In the early going, much of the coverage on the Rockies has centered around Charlie Blackmon’s leap from irrelevance. Overshadowed during that time has been the even better start by Troy Tulowitzki. While generally regarded as one of the best players in the game, Tulowitzki frequently goes overlooked. But his hot start has put him in position to squarely insert himself in the Most Valuable Player Award discussion.
If you filter things a certain way, you can see that Tulowitzki is well on his way to being one of the best shortstops of all-time. If you filter for all qualified shortstops through age 28, as I have done here, you can see that Tulowitzki is tied for 12th all-time, and is in line with Hall of Famers Cal Ripken and Lou Boudreau. That’s some pretty select company. If you sort that page by WAR however, you will see that Tulowitzki drops down to 25th place, just a shade under Jack Glasscock. One of the main reasons should be fairly simple to tease out — Tulowitzki just doesn’t have the career bulk that these players do. In fact, of the top 30 here, only four have fewer plate appearances than did Tulowitzki. When you filter by WAR/600 plate appearances, Tulowitzki sneaks up a few spots, to 20th. He likely doesn’t ascend any further because he has tried to play through some of these injury concerns, and that was particularly to his detriment in 2008 and 2012.
Those two seasons were the ones in which he has missed the most time, but more often than not, Tulowitzki has spent a good portion of each season in the dugout or trainers room, rather than on the field with his teammates. In his seven years as a full-time major leaguer heading into this one, Tulowitzki played 140 or more games in just three of them, and two of those three seasons were two of his first three seasons as a full-timer. This becomes more evident when you look at the individual greatest seasons by a shortstop. Tulowitzki’s best season by WAR was 2010, when he registered 5.9 WAR. It is just the 88th-best shortstop season of all-time. Certainly there’s no shame in that, but for a player as good as Tulowitzki you would think he would have at least one season higher on that list.
This just might be that season. Rockies watchers know that early in his career, Tulowitzki was dreadful in April. His worst full month in the majors is without question April 2008, when he hit just .152/.226/.238, which was “good” for just a 13 wRC+. He has improved his April numbers dramatically in recent years, and this year he came full circle. This April, he hit .364/.477/.727, good for a 212 wRC+ that is easily his best month ever, even better than his September run in 2010 when he hit 15 homers.
All of which makes you wonder if this is the year that he finally puts it all together. Certainly, there are a few markers working in his favor in the early going. He has walked seven more times than he has struck out. His walk rate is at a career high, as is his pitches per plate appearances seen. Both are numbers that increased last season, and that trend has continued in 2014’s infancy. His strikeout rate isn’t at its lowest, but it’s awfully close, as is his swinging strike percentage. And while his batting average on balls in play is currently high, it’s not so freakishly high that you couldn’t see him sustaining it for a full season, especially given the fact that his line drive percentage is so high. More importantly, he has cut way down on his infield fly ball percentage. This has always been a problem for Tulowitzki — since his debut, he has been among the league leaders in this regard.
This may lend more credence to the point Jeff Sullivan made last week, regarding the Rockies’ new hitting instructor. Certainly we’re going to need more than one month to determine whether or not Tulowitzki can keep his infield fly ball percentage under the league average for the first time in his career, but if he could, it would go a long way to helping his MVP campaign. Tulowitzki has finished as high as fifth in the MVP race, but thanks to his collection of injuries, he’s generally not discussed as an MVP candidate, even though he is generally acknowledged as one of the game’s best players. In our preseason staff predictions, only two of our 31 scribes pegged Tulowitzki as the NL MVP. Over at ESPN, only one of 42 predicted he would take home that hardware. In other words, it isn’t exactly shocking that Tulowitzki is playing this well, but at the same time it is a little surprising.
And, unlike years past, when Albert Pujols and Barry Bonds dominated the MVP discussion, the NL field is really wide open. There are a handful of players who you could peg as reasonably finishing with six to eight WAR apiece, and given good health, Tulowitzki should firmly be among that group. Of course, if Tulowitzki is to win the award, the Rockies will have to be reasonably in contention. Fortunately for him, the Rockies suddenly find themselves in the thick of things. The team didn’t start out with a very positive prognostication, but so far the team as a whole has been tearing the cover off the ball. In fact, star Carlos Gonzalez has been one of the team’s worst hitters. The bullpen has been solid as well. And while the rotation hasn’t been very good, it hasn’t been a disaster, and if they are able to get midseason boosts from Jon Gray and/or Eddie Butler, the Rockies may have the ammo to keep themselves in the hunt all season.
Of course, the most important factor in all of that is Tulowitzki’s health. While Tulowitzki doesn’t yet rival him in number of surgeries, he is building a career that could end up remarkably similar to another former Rockies player, Canadian masher Larry Walker. Walker had his one transcendent season in 1997, when he finally got into 150 games for the first time, and he took home the MVP for his troubles. If Tulowitzki can stay on the field, perhaps this will be his MVP year as well.