Before we dive into Troy Tulowitzki's 2014 season and dissect how he might be able to improve on it going forward, I need to put a warning label on this post. So here we go ...
(Everything I'm about to write comes with the caveat that Troy Tulowitzki's future is uncertain, especially when it comes to injury. With the exception of 2012 where he clearly wasn't 100 percent, Tulo's demonstrated an amazing ability to come back from from the DL without his game on the field being heavily impacted. It's easy to just assume he'll do it again, but he's still coming off major hip flexor surgery, and until we see him back out there, there's no guarantees he'll be quite the same player. So far all the reports are good, but there's no way to tell for sure until the spring.)
When I had the privilege of writing and researching Troy Tulowitzki's player review last season, I came to a very counterintuitive conclusion: Troy Tulowitzki is a better hitter when he swings and misses more often. I encourage you to read that entire piece to better understand where I'll be coming from today, but the basic idea here is that Troy Tulowitzki is so good at making contact now that he can afford to swing for the moon a bit more than most players because he can add slugging there while still being a solid contact hitter. In short, this does a better job of maximizing his combined ability to hit for power and to hit for contact.
The 2014 season only strengthened this train of thought as the following chart shows. The place Tulo gains the most by swinging and missing more often is with less then two strikes. If he makes contact, he causes massive damage. If he doesn't, he gets another shot. Tulo did the "make less contact / do more damage" thing for the first half of 2013 before his rib injury and had a 1.048 OPS at that time, but then he seemed to go away from it when he came off the DL and the team was out of contention. As a result, that season is mixed. 2014, however, is the full blown best case scenario of what Tulo can do with less than two strikes when he trades a little of his exceptional contact skills for more slugging percentage.
The table pretty much speaks for itself. Tulo has always been a good hitter with less than two strikes on him, but he took it to an entirely different level in 2014. The price he paid for this was the lowest contact percentage since his rookie season when he came in below the 50th percentile; but even at the 55th percentile, he's still making contact more often than most power hitters in the game.
Now that we know where Tulo stands on this topic, let's get some perspective. In the table below I've taken the 20 best hitters by wRC+ since the start of the 1989 season with at least 2,000 plate appearances (1989 is when baseball reference starts giving us enough data to crunch the math needed to figure out what players are doing with two strikes and less than two strikes on them). This table is NOT here to specifically compare Tulo's 2014 season to the career of any of these players (many of these players had better individual seasons at the plate than Tulo's 2014), but rather to see how the relationship of "less than two strikes hitting" and "two strikes hitting" works for the game's best players. The table is ordered by OPS of those who did the most damage in their career with less than two strikes.
This is a fascinating table on many levels. There's some common threads between what these players do, but also quite a bit of individuality in the way they they arrive at greatness. In general however, the best hitters here (and we're really picking from the cream of the crop when we make that statement) tend to be better at hitting with two strikes on them. Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Manny Ramirez specifically have the highest OPS numbers for their career with two strikes.
This is interesting when it comes to Tulo for two reasons. First, we just showed he's better off sacrificing some contact for slugging percentage with less than two strikes, and second, Tulo's actually already demonstrated the ability to be a truly elite two strike hitter back in the 2009/2010 time frame when he posted a .784 and .750 OPS in those spots as seen in the first table. At first, it seems like Tulo hasn't yet figured out how to balance his new found ability to hit for slugging with less than two strikes (sacrificing contact for power) with his older ability to hit well with two strikes as he displayed in 2009 and 2010, but I'm not sure that's the whole story.
While it's true that making mid-at-bat adjustments is tricky and is probably something Tulo could still do a better job at, something else is happening here as well. To investigate further, let's look at the next table where we take the 30 best power hitters in the game in 2014 (based on the average number of plate appearances they had between home runs [lower numbers are better here]) and arrange them by strikeout percentage. In what's becoming our theme, we're looking for players who demonstrate both the ability to hit for power and the ability to make contact.
If the top part of that table looks familiar, it should. I ran this same exercise in the Tulo review from last season and Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, Troy Tulowitzki, and David Ortiz all appeared in the top seven of that list. As long as they hit enough home runs to qualify for the table, the same general names will appear at the top of the list with freakishly high wRC+ scores to boot. These are the types of hitters that tend to age really, really well.
What's significant about this table as it relates Tulo is that he's still not striking out very much in relation to other power hitters even with the contact he's sacrificed. This is what leads me to believe that something else is impairing his ability to hit at a truly elite level with two strikes. The following table, which looks at the specifics of the strikeouts for the five best power + contact hitters in 2014, expands upon this idea.
