Troy Tulowitzki’s Having a Moment … and Possibly a Season for the Ages

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Troy Tulowitzki did something extraordinary on Monday night against the Rangers.

He reached base four times, but that wasn’t it. He hit two opposite-field, two-run homers, but that wasn’t it, either.

No, the earth-shattering moment came in the first inning of the Rockies’ eventual 8-2 win, with Texas starter Martin Perez on the mound, two outs, and nobody on base. Tulo worked the count to 3-2, and Perez fired a shin-high sinker. The Rockies’ shortstop eyed the pitch, took a big swing … and grounded out to second base.

Tulowitzki is batting so well in 2014 that his outs have become more notable than his hits.

Unsurprisingly, Tuesday night brought more of the same. In his first three at-bats, Tulowitzki reached on a hit by pitch, singled to right, and drilled one of the hardest, loudest line drives to center anyone in attendance has ever seen. Things got silly during a six-run sixth inning, with Tulo hammering a 370-foot double to the warning track in left-center … with one hand on the bat. His one out, a grounder to the pitcher in the seventh inning, was just his 21st out in 65 plate appearances at Coors Field this season. If Hall of Fame officials had called to ask for the ball Shawn Tolleson used to retire Tulowitzki, few would have blamed them.

Tulowitzki is putting up the kinds of numbers we expect to see only a few games into the season, when small sample sizes create all kinds of screwiness. He’s hitting .421 overall despite hitting just .250 on the road, reminding us that it’s been 73 years since anyone hit .400 or better over a full season. He owns a preposterous .522 on-base percentage, better than the .515 mark Barry Bonds posted in 2001, arguably the craziest offensive season of our lifetimes. Tulo is slugging .794, slightly better than Babe Ruth’s mark for the legendary 1927 Yankees.

Thanks in large part to Tulowitzki’s otherworldly start, the Rockies are 21-14 and in second place in the NL West, with the best run differential (plus-48) in baseball. To get a better sense of what’s fueling this offensive explosion, let’s start by examining what Tulo has been hitting. The short answer: everything.

troy-tulowitzki-map-2014-tri

That’s not a heat map; it’s a nuclear blast that’s threatening to wipe out Western civilization. While splitting the strike zone into bits can create excessively small samples over an entire season, much less 32 games, it’s hard not to get excited about a guy who’s hitting .778 on pitches down and near the inside corner, .500 on low pitches down the middle, and a ludicrous .500 on knee-to-thigh-high pitches that are actually out of the zone, off the outside corner.

His 2014 spray chart shows how he’s mastered outside pitches, with five of his nine homers going right of straightaway center field.

troy-tulowitzki-hit-chart-tri

If we look at a heat map that shows Tulo’s hitting since 2009 (which is as far back as ESPN’s TruMedia data goes), we see that his best spots over that time are near the top of the zone or just below, with lukewarm-to-cold spots on all low pitches. That’s the opposite of what he’s doing this year.

troy-tulowitzki-map-2009-tri

What he’s doing this year, however, has come in just 32 games and 134 plate appearances. That’s one-fifth of the season, which means it’s enough to make us take notice, but is it enough to make us believe this can last?

Baseball Prospectus’s Russell Carleton has tested all kinds of stats to figure out when it’s safe to trust the numbers. He found that contact rate is one of the first stats to stabilize, around the 100th plate appearance of a season. Tulo’s already there, though the results have been surprisingly poor for someone hitting above .400; he’s made less contact in 2014 than in any full season of his career other than 2007. Several related numbers paint an equally confusing picture: He’s falling behind 0-1 more often in the count and swinging at more pitches out of the zone.

Those figures represent only one piece of the puzzle, though. Conversely and somewhat perplexingly, Tulowitzki is walking far more, and striking out far less, than almost ever before. His 23 walks and 14 strikeouts this year work out to a walk rate of 17.2 percent and a strikeout rate of just 10.4 percent. Only Victor Martinez and Kurt Suzuki have posted a better walk-to-strikeout rate in 2014.

