Tulowitzki: Proving the Defensive Movement Wrong

When I looked at the current 2014 statistics today, it was easy to see that one player is standing out, dominating the league with an incredible .421 batting average and a 1.317 OPS through 32 games. After the last two seasons, you may have thought that those numbers belonged to Detroit Tigers first baseman Miguel Cabrera, maybe even Los Angeles Angels outfielder Mike Trout, but you’d be wrong. In a season where we bid farewell to one of the greatest players ever, the torch has been passed along to Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki to continue a tradition of slugging shortstops in an era where so many teams are focusing on strong defensive metrics up the middle.

tulo2
Rockies’ SS Troy Tulowitzki

The thing is…Tulowitzki isn’t another Derek Jeter. Troy Tulowitzki, 29, has two Gold Gloves in his career, not that having Gold Gloves means anything when Jeter has five of them and has long been considered a defensive liability for the Yankees. The difference is that Tulowitzki is a very strong defender, posting a career range factor per nine of 5.01 (league average is 4.38) and a career fielding percentage of .986 (league average is .973), while he has a UZR of 38.7 over his career (3rd in MLB among shortstops since the start of the 2006 season). Tulo is an all-around star.

The biggest issue is his injury history. Tulowitzki has been on the disabled list five times in his career, missing a total of 267 team games since his arrival to the majors, nearly a season and a half of production, which is a big deal considering the investment that the Rockies made in their shortstop, 13-years and $167 million worth of extensions and commitments. Through the injuries, Tulowitzki continued to produce impressive overall numbers, as evidenced by his 162-game averages for his career:

Year G PA AB R H 2B 3B HR RBI SB BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS OPS+ TB
162 Game Avg. 162 687 605 103 181 36 4 29 105 10 69 107 .299 .373 .518 .891 124 313
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/7/2014.

That’s very Alex Rodriguez at shortstop-esque, which, with continued production, could make Tulowitzki the best overall shortstop this side of Honus Wagner.

Braves' SS Andrelton Simmons
Braves’ SS Andrelton Simmons

Which begs the question, why are so many teams still settling for players who are one-trick ponies when there are still players capable of playing short and producing strong offensive numbers? It wasn’t long ago that Alex Rodriguez, Miguel Tejada, and other, non-steroid using shortstops, like Nomar Garciaparra and Jeter, were ruling the middle of the infield around the league. Now, teams seem confident running out players like Adeiny Hechavarria, Alcides Escobar, Brandon Crawford, Elvis Andrus, Asdrubal Cabrera, and Zack Cozart, who have a long history of not producing OPS numbers close to .750 while putting up solid numbers defensively; however, is an out saved defensively any more valuable than an unproductive at-bat? Those unproductive at-bats appear to be the norm over the last couple of seasons from the players thought to be defensive wizards by their clubs at one time or another (yes, Cabrera was supposed to be an upgrade defensively when he replaced Jhonny Peralta at short for Cleveland in 2009).

Consider the top five defensive shortstops in baseball currently: Erick Aybar, Cozart, Tulowitzki, Pedro Florimon, and Andrelton Simmons. Only Aybar and Simmons have an OPS over .700, along with Tulo, with Aybar checking in at .710 and Simmons checking in at .731 – which would rank them slightly better than the great Emilio Bonifacio, even with his strong start, in 2014.

So, why would a team settle for that type of production when there is enough talent out there to offset whatever defensive struggles a player has with a mighty stick at the plate?

Troy Tulowitzki is not a typical shortstop, and, as Jonah Keri wrote today, he could be heading towards one of the greatest seasons in baseball history. The impressive numbers should be a reminder that there is talent out there that will overcome  and live beyond the current movement of defensive shifts, defensive metrics, and over-the-top focus on glove over offensive production. For every Didi Gregorius for Shin-Soo Choo trade, there will be a Javier Baez, Addison Russell, and Francisco Lindor on the way who can produce solid offensive numbers while continuing to redefine a position.

Troy Tulowitzki is doing his part in keeping Ernie Banks, Barry Larkin, and Derek Jeter and their production respectable. While Omar Vizquel, Luis Aparicio, and Ozzie Smith get love for their gloves, they couldn’t carry the other’s all-around jockstraps. Give me Troy Tulowitzki and overall production and you can keep your defensive metrics.

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