Troy Tulowitzki is -- and has been for a while -- the best player in all of baseball. And yes, I know Mike Trout exists.
Mike Trout is the Adrian Peterson of Major League Baseball. He is the perfect embodiment of all the things his position requires of him and the numbers he puts up suggest he may have no equal in his, or any other, time. And while he plays a prime positions, he does not play the one that most affects the outcomes of games and is therefore often passed up for MVP awards in favor of that year's best quarterback.
It is an imperfect analogy as any single baseball player has way less impact on his team than does a quarterback in the NFL. However, the point remains that because Peterson is seen as having a less difficult or impactful job description (despite still having one of the hardest) he isn't considered the greatest player in the game even when he puts up record breaking performances.
But because there is no quarterback position in MLB, and because measuring defense still has a long, long, way to go, baseball arguments over the best player, for many, often come down to just the numbers.
I started writing this piece when Tulo was hot but before he went thermonuclear. I put it on pause because I knew some would think it an overreaction to a current unsustainable streak of stellar play.
But I have felt that Troy Tulowitzki is the best player in baseball for years and after seeing an onslaught of national punditry balk, dismiss, obfuscate, and diminish Troy Tulowitzki's accomplishments -- even now -- under the guise that he is not Mike Trout and -- most maddeningly -- that he plays at Coors Field, I chose to no longer remain silent.
(Somewhere my mother just said, "you choose to remain silent?")
The Coors Field Effect
We need to form an official Coors Field Defense Committee. We would all be members and we would hire a board of directors with excellent and far-reaching communication skills so that any time some talking head starts in on a Colorado Rockies player and jumps straight to (or can't get off of) the Coors Field effect, we can spring into immediate action.
After listening to her stellar work on this week's Purple Dinocast, I nominate Jenny Cavnar for the board. But we need a large and mobile group that can -- at a moments notice during times of journalistic malpractice -- leap forward on twitter or via the phone (do people still call people?) or email or Morse code. Flood the waves of talk-shows and blogs and let them know that Coors Field does not create great hitters.
Like a swat team moving deftly but with ferocity, the CFDC be will armed with...what do you call them?...facts! Yeah, they'll have some of those things. Here are some:
When we turn our attention to those last two columns we see how the national media is getting so tripped up in properly analyzing Troy Tulowitzki in terms of home/road splits. The tOPS+ measures the player against himself. Like with wRC+ this number havs a base-average of 100 so over that is better than average and under it is lower.
Tulo's 36 tOPS+ means that when compared to himself he doesn't hit very well on the road. This is what most national media outlets have grabbed onto, though usually focusing on his poorer slash line. The confusion, though, lies in the fact that this only seems terrible because -- as so many people on TV put it -- "look at that drop-off away from LOLCoorz!"
Of course, Tulo's tOPS+ would skyrocket if he just stopped hitting so well at home. I'll say that again, Tulo's numbers would look better to the national media if he was just worse at home. Notice that Tulowitzki's road OBP, SLG, and OPS are all higher than Trouts with significantly lower BABIP.
So Mike Trout is maybe getting luckier, putting up less impressive numbers, and still has a drop in tOPS+ from 126 at home to 70 on the road. His splits don't look as bad because he hasn't been as good over all. He doesn't look as bad on the road because he isn't as good at home.
This is how facts are used to tell lies.
The last column holds the truth that so many refuse to see. The sOPS+ stat measures a player's splits against the rest of the league. Again with 100 as our base we can see that Trout is 83 points better than league average at home and 20 points better than league average on the road. Pretty good.
Troy Tulowitzki is 284 points (huh?) better than league average at home and still 49 points above league average on the road. Yup, Troy Tulowitki (according to these numbers) is a full 29 points better that Mike Trout just when considering road numbers. He is being undercut for doing something (hitting on the road) that he does better than the league by a significant margin.
I find it ironic that the same Mike Trout supporters who triumphantly wave his advanced stats might have to hang their hats on seventeen points of batting average. That is the only place Trout is outperforming Tulowitzki's road success.
So yes, when you measure Tulo against himself you can make it look less impressive, but when you measure him against others -- and choose to look at home/road splits for guys don't play in Denver (novel concept I know) -- the facts speak for themselves.
Check all the home/road splits if you're going to bring them up. Only looking at Tulo's is simply intellectually dishonest.