An even bigger key to Tulowitzki’s success this year has been what he’s done when he does make contact. It’s tempting to fall into the “but BABIP!” trap when a player puts up obscene offensive numbers, and this year’s .419 batting average on balls in play certainly looks like a fluke that will even out over time. But check out the underlying numbers, and that .419 figure starts to make more sense, at least for now. Tulowitzki is roping line drives all over the park, ranking among the NL leaders with a 27.4 percent line-drive rate, while his 2014 popup rate is nearly half his career mark. The biggest change, however, has come on his fly balls. During his 902-game major league career, 15.4 percent of Tulo’s fly balls have been home runs; this year that number sits at 30 percent, the highest rate in baseball. When a player is crushing pitches as often as Tulo is, a ton of them are bound to fall in for hits.

Now, though, we need to examine those contact numbers to figure out if they’re flukes. Tulo’s home run–to–fly ball rate smashes his prior totals, and it’s also very high from a historical standpoint: It’s the seventh-highest total a batter has posted in the past decade, and is thus likely to dip as the season progresses. Even a cursory glance at the highlights suggests regression is coming; both of his home runs Monday were wall-scrapers that might’ve gone for doubles or maybe even outs under slightly different circumstances.

In an effort to go beyond the usual numbers — and the usual attributions to luck/random chance/configuration of the planets — I wanted to test out three other factors for what might be sparking Tulo’s surge.

The first was seeing if Tulowitzki has faced a cupcake schedule this year. Here are the Rockies’ 2014 opponents to date, listed in chronological order with their team ERA ranks:

Marlins (10th)
Diamondbacks (29th)
White Sox (26th)
Giants (5th)
Padres (7th)
Phillies (20th)
Giants (5th)
Dodgers (9th)
Diamondbacks (29th)
Mets (19th)
Rangers (28th)

So, yes, there might be a little something to this schedule theory. The Coors Effect is also in play, of course, as the games against the five worst ERA teams on this list (the White Sox, Phillies, Mets, Rangers, and Diamondbacks once) all came at home. The two series against the Diamondbacks stand out, as Tulo went 8-for-15 in five games, with six walks, two doubles, and two homers. He’s also had a bit of matchup luck, including dodging White Sox ace Chris Sale when Chicago came to town, going 4-for-6 with two doubles and a homer against weaker Sox adversaries. Colorado has faced some stingy opponents this year, however, with several games against quality pitchers. Tulo has battered them anyway, especially at Coors Field.

The second approach was to break down his swing. Since I’m not a scout, this was a task best given to someone else. I showed a few Tulo videos to Ethan Purser, a member of the Baseball Prospectus Prospect Team and someone who’s spent many hours breaking down hitters’ swings, and asked if he’s seen any changes in Tulowitzki’s 2014 swing compared to the past. Here’s Purser’s reply:

After parsing through a couple of different side-angle shots, nothing is sticking out in terms of changes from previous seasons. It’s still an incredibly efficient swing, one that hitting coaches at both the amateur and professional ranks should be showing their students regularly. The toe-tap/hand-pump timing mechanism that aids in getting some giddy-up and easy bat speed early in his sequence; the impeccable timing and separation between the upper and lower half (which in turn creates the insane torque necessary to pummel the baseball in the manner in which he does); leading with the hips; the direct connection of the hands with the back shoulder after slotting; getting everything from his lower half as evidenced by his back foot coming off the ground at contact; efficient rotation after planting without extraneous forward movement; the necessary bat plane to create optimal lift; not to mention insanely fast hands and wrist strength. It’s all there and it hasn’t really changed from previous seasons. I wish there was a more compelling story to tell in terms of a mechanical alteration, but I’m just not seeing it.

Seeking a second opinion, I turned to a longtime scout for an NL team. While the scout largely agreed that not much has changed, he did notice one small thing: Tulowitzki is closing his stance a bit more than in the past, and is also now spreading his legs slightly farther apart. Sync up the two videos below at the two-second mark, and you can see the small change in how Tulowitzki is closing his stance.

Here he is in 2012 against Wandy Rodriguez:

And here he is Monday night against Martin Perez:

That closed stance helps explain how Tulo is destroying outside pitches. He’s also smoking pitches near the knees and off the inside corner, though, and that’s something we’d typically expect to see from a player with an open stance. Regardless, the scout stressed that this stance change is minor, and that the rest of Tulo’s swing looks pretty much identical. The way Tulowitzki loads up and strides into a pitch, his bat angle, and his swing all look the same. So in all likelihood, this hitting binge isn’t stemming from a significant mechanical adjustment.

