By: Dan Grant
The debut was impressive. I should know, I was there.
Greeted with a standing ovation–before his first at bat strikeout, mind you–Troy Tulowitzki turned in one of the most impressive debut games in Blue Jays history, homering in his second plate appearance and following that up with a pair of doubles. He appeared sure handed at short, confident at the plate and physically impressive at all times. He immediately catapulted himself into the hearts of the Blue Jays faithful, with that excellent debut.
What has followed has been less impressive.
In 18 games as a Toronto Blue Jay–17 starts–Tulowitzki has slashed .219/.321/.384, for a .705 OPS. That .321 OBP is exactly in line with the .322 Jose Reyes put up during his 2015 with the Blue Jays, and Tulo’s fielding has been far superior. He’s gone error-less in Toronto, turned 11 double plays and rated a +2 in Defensive Runs Saved (per Fangraphs) since his move north of the border. He’s brought steadiness to a key defensive position that had become a real problem for Toronto, and you wouldn’t say that he’s been a disappointment at the plate, per se.
But you’re starting to hear the clamouring. Impatient fans who look at his career numbers and wonder when that superstar is going to check in, when Tulo is going to start mashing on the daily, inspiring fear at the top of our lineup and leading this already historic Blue Jays offense to even greater heights.
I would say to those people that he is already here. I would say to them that he’s a Trojan Horse, deposited in their midst and he’s about to release his payload.
I would say to them: watch Bull Durham.
After you’ve watched it, and you understand that there’s such a small difference between putting up numbers like Tulo has so far in Toronto and putting up numbers like Tulo did in Colorado, you might wonder what exactly has caused his ‘struggles’ so far as a Jay.
Allow me to present the following three conclusions.
1. Troy Tulowitzki is a human being.
He played his entire career in Colorado. Ten years, nine and a half seasons. He went through a World Series run, devastating injuries and multitudes of teammates. He signed a ten year deal there and expected to play it out. Jumping to a different team, in a different league, in a different country, without any say in the matter, is a big deal. And before you start with the ‘well he’s a goddamned professional, this shouldn’t affect him!’ nonsense, remember that it’s only been 18 games. I’m not suggesting this is a long term problem that will affect him for his entire time with the Blue Jays, but I am suggesting that he is a human effing person and dealing with that many unexpected changes would be difficult for anyone in the short term.
2. Troy Tulowitzki was NOT a product of Coors Field
For those concerned about this, well, he just wasn’t. His career numbers at Coors? They were great. It’s one of the best hitters parks in the game and he hit .321/.394/.558 for his career. But on the road? He’s still hit .275/.347/.466. So yes, Coors helped him, (or at least he had more success there) but he was no slouch away from home either.
3. Changing Leagues is a Big Deal
Tulowitzki played 1033 games with the Colorado Rockies. 104 of those were inter-league games, against American League opponents. He made 443 plate appearances in those games.
That leaves another 929 games that he has played in against National League opponents. In those games he made 4,076 plate appearances. That means that roughly 90% of his career plate appearances came against National League opponents and therefore, National League pitchers.
Now, I know what you’re thinking. ‘Dan, you idiot. Pitchers can CHANGE leagues nowadays. Just because he’s facing new teams doesn’t necessarily mean he’s facing new pitching!’
And you’d be right. Except that I looked into it and you’re wrong, so shut your face.
Since coming to Toronto, Tulowitzki has faced 35 pitchers from six different teams. Twenty of those 35 pitchers were completely new to him, including beasts like the Yankees Masahiro Tanaka and Dellin Betances and the Royals Kelvin Herrera. In his Toronto career, he’s gone 16-for-73 with 8 walks and 3 HBP, total. Against those 20 new pitchers, he went a combined 9-for-38, with 4 walks. Not a great success rate.
Of the 15 pitchers he faced before, he saw only three more than 10 times in his career–Edinson Volquez, Johnny Cueto and Blaine Boyer. So he really had very little experience against any of the pitching he’s faced since joining Toronto. And again, I’ll stress, that was less than a month ago. Small sample sizes are the enemy.
Think about it this way. Troy Tulowitzki has been in the majors for nearly ten seasons. There is a ‘book’ on him. Hot zones, statistics, video of his tendencies, accounts of his strengths and weaknesses; all this stuff exists and is passed to every single pitcher who ever faces him, whether it’s once or ten times. Now, Tulowitzki will have similar information about these pitchers, but hitting is objectively more difficult than pitching–get a hit 3 out of 10 times and you’re in Yankee Stadium, like Bull Durham said. One extra hit a week makes all the difference.
There is evidence to suggest that things will get better. In his career, Tulowitzki has faced at least 27 pitchers 20 or more times. His success against those pitchers breaks down as follows:
1.200 or higher – 3 (Gallardo, Maholm, J. Sanchez)
1.100-1.200 – 3 (Bumgarner, Lohse, Stults)
1.000-1.100 – 2 (Cain, Peavy)
.900-1.000 – 3 (Billingsley, Hudson, Pelfrey)
.800-.900 – 4 (Collmenter, Haren, Kendrick, Kennedy)
.700-.800 – 2 (Kershaw, Harang)
.700 or lower – 10 (Correia, Greinke, Kuroda, Lowe, L.Hernandez, Lilly, Lincecum, Maddux, Webb, Zito)
The reason I chose .700 is because that is widely considered to be a league average number for OPS. Of the four pitchers he faced more than 50 times (in order: Cain, Kershaw, Lincecum, Zito), his success varies. He’s crushed Cain, and had reasonable success against Kershaw. He’s been pretty average against Lincecum (.695) and struggled mightily against Barry Zito (.433). In fact, his biggest struggles are against Zito (.433 in 50 AB), Ted Lilly (.308 in 32 AB) and Greg Maddux (.390 in 20 AB), so maybe he has a problem with soft tossing lefties and the greatest control pitcher of all time. Telling! Just kidding.
Anyway, as you can see from the wider numbers, Tulowitzki has put up league average or greater numbers against 17 of those 27 pitchers, which suggests that the more he sees pitchers, the better he does, overall. This make sense. As his comfort level and experience with pitchers in the American League grows, so will his ability to thwart whatever game plan they throw his way.
You can see this in his game to game numbers as well. In his career, the first time Tulo faces a starting pitcher in a given game, he’s hitting .298/.371/.540. That increases to .344/.393/.603 when he sees that same pitcher a second time. The same statistic is present in relief pitchers. The first time he sees one, he’s at .270/.363./449 and the second time, .296/.328/.593. Considering how specialized bullpens are these days and that many of those relievers may have been brought in specifically to face him, those are superb initial numbers, supplemented by sizable jumps.
When you take these three conclusions together — that Tulo is human, that he was not a product of his environment and that he gets better as he grows more experienced — you can conclude that the best at the plate is yet to come from the Blue Jays new star shortstop.
The American League best not grow complacent, because there is a Trojan Horse in their midst, and he is about to begin raking.