I had the honor and privilege to meet former Rockies starting pitcher (and NL Champion) Jason Hirsh at a recent Rockies game. We talked a little about his guest spot on our own Purple Dinosaur Podcast and talked a little bit about the hardcore Rockies fan and our community here at Purple Row.
Jason couldn't have been more cordial and we chatted about how the team was shaping up, his belief in Brandon Barnes, and eventually about sabermetrics. He shot me a look of momentary mistrust and made a facial gesture much like those I've seen from countless stat hounds when they hear words like "grit" or "leadership" or "chemistry."
He was surprised that I bought into advanced stats and also picked the Rockies to win this season, and I can see why.
It's oddly similar the ways in which these two communities can find the others position to be silly. I find myself in no-man's land on this particular issue. I value all those words in quotes above (though "grit" is overrated) and think we often do ourselves a disservice when we gloss over the finer aspects of the game.
This game is too big, too complicated, and too beautiful to be boiled down to one or two numbers.
On the other hand, we get better every day at being able to measure the game of baseball and have a long history of sample sizes from which to glean a great wealth of information. To ignore this information and the different angles it can give you would be negligent if your goal is to truly understand what is happening in the game of baseball.
The stats are tools and the same way you can't build a house without hiring some plumbers and electricians who know how to use those tools, you can't get a full understanding of baseball without using the numbers that experts have invented that have stood the test of time.
But the same way you don't fix a broken window with a hammer or hire a plumber to rig up the electricity, you can't use any one stat to tell the whole story or end the conversation ... at least not yet.
I made the mistake of trying to make a stat-free argument on an internet blog when I first claimed that Troy Tulowitzki was better than Mike Trout. I am of the belief still that numbers don't always have to be front and center when discussing the value of baseball players, but in making that a major part of my defense of Troy Tulowitzki I muddied the argument and found myself trying to fight too many battles on too many fronts.
While I admit this confused my argument, I stand by every point I made in that piece with two caveats:
1. *When healthy.
2. For me, best = more valuable.
We will discuss these both in more detail in part three but for right now I want to give very clearly and without side-issue the crux of my argument: Troy Tulowitzki is, by far, the best shortstop in baseball.
At the hardest position on the diamond that doesn't require wearing armor, Tulo has no peer.
We will get into Trout's competition in part three. But now I am putting aside (mostly) my issues with the numbers and presenting them in full as best as I understand them for the top 10 active shortstops in wRC+ since 2004.
Troy Tulowitzki - Since 2004: 3,883 PAs
.299/.373/.520, .384 wOBA, 132 wRC+, oWAR 117.6, dWAR 80.6, WAR 33.3
Hanley Ramirez - Since 2004: 4,967 PAs
.300/.371/.503, .377 wOBA, 136 wRC+ oWAR 223.7, dWAR -11.4, 37.6
When just looking at the offensive side of things, it's pretty close. Tulo has the better raw numbers but when auto-adjusted for Coors Field the wRC+ comes out a little lower.
Much of the disparity in oWAR comes from over 1100 more PAs for Ramirez. And, ultimately if WAR is your thing, Hanley has been worth only 4.3 more wins over the last decade even with all those extra plate appearances. I think it would be fair to say offensively, especially when healthy, Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki are pretty even.
Defensively, they couldn't be further apart. When you factor in the fact that a single error or misplayed ball can swing an entire game, but we will talk about defense more later.
Jose Reyes - Since 2004: 5,833 PAs
.289/.342/.439, .338 wOBA, 107 wRC+, 0WAR 102.5, dWAR 55.1, WAR 35.1
In nearly 2,000 more plate appearances, Jose Reyes has accumulated an oWAR 15.1 point lower than Tulo and is well in the dust in dWAR. Reyes has also had a history of injury problems so unlike so many others, he doesn't even have that on Troy Tulowitzki.
Reyes has been inconsistent throughout his career and appears to be in steep decline, though at age 31 may still have some good years left in him. Again, defensively, he pales in comparison to Troy Tulowitzki, but we're getting to that.
