Friday, May 13, 2011

Tulo: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly

If you weren’t making your home under a rock this offseason, you know that Troy Tulowitzki signed one of the longest and most lucrative contracts in baseball history this offseason (if you were, you should look into getting WiFi for your makeshift cave so you can keep up with this sort of thing). It made him the only player locked up into the next decade at the time (though Ryan Braun now joins him as the only people in the world who can accurately guess what their lives will look like in 2020). For any player who signs an extension, especially one this big, the stakes are immediately elevated, as Rockies supporters now expect Tulo to perform like the perennial MVP candidate he’s already shown he can be.

In some respects, Tulowitzki is living up to expectations. He currently leads all middle infielders with 9 home runs, and though several second basemen have displayed considerable power, there’s isn’t a shortstop who’s even come close to flashing the pop exhibited by the Rockies’ new $157.75 million dollar man. As Jeff Zimmerman pointed out in his article last month, most of Tulo’s prolific power has come with a newfound dedication to pulling the ball, and that’s held true, as six of his nine home runs have been hit to leftfield.

Tulo’s also shown marked improvement in his plate discipline. After walking in 9.1% of plate appearances last year, Tulo’s taking free passes at a 12.2% rate this season, and has more than halved his strikeout rate from 16.6% last season to 7.8% this year. Tulo’s swinging at less pitches and making contact at a higher rate, as his swing-and-miss percentage of 4.2% is now third among shortstops. He had the eighth-best contact rate of all shortstops last season, so that large improvement goes a long way in explaining his avoidance of strikeouts. Continued improvement in his plate discipline could make the Rockies look like geniuses for ensuring he spends the large majority of his career in purple and white.

However, there is one disturbing trend that goes a long way towards explaining Tulowitzki’s precipitous drop in BABIP, and as is often the case when BABIP drops, batting average. Over the first five seasons of his career, Tulowitzki’s line drive rate has maintained a fairly steady downward trend, and that trend has continued this season, as he’s mustered liners on only 11.9% of balls in play in the early going, a 3.1% drop from last year’s 15%. At the same time, his flyball rate has been slowly rising throughout his career, a large reason for his big home run totals over the last three seasons. Though his power to his pull field has been spectacular, he’s put up his lower line drive and higher ground ball rates hitting to left than he has to center or oppo over each of the last two seasons, a trend that has continued early in this campaign. His pull batted ball rates this year are the worst they’ve been since his breakout 2009 season, as he’s stroking line drives on only 7.9% of hits to left as compared to 12.5% to center and 20.8% to right. His groundball rate of 59.3% when hitting to left is simply atrocious, and plays a huge part in his NL-worst .209 BABIP. Of course, when using splits this early in the season, the sample sizes get even smaller, but this statistic will be something to monitor over the course of the year, especially as it is a continuation (although exaggerated) of a trend he’s displayed since 2009. To me, this would suggest that he’s trying too hard to pull the ball and hit for power, resulting in him rolling over to the left side of the infield and grounding out rather than focusing on simply using his sweet swing to spray the ball consistently to all fields. Though it could result in a slight drop in his power numbers, Tulo would probably benefit from refocusing his efforts from pulling for power to simply going with the pitches he sees and hitting the ball hard. Though the pressure on Tulowitzki has never been higher, his overall production would likely benefit from a more balanced approach at the plate rather than pressing to hit the ball out of the yard as much as possible. Chicks dig the longball, but in Tulo’s case the Rockies should be more interested in his ability to get on base more consistently by reverting to the higher line drive rates he displayed earlier in his career.

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