The narrative that Troy Tulowitzki is somehow not as good as he appears because of the ballpark he plays in is based on a twisting of facts, not a presentation of them.
Quarterback of the diamond
Now that we've dispensed with an argument I've been making since Jimmy Rollins stole Matt Holliday's MVP award (either that or Jake Peavy stole Jeff Francis' Cy Young) in 2007, let's take a look at what the two most dynamic players in the game actually bring to their teams.
Mike Trout is definitely better than Troy Tulowitzki in two respects to this point in their careers; he is faster and healthier.
I'll leave health questions for doctors. When the rest of us speculate on it we often end up sounding like idiots. Right now, Tulo looks fine. If he gets hurt again, we'll discuss this again.
The speed thing definitely has its advantages, though many of the same stat people who sing Trout's praises are the ones who tell you that stealing bases is an unworthy risk. A stolen base attempt is worth negative WPA. The speed still plays well in general on the base paths and obviously in center field.
His below average arm, though, at best ends up washing that skill out when compared to Tulo's below average speed and cannon for an arm. Tulo is a smart runner who excels at tagging up and going first to third but isn't going to steal you any bases anymore. Like Trout's arm, Tulo's speed is below average but not by much and is still sometimes a useful tool for him.
But this is the main wedge area where I think Tulo takes the cake. He is a short stop who is tasked with more responsibility and more constant engagement on the defensive side.
Trout had 361 defensive chances (any play he was involved in defensively) in 2013 and 347 in 2012. Troy Tulowitzki has never recorded fewer than 500 chances in a season except injury-riddled 2012.
Tulo has topped 600 chances in four seasons including in his rookie campaign with an absurd 834. Trout has never topped 380.
There is an element of randomness to how many times the ball is hit in your direction, but Troy Tulowitzki is counted on more regularly on defense than any outfielder, even one as good as Trout.
Also consider Tulo's captaining responsibilities on the defense: moving guys around, communicating what's happening on steal attempts, double plays, signs with a runner on second and even regularly calling mound conferences to settle a pitcher or discuss strategy, none of which an outfielder has to worry about.
Tulo even has to range into the outfield occasionally to catch pop-ups and would-be bloop hits. No CF has to worry about fielding a line-shot grounder and spinning in one motion to make a throw to first.
Some would tell you that all of this is accounted for in WAR (while simultaneously telling you that defensive stats are still in their infancy) but even if that were true (though I don't totally trust WAR) Trout still doesn't serve as nearly the foundational piece that Troy does.
Ultimately I tend to judge these kinds of questions on a simple "Who would you take?" If every player in baseball was a free-agent and I had the first pick in the draft, I would take Troy Tulowitzki in a heart-beat, an eye-blink, a one-note-song...whatever. He is the rarest commodity in baseball and I would feel no hesitation or regret in taking him first overall.
I ran this test in MLB 14 The Show.
So why take an outfielder with your first overall pick when you can get Stanton or Heyward in round four?
Conversely, lets take a look at the shortstop market.
Round two available shortstops: Andrelton Simmons.
Round three: Elvis Andrus.
To me, the disparity here is quite clear. You take Troy Tulowitzki with that pick because he is the only guy who can do all the things he can do from that position. He takes care of you most important defensive concern as a team (aside from maybe catcher) and slots in as the most feared hitter in almost any lineup.
Hanley Ramirez is the next best thing and according to Fangraphs is a -1.7 defensively at short stop. Tulo is plus 6.2.
Andrelton Simmons? He has a home OBP of .333 and a road OBP of .267. I'll have a follow up piece on defensive comparisons, but Tulo has been better in that regard as well, especially (according to Fangraphs) in terms of making more difficult plays.
And after that you can't come close to Tulo's production on either side of the ball.
Jason Heyward, who is not as good as Mike Trout, still does a few things appreciably better (most notably his arm strength) and isn't a huge drop-off anywhere else. He is currently leading the league in defensive fWAR. And he goes in the fourth round.
When building a team from the ground up, there simply is no better startling brick than Troy Tulowitzki.
The gap between Mike Trout and the second, third, and hell even eighth and ninth best outfielders is nothing compared the the gap between Tulo and not-Tulo at short.
Mike Trout may be the best player in baseball in theory but Troy Tulowitzki is the best player in baseball in reality.