Derek Jeter - Since 2004: 6,627PAs
.307/.373./.430, .354 wOBA, 116 wRC+, oWAR 159.0, dWAR -11.6, WAR 37.0
Now this is what I'm talkin' about! The Captain (ewe, I think I just threw up a little) provides an interesting comparison to our own captain. In his younger seasons, Jeter was as good an offensive player as Tulowitzki sans power. It could be argued that Tulo's ability to hit the ball-there-is-no-defense-for -- allowing him to also bat fourth or third in the lineup most of his career -- adds to his value in terms of lineup construction. Still, Jeter is considered one of the all-time greats for a reason and isn't exactly leaving Tulo in the rear-view mirror.
If Jeter and Tulo are in the same generation, Tulo has some work to do in order to lay claim to the best shortstop of that generation...but not much. It will be interesting to see if Troy can get more out of the second half of his career than Jeter and he will need to remain healthy to do so.
Since Tulo has been in the league, he has been the better player. He has 10 points more in wRC+ and is a whopping plus 92.2 on dWAR.
It remains fascinating to me, though, that during their actual overlap in the last decade, one of the best non-Tulo options at SS has been an aging Derek Jeter who has become a liability on defense according to these numbers (which I don't totally trust) and my eyes (which I really don't trust), but seriously, we'll talk about defense in a minute.
Michael Young - Since 2004: 6,835 PAs
.306/.353/.448, .349 wOBA, 109 wRC+, oWAR 85.4, dWAR -83.7, WAR 22.9
To me it's just hilarious that Michael Young's "performance" earns him a spot here. Don't get me wrong, I've been a fan of his and for a while there he was one of the toughest outs in baseball regardless of who was pitching. But Michael Young ranks fifth in the last decade in wRC+ among shortstops and he isn't anywhere close to the offensive player Troy Tulowitzki is.
In almost 3,000 more plate appearances, and at the end of his career, Young is still 32.2 oWAR points behind Tulo. And offense was his only contribution as his putrid -83.7 dWAR suggest he was more of a detriment to his teams on defense than Tulo was an asset. That is crazy bad.
The Best of the Rest
The following is a grouping of players that represent the next best options at shortstop but have been pretty solidly outperformed by Troy Tulowitzki in his career. They round out the top ten active shortstops in wRC+ over the last decade.
Asdrubal Cabrera - Since 2004: 3,652 PAs
.272/.335/.412, .329 wOBA, 106 wRC+, oWAR 30.1, dWAR -14.1, WAR 14.2
Jed Lowrie - Since 2004: 2,171 PAs
.263/.334/.424, .332 wOBA, 106 wRC+, 0WAR 9.6, dWAR 18.8, WAR 10.5
Jhonny Peralta - Since 2004: 5,603 PAs
.269/.332/.432, .333 wOBA, 104 wRC+, oWAR -0.5, dWAR 48.7, WAR 24.4
Ian Desmond - Since 2004: 2,711 PAs
.271/.316/.431, .325 wOBA 102 wRC+, oWAR 20.3, dWAR 17.3, WAR 12.8
The new kid on the block
Andrelton Simmons - Career stats: 1,013 PAs
.257/.300/.402, .306 wOBA, 92 wRC+, oWAR -9.8, dWAR 48, WAR 7.3
I decided to include Andrelton Simmons here because there is a decent argument to be made that he would be among the top non-Tulo candidates you could take in an open draft. His superb defense definitely makes him an intriguing choice but as we can see, he has a long way to go if he ever wants to be Tulo offensively. So...
Let's talk about defense
As discussed, his closest competition offensively -- Hanley Ramirez, Derek Jeter, and (sure) Michael Young -- are all negative contributors on defense over the last ten years. Jose Reyes at least makes a positive contribution but in much more time has still be worth much less. Again, at least according to these numbers.
Even putting dWAR completely aside and using other numbers or just your eyes, Andrelton Simmons is the only player on this list who comes close to Troy Tulowitzki defensively. You could throw in J.J. Hardy and Jimmy Rollins who are the only two shortstops ahead of Tulo in dWAR in the last decade but remember that both have done so in way more service time.
Hardy has over 2,000 more innings than Tulo, Rollins has over 6,000, their dWAR's sit at 127.6 and 117.3 respectively.
