Like Nomar Garciaparra before him, Troy Tulowitzki had the primary attributes of a Hall of Fame shortstop. He dazzled us with his combination of a powerful bat, good range, sure hands, the occasional spectacular leap, and a strong and accurate arm while making a case for himself as the position’s best. And like Garciaparra, Tulowtzki has been forced away from the game in his mid-30s after a seemingly endless string of injuries, leaving us to wonder what might have been. The 34-year-old shortstop announced his retirement in a statement released by the Yankees last Thursday.
Tulowitzki’s Yankees career lasted just five games, a blink of an eye compared to the 1,048 he played for the Rockies, or even the 238 he played for the Blue Jays. He wound up a Yankee after being released by Toronto in November 2018, that following a full season spent on the sidelines recuperating from surgery to remove bone spurs in both heels. The Blue Jays cut him while he still had $38 million in guaranteed salary remaining on the 10-year, $157.75 million deal he signed back in November 2010. Given that he would cost his next employer no more than the minimum salary, interest in him was heavy following a December showcase, with as many as many as 16 teams reportedly interested.
The mere chance to secure a version of Tulo that might be even 80% or 70% as good as the player who made five All-Star teams and won two Gold Gloves in 10 seasons with the Rockies (2006-15), at a bargain price — that was a no-brainer. The Yankees signed Tulowtzki in early January, needing to fill a temporary void created by Didi Gregorius‘ Tommy John surgery and unwilling to enter the Manny Machado sweepstakes. Given that Tulowitzki had worn uniform number 2 in honor of his boyhood idol, Derek Jeter, it wasn’t hard to understand the appeal of those pinstripes.
On February 25, in his first at-bat as a Yankee — facing former Blue Jays teammate Marcus Stroman to boot — Tulowitzki hit a home run. Admittedly, it was a short-porch special in an exhibition game, but the shot provided some optimism that he could recapture his form.
On March 28, having survived spring training and secured a spot in the Opening Day lineup, Tulowitzki played in his first regular season game in exactly 20 months. He capped it with an eighth-inning double off the Orioles’ Paul Fry. Two days later, he homered off Richard Bleier.
Alas, that home run turned out to be the last of the 1,391 hits of Tulowitzki’s major league career. He played in just three more games, going 0-for-5 before a left calf strain forced him to the injured list on April 4. He re-strained the calf during a rehab assignment on May 1, and even after he agreed to play other positions besides shortstop for the first time in his career once he returned, his stalled progress led the Yankees to send him home to Southern California in early June to reevaluate his options. Ultimately, he decided he was done:
Full statement from Troy Tulowitzki on his retirement: pic.twitter.com/FOV4AQeCYA
— Lindsey Adler (@lindseyadler) July 25, 2019
Tulowitzki’s retirement brings to a close an often spectacular, occasionally heartbreaking 14-year major league career. The number seven pick of the 2005 draft out of Long Beach State made his debut with the Rockies less than 15 months after being selected, and in 2007 finished second in the NL Rookie of the Year voting while helping Colorado to its lone trip to the World Series. From 2007-14, he recorded at least 4.9 WAR six times, even though he played in more than 126 games only three times. His 33.1 WAR for that stretch tied Joey Votto for 17th in the majors; only one other player among the top 24 played in fewer games in that span. Prorated to a 650 plate appearance basis, his 5.44 WAR ranked 12th for the stretch:
Tulowitzki averaged just 117 games per year during that span, and 105 per year over the 2008-18 span, which excludes the incomplete seasons that bookended his career. The litany of injuries is painful to recount, its sheer volume numbing:
|2008||Rockies||101||421||8||83||0.5||67||quad strain (51), thumb laceration (16)|
|2012||Rockies||47||203||8||113||1.3||126||groin strain (surgery)|
|2013||Rockies||126||512||25||141||4.9||28||rib cage fracture|
|2014||Rockies||91||375||21||170||5.1||71||hip labrum (surgery)|
|2016||Blue Jays||131||544||24||104||3.0||21||quad strain|
|2017||Blue Jays||66||260||7||79||0.1||99||hamstring strain (34), ankle sprain (65)|
|2018||Blue Jays||0||0||0||0||0.0||189||bone spurs in heels (surgery)|
Tulowitzki believed that his large stature for a shortstop (6-foot-3, 205 pounds) contributed to his ailments, as did playing at altitude. From a 2014 Sports Illustrated profile by Ben Reiter:
Tulowitzki became convinced that the source of at least some of his maladies was the same thing that, for 22 years now, has caused baseballs to travel farther at Coors Field than in any other ballpark: Denver’s mile-high altitude. “You hear guys on the bases say, ‘My body feels like crap today,’ ” Tulowitzki says. “I’ll say, Man, try to play 81 games here. It’s known: You play in Colorado, you’re going to be extra sore. There were times when I had slight pulls here and there that I played through, but it wasn’t the smartest thing to do. I just ran it out there every day until it broke.”
