I'd like to introduce you to two of my favorite players in all of baseball. Actually, you already know them but for the sake of this exercise, I'm going to keep their identities a secret until after we look at some numbers.
The first player had an amazing rookie year in 2007, but saw a huge drop-off in production in a 2008 season that included two trips to the DL. Then, after 49 awful games in 2009, he disappeared from the major leagues altogether. His career numbers, and numbers averaged over a 162 game span (season) are listed below.
Note: The WAR scores here are fWAR (Fangraphs WAR)
|162 Game AVR.||162||18||82||.268||.341||.768||.336||93||2.9|
The second player is remarkably similar to the first in so many ways. In fact, he plays the same position, for the same team that the first guy did. He also wears the same number, is the same height (although he does stand much taller in the batter's box), and has an appearance that I swear wouldn't be distinguishable from the first guy if it wasn't for his choice of hairstyle.
That however, is where the similarities end. Our second player has only 224 career games under his belt and has never played more than 122 games in a season; but his numbers are so mind blowingly spectacular that if he just plays the entire 2011 season with no improvements at all, he'll likely not only win an MVP award, but also become known as the best player in all of baseball. His career numbers, and numbers averaged over a 162 game span (season) are listed below.
|162 Game AVR.||162||39||124||.323||.394||.992||.420||156||8.6|
Do you know who these players are yet? Scroll past the jump to find out.
Actually, both of these players are Troy Tulowitzki. How is that possible? Well it's actually Tulo's career numbers before and after an extremely important, yet largely forgotten moment in his career; his batting stance change. These numbers illustrate the astounding transformation that took place after Tulo (under the tutelage of Don Baylor) started standing more upright in the batter's box and developed a toe tap to help his timing at the plate. We all know that this change has helped Tulo immensely, but I'd argue that we have yet to fully realize just how much.
You see, Tulo played just 102 games batting like this in 2009 after making the change in June of that season and only 122 last year because of a fractured wrist. This means that we haven't seen just how good Tulo can be yet in any given season from start to finish and that his career numbers are inefficient in predicting his production level going forward because it includes data of a hitter that no longer exists. I'd instead argue that the best estimate for Tulo's production over the next several seasons can be found in the second row of the purple box listed above. Scroll back up and take a long look at it, because that's how good our shortstop really is. Remember, it's the only data we have where Tulo is using the batting stance we know he'll be using in 2011 and beyond.
If I'm right about these numbers, the Rockies didn't just lock up the best shortstop in baseball for a decade, they locked up the best player in baseball for a decade.
The reason I presented Tulo's numbers as if he was two different players is because I think it's important to view his career this way as opposed to what the year to year data suggests. As you can see below, the same data presented in the more generic season to season form tells an entirely different story of Tulo's career.
Here we see a player who exploded onto the scene during his rookie year in 2007, fell into a sophomore slump in 2008, came back strong in 2009, and then took another step forward in 2010 by becoming the best player at his position despite missing a quarter of the season with a broken wrist. That's all fine and dandy except for one thing; it didn't quite happen that way.
A Tale of Two Seasons (in one)
A closer analysis of Tulo's 2009 season holds the key to understanding why one needs to look at his career numbers before and after his stance chance to fully comprehend how high he has soared since starting to stand more upright in the batter's box. Below is a breakdown of Tulo's numbers before and after the stance change for just the 2009 season.
(Note: When calculating the WAR scores I took the total UZR for 2009 and spread it evenly throughout the season. There's a chance that the WAR scores here could be off by a tenth of a point in either direction.)
The beginning of the 2009 season was just as dreadful for Tulo as the start of 2008, sans the DL part. By Memorial Day of that year, Tulo was being compared to fellow Long Beach State alum Bobby Crosby, and for good reason. He had become a black hole in the lineup and was starting to be considered by many nothing more than a flash in the pan.