Tulo has by far the best DRS (Defensive Run Saved) in the last decade even over those two at 86. Hardy comes in second with 71, Rollins is in seventh with 36. Simmons is already in third with an impressive 64.
I'm gonna be straight with you, here. I don't know exactly what all this means. I have read a lot about DRS and calculating WAR but I'm terrible at math and once the equations get long enough blood starts to shoot out my eyes. But I do trust that these numbers are a good starting place and would like to keep them in mind while we look at a few more things defensively to get a more complete picture.
First, I know that fielding percentage has plenty of flaws (and is essentially useless for outfielders) but at shortstop where there are so many opportunities, it can tell at least part of the story. And that part of the story is positively Godfatherian when it comes to Troy Tulowitzki as he rates right at the top of all shortstops since 1871.
Lest ye think Tulo be a version of Mark Ellis or even J.J. Hardy -- who are exceptionally efficient if not especially dynamic -- remember that he had a preposterous 834 chances (or balls he got to) in 2007. Hardy's career high was 779 in 2012. Simmons got to 753 last season and Rollins best year was also 2007 when he got to 717.
Considering how often he gets to the ball (especially considering he has gotten over 600 a few times even during seasons he was injured) Troy Tulowitzki's all-time leading fielding percentage of .986 (Just ahead of Omar Vizquel) is pretty amazing.
Inside Edge Fielding
There is a section on each player's Fangraphs page called "Inside Edge Fielding" that separates defensive plays into six difficulty levels. Those levels are "Routine" or plays that are made 90-100 percent of the time, "Likely" (60-90%), "Even" (40-60%), "Unlikely" (10-40%), "Remote" (1-10%), and "Impossible" (0%).
For each category, each player is given a percentage for the number of successfully converted plays and in parentheses the simple number of balls gotten to. These numbers only go back to 2012 and since then Troy Tulowitzki has made 0% of impossible plays and gotten to nine.
Andrelton Simmons has made 0% of his impossible plays as well but has gotten to a whopping 22! He isn't finishing the plays but he sure is helping out those ratings by getting to a ton of balls he has no business getting to. And then something interesting happens.
The next level ("Remote", 1-10%) Simmons has converted 11.5 percent and gotten to 26 is converting 13.2 percent and has gotten to 38. Simmons has the edge in the next two categories with 45.5% (22) on "Unlikely" plays and 83.3% (24) on "Even" plays.
Tulo is at 40% (20) on "Unlikley" plays and a surprisingly low 60.7% (28) on "Even" plays.
Where Tulo most excels in this measure and where Simmons most struggles is in the "Likely" (60-90%) category where the sophomore sits at 77.2% (57) and the Rockies captain is at a stellar 94.7% (76). They both are predictably awesome at converting routine plays.
Remember, too, that these number are after Tulo has declined a bit defensively as tends to happen meaning that Simmons is in his prime right now and arguably still not quite as good as Tulo especially if you factor in things like before play positioning, handling pitchers, and his superb tagging instincts.
If you don't buy any of the intangible stuff or just believe that Simmons if just as good as Tulo in that respect, at best Andrelton Simmons, in his prime, is barely better than a 29 year old Troy Tulowitzki on defense. And nobody else is really that close to either of them at this point.
Add to that the pretty clear either/or complex that afflicts most shortstops -- and certainly has with Simmons thus far as his offensive stats pale in comparison to his defense -- and the total Troy Tulowitzki package becomes more clearly historically significant.
When you compare Tulo against just the best offensive shortstops he still comes out ahead, or at worst tied. When you compare him at his position against just the best defensive shortstops, he still comes out ahead or at worst tied.
If you want close Tulo level defense you need J.J. Hardy or Andrelton Simmons and that's it. If you want Tulo offense you want Hanley Ramirez and because Derek Jeter is retiring...that's pretty much it. If you want all those things out of one guy, because shortstop has to be manned by one guy, there is only Troy Tulowitzki.
To this point, every other major candidate has a dramatic drop-off in their numbers in one area or another. Tulo is literally the only player of his kind in the game.
Check back in soon when I run Mike Trout to this gauntlet and compare how he stacks up with his competition to how Tulo stacked up with his.