In an attempt to keep himself healthy, Tulowitzki “focus[ed] maniacally on a daily routine that he has designed not just to keep him on the field… but to operate each night at nothing short of his peak. It involves hours of scripted workouts, stretching, video study, ice baths, hydration and a hyperbaric chamber,” the last of which was installed in the first floor of his Denver home. “Every other night, when the Rockies are in Denver,” wrote Reiter, “[Wife] Danyll zips Troy into the hyperbaric chamber he installed on the first floor of their house, before heading upstairs with [son] Taz. Troy spends the next eight hours dreaming about how he is going to make the next day precisely the same as the last.”
Alas, so much of the same-ness during Tulowitzki’s career in Colorado involved losing. Despite winning the pennant in his rookie season, the Rockies made it to the playoffs just one other time during his tenure, and finished above .500 just two more times. They won 92 games and claimed the NL Wild Card in 2009, but lost the Division Series to the Phillies, then went an unspectacular 83-79 in 2010. It was after that season that Tulowitzki signed his 10-year deal, which at the time was the eighth-largest in major league history. The Rockies promptly squandered his prime; from 2011-15, they managed just a .426 winning percentage and an average of 69 wins per year, worse than any team except the rebuilding Astros.
In mid-2015, after making the NL All-Star team for the fifth and final time, Tulowitzki was traded to the Blue Jays along with reliever Latroy Hawkins, with shortstop Jose Reyes and right-handed pitching prospects Miguel Castro, Jeff Hoffman, and Jesus Tinoco going to Colorado. While the then-30-year-old shortstop claimed to have been “blindsided” by the trade, and while he didn’t hit particularly well down the stretch for Toronto, his arrival, along with that of David Price, helped the Blue Jays snap a 22-year postseason drought and make it all the way to the American League Championship Series; he hit big three-run homers in both the Division Series against the Rangers and the ALCS against the Royals. His 24-homer, 3.0-WAR 2016 season wasn’t vintage Tulowitzki given his 104 wRC+, but he helped the Jays return to the ALCS.
There isn’t much more to the arc of his career other than the injuries and the waiting. He played 66 games in 2017 before spraining his ankle while running the bases; in August of that year, it was revealed that he had sustained ligament damage as well. In April 2018, he had the bone spurs removed from his heels, but it wasn’t until late August that a return was ruled out; at the time, I noted the grim history of shortstops over 30 who missed a season. This past November, the Blue Jays, who had gotten decent work out of Aledmys Diaz and Lourdes Gurriel Jr. at shortstop, released Tulowitzki. According to Cot’s Contracts, they will have paid $107 million of that contract — for just 4.3 WAR.
Given his traditional counting stats, Tulowitkzki doesn’t stand a chance of election to the Hall of Fame. He’s far short of 2,000 hits, and both BBWAA and committee voters have roundly avoided electing any player short of that mark whose career took place in the post-1960 expansion era. Yet despite his short career, he hardly stacks up badly in my Baseball-Reference WAR-based JAWS system:
|Avg HOF SS||67.0||43.0||55.0|
Tulowitzki’s JAWS is within one point of two enshrined shortstops, and ahead of four others (Phil Rizzuto and Rabbit Maranville aren’t shown), not to mention current candidate Omar Vizquel. He had everything needed to climb even higher on that list — everything except the necessary luck to stay healthy. Still, Tulo was one hell of a player, an icon while with the Rockies and a key figure in the Blue Jays’ recent renaissance. We can all wish that we’d gotten more of him, but what we did get was pretty special.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.