Then of course the stance change that transformed Tulo into the unstoppable beast we see at the plate today happened and the rest as they say is history; but it's important to realize just how bad Tulo was during the first third of 2009. Without truly understanding that, you can't look at Tulo's total numbers for that season and comprehend how good he was for the last four months. The real story of Tulo's 2009 is that the first 49 games he played severely tarnished his overall numbers for the year. Furthermore, since those last 102 games of 2009 account for 46% of the starts Tulo has made in his career with his new toe tap stance, 2009, (as fabulous as it may look as a whole) actually masks how good Tulo has been overall since the stance change itself. Again, scroll back up and take a look at the second row of the purple box above to get the real story here.
The Best the Game has to Offer?
Now here's where it gets really interesting. If you take Tulo's numbers since the stance change and compare them to the league leaders in some of the major categories, you'll find that the best player in baseball since June of 2009 is actually Troy Tulowitzki. Don't believe me? Let's take a look at some more numbers.
We'll start with your basic counting stats. The leaders in home runs and RBI's from last season are listed below.
|1) Jose Bautista||54||1) Miguel Cabrera||126|
|2) Albert Pujols||42||2) Alex Rodriguez||125|
|3) Paul Konerko||39||3) Jose Bautista||124|
|T4) Miguel Cabrera||38||4) Albert Pujols||118|
|T4) Adam Dunn||38||5) Carlos Gonzalez||117|
How does Tulo compare? Well since his stance change Tulo has hit enough home runs to average 39 in a 162 game season and has compiled enough RBI's to average 124 in a 162 game season. Oddly, that would have put him in a tie for third in both categories last season with Paul Konerko and Jose Bautista. In other words, he's become one of the most prolific power hitters in the game. (By the way, Bautista never hit more than 16 home runs in a season before last year but like Tulo, he also changed his stance. It will be interesting to see what sort of numbers he puts up here next season.)
Anyway, back to Tulo. Now I realize that the 39 home run number may be a little bullish because Tulo likely won't play every single day but even if he misses a dozen games or so, he'd still project to hit about 36 or 37 bombs next season. Either way, he's a serious threat to eclipse the 40 home run mark during one of the next few seasons and if he does, he'll become only the third shortstop in history to hit more than 40 home runs in a season. (Ernie Banks and Alex Rodriguez are the other two.)
Now we'll move to some of the more advanced metrics; wOBA and it's park adjusted sister wRC+. What I've done here is calculate the leaders in each category since June of 2009 when Tulo changed his stance.
|1) Albert Pujols||.434||1) Albert Pujols||176|
|2) Joey Votto||.429||2) Joey Votto||168|
|3) Troy Tulowitzki||.420||3) Miguel Cabrera||160|
|4) Kevin Youkilis||.416||T4) Troy Tulowitzki||156|
|5) Miguel Cabrera||.415||T4) Kevin Youkilis||156|
Now what's important to notice here is that the other players appearing on this list are all first basemen. (Youkilis is moving to third next season to make room for Adrian Gonzalez in Boston but he put up these numbers as a first baseman.) So it's not just that Tulo's been one of the five best hitters in baseball since his stance change, it's that he's been the best hitter that doesn't play first base in all of baseball since his stance change. You just don't find many hitters this good that don't play first base, especially not at shortstop. Throw in the defense Tulo provides (even using UZR, the defensive metric that likes him the least) and you get the best player in all of baseball.
To illustrate this, I've calculated the total WAR of the best position players (no pitchers) in baseball since June of 2009 and averaged it over 162 games.
|Player||WAR per 162 games|
|1) Troy Tulowitzki||8.6|
|2) Albert Pujols||8.1|
|3) Joe Mauer||7.7|
|4) Chase Utley||7.6|
|5) Rayn Zimmerman||7.5|
|6) Evan Longoria||7.5|
|7) Joey Votto||6.9|
|8) Kevin Youkilis||6.9|
|9) Carl Crawford||6.6|
|10) Matt Holliday||6.5|
As you can see above, nobody has been better than a healthy Tulo at accumulating WAR points since his stance change; not even Albert Pujols himself. Another thing to look at is the distance between Tulo and third place Joe Mauer; it's almost a full WAR point (and Mauer's number is a little misleading because he's never played in more than 146 games in a season).
The bottom line: As good as it appears Tulo has been, a more meticulous scan of his numbers reveals that he's actually been even better. You may not agree that he's the best player in baseball, but that's why this piece is called "The Dissenting Opinion".