A couple of things should jump out here. First, that's why Detroit just paid Victor Martinez so much money going into his age 36 season. The other thing that's amazing here though is the breakdown of Tulo's strikeouts. An astounding 47 percent of them are looking. No other hitter who hits for elite power and doesn't strike out much wastes as many at bats striking out looking as Tulo, and it's not even close. The average breakdown of strikeouts swinging vs. strikeouts looking across baseball is 75 percent to 25 percent. In fact, Tulo's 2014 strikeout looking rate of 47 percent was the second highest in all of baseball among players with at least 300 plate appearances. (Casey McGehee came in with the highest figure)
This means that Tulo's ability to hit with two strikes is not being capped by the lower contact rate he's making in general to increase the damage he does with less than two strikes, but instead it's being capped by his pitch recognition skills. As good as 2014 was for Tulo at the plate, a 1.337 OPS with less than two strikes and a strikeout swinging rate of just 8.1 percent could theoretically yield even better production.
So now the question becomes: Where is Tulo struggling to recognize pitches? Is this just a problem in general for him, or does he have issues in a certain part of the zone? To find out more information on this, I went back and watched every one of his 57 strikeouts this season (30 swinging, 27 looking) and plotted them on the images below from the perspective of the pitcher. Since strikeouts looking seem to be the issue here, let's look at that image first (the different colors mean nothing - they just make it easier to distinguish the dots when they're all clumped together).
Tulo's strikeouts looking pretty much fall into three categories.
1) Four in the middle of the plate. All of these were sharply breaking off speed pitches that caught Tulo off guard. All were thrown in about a three week stretch and they stopped being thrown after Tulo adjusted and put a couple of these in the left field seats.
2) 17 on or just off the lower outside corner of the plate. This is the group that's key.
3) Six that fall into an "other" category (five on the inside half of the plate and one high on the outside part of the plate). There's nothing to worry about here as at least three and probably four or five of them were terrible calls. This is also where one of Tulo's 2014 ejections came from as well as two more near-ejections.
The group to focus on here though is the second one. While two of the calls in this department were also terrible, Tulo does have a bit of a problem letting pitches go by that just catch this corner of the plate. Pitchers know this, have made the adjustment from what he was doing with two strikes in 2009 / 2010, and have used it as just about the only escape hatch they have when it comes to getting Tulo out.
During Tulo's at bats next season, take note of where opponents go when they get two strikes on him. It's almost always to this area of the plate unless they make a mistake or really try to expand the zone somewhere else.
Okay, now just for comparison's sake, let's look at the location of the 30 pitches Tulo struck out swinging on in 2014.
Here we have a much larger variety of pitches, but when you combine this image with the data we already have it's still an important one. While there's pitches scattered all over the strike zone, particularly the edge of the strike zone, there's one place where Tulo clearly tends to chase pitches out of the strike zone the most. Yep, it's down and away again. Every once in a while he'll get anxious and chase a pitch up with two strikes, and every once in a while he'll be fooled swinging at a pitch off the lower / inside part of the plate, but if a pitcher is going to get Troy Tulowitzki to swing and miss at something out of the zone with two strikes, it's probably going to be a pitch down and away.
In turn, this is also probably why we see Tulo take so many pitches that just clip the lower outside corner of the plate. He doesn't want to swing and miss at a pitch in that area that falls out of the zone.
2014 Grade: A-
Even though he only played in 91 games, what he did this season and what he's toiling with in his career picture is so over the top incredible he deserves something in the "A" range. I'll slap a minus on there for the missed time, but I can't go any lower than that for a guy who outproduced everyone on the team with such a limited amount of playing time.
What to expect in 2015
Honestly, I don't know. The first hurdle to clear is making sure he comes back healthy and is somewhere close to 100 percent of his ability. Hip injuries can be nasty, and if this one robs Tulo of some of his ability, everything discussed here goes out the window.
However, if Tulo does come back 100 percent, then we'll have to watch closely for any improvements he can make in terms of pitch recognition (a skill that often peaks last and tends to stay with players through their late 30's). It's not something that's likely to happen at this point, but it's within the realm of possibility, and it's worth keeping an eye on because the potential payoff is enormous - as in through-the-stratosphere enormous.
The adjustments we've witnessed Troy Tulowitzki make at the plate over the last few seasons have been nothing short of amazing, but if he ever gets a better handle on the lower outside portion of the strike zone, then you're going to see something truly remarkable.