The third idea I wanted to explore was a little more out-there. I live in Denver, just five miles from Coors Field, and I can tell you that it’s been hot here lately, unseasonably so. Or at least it’s felt that way. To find out for sure, I dug into the archives at Weather Underground. Offensive levels tend to rise in warmer weather, so if Denver has truly been unusually hot this year, that — along with Coors being the most hitter-friendly park in the league, 32 games being a still smallish sample, and Tulo just being really good — could help explain this incredible streak. It might even tell us a little about the eye-popping numbers several other Rockies are putting up, especially Charlie Blackmon and Justin Morneau.

From April 4 through May 6, the period covering the Rockies’ home opener through Tuesday night’s battle with the Rangers, Denver has registered an average high of 65 degrees (with temps reaching as high as 83), an average mean temperature of 50, and an average low of 38. Compare those figures to the same dates last year, when a wicked cold snap gripped the city for much of April and early May, knocking those figures down to 55, 41, and 28 degrees. This guy knows what I’m talking about.

Leaving 2013’s freeze aside, it turns out that 2014 has been a relatively warm year by historical standards, though not an extremely hot one. This year has brought the fifth-warmest April 4–May 6 temperatures in the Rockies’ 22-year history. So while that’s warm, it’s still way below, say, 2000, when we got an average high of 82, an average mean temperature of 67, and an average low of 52. Of course, Tulo wasn’t playing in 2000. I did a bit more granular analysis to see if any other weather factors have been in play. For instance, the game-time temperature was 79 degrees during Tulo’s huge Monday-night performance, a balmy reading for May 5 at 6:40 p.m. So Tulowitzki might be benefiting a bit from relatively warmer weather, but it’s not like we’ve seen the kind of consistent, off-the-charts temperatures that might explain a bigger piece of this performance.

Most likely, Tulowitzki’s incredible start is a case of all of the above. He’s been a bit lucky, and he’s benefited from the variance afforded by a sample of games that’s longer than a week, but still a hell of a lot shorter than an entire season. He’s also a freakishly talented player who’s on the run of his life, peaking in his age-29 season. Whether he cools off or not, a healthy Tulo is one of the five best players on earth. Even after adjusting for Coors Field’s hitter-friendly effects, he’s a hugely productive hitter who also happens to play shortstop, a position that rarely churns out offensive superstars. He’s also really great at playing that position, a two-time Gold Glove winner who’s earned that hardware both with the numbers and the highlights. Any team would kill to have him.

“When healthy” is the rub, of course. Since breaking into the majors by playing 155 games, cranking 24 homers, and finishing second in Rookie of the Year voting in 2007, he’s managed to reach the 150-game mark only once. In 2008, he missed 61 games because of thigh and hand injuries; in 2012, he missed 115 games after suffering a major groin injury; last year, he missed 36 more because of smaller rib, oblique, shoulder, and leg ailments, a major disappointment given that he put up the best numbers of his career on a per-game, league-adjusted basis. He’s already dealt with a minor quad strain this year, and while it clearly didn’t affect him much, it’s still hard to feel fully confident that he can play all the way through September without suffering some kind of setback.

If he does, though, look out. In both seasons in which Tulo played 150 or more games, the Rockies made the playoffs, something they’ve done just one other time in franchise history. Give them a full season of peak Tulo to pair with some surprising lineup balance, the emergence of young players like Nolan Arenado, and a playable pitching staff that could get much better if the electric Tulsa Drillers duo of Jon Gray and Eddie Butler can make it up to the big leagues, and 2014 might bring another Rocktober … and some new hardware for Tulowitzki.

Filed Under: MLB, Troy Tulowitzki, Colorado Rockies, Coors Effect, Rocktober, MLB Stats, Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon, NL West, Jonah Keri

jonah_keri

Jonah Keri is a staff writer for Grantland. His book The Extra 2%: How Wall Street Strategies Took a Major League Baseball Team From Worst to First is a national best seller. His new book Up, Up, and Away, on the history of the Montreal Expos, is now available.

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