions actually reaching frightening territory. If I know one thing about Troy Tulowitzki though, it's that he's not going to accept this fate if at all possible. Injuries may get him, but if he goes down, it's going to be kicking and screaming. He's been immensely successful at making adjustments to fix other problems in his career, and there's still a chance he could beat this too.

The idea of sitting here ten years from now having to ask "what might have been" when it comes to Tulo's career is monumentally saddening, but I can take comfort in the fact that if it's humanly possible for Tulo to become more durable as a player, he's going to find it. When you get right down to the crux of it, that's all I can really ask for as a fan.

Good luck Tulo,

Go beat the crap out of this injury thing!

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