There's no denying Troy Tulowitzki's season is off to a dreadful start at the plate. In just 37 plate appearances (through Wednesday's game), he's posted an extremely disappointing .125 / .216 / .219 (.435 OPS) line while striking out 32.4 percent of the time. Not only that, but he's looked outmatched to the eye as well; struggling to make contact with pitches he usually drives, or at least fouls off. So what going on? And more importantly, can Tulo fix it? Let's explore.
The first thing we have to keep reminding ourselves is that for now, the most telling number on Tulo's stat sheet is 37 plate appearances. As that number grows larger, so will the reasons to be concerned if the other figures don't improve, but for now this still looks like a fire that can be extinguished with a hot streak or two.
Making contact has been Tulo's biggest problem in the early going, and the numbers beyond his strikeout rate reflect this troubling tale. Using Fangraphs, we can compare his early 2016 stats to his career numbers in some key areas.
Contact Rate (The percentage of time Tulo makes contact when he swings at a pitch)
This number is actually more concerning when you think of it in reverse. In other words, Tulo only comes up empty when he swings 15.9 percent of the time for his career, but he's done it 28.8% of the time so far in 2016. This means that at least early on, he's not making contact when he swings almost twice as often as usual. In small sample size, this isn't a huge problem, but it also comes attached with two huge elephants in the room.
1) Last year Tulo posted a contact rate of just 79.1%, which was a career low to that point and possibly the beginning of a downward spiral.
2) Contact rates tend to normalize faster than other statistics because you average more than a swing an at bat. So if these numbers still look this bad by mid May, we have an enormous problem on our hands.
With Tulo's poor contact rate established, the next reasonable thought might be that he's chasing a bunch of bad pitches out of the zone, but if we dig a little deeper, we see that this isn't the case.
Here's the data that proves it:
Swing Rate (The percentage of time Tulo swings at any pitch)
Z-Swing (The percentage of pitches Tulo swings at that are in the strike zone)
O-Swing (The percentage of pitches Tulo swings at that are outside of the strike zone)
Lots to digest here, but Tulo's early season strike out numbers are being fueled at least as much by his passive nature of watching strikes go by as they are by his swings and misses. Both his 2016 overall swing rate as well as his swing rate inside the strike zone would be career lows. (Of course, as soon as I wrote this he started swinging early and often tonight. So it looks like he and I are on the same page.)
So from here, the next logical question is why isn't Tulo swinging much. Fortunately, the good folks at Brooks Baseball (seriously, check out their awesome site if you haven't already) track every pitch to every batter and make it easy for us to see patterns develop.
Here's their data from the aforementioned brooksbaseball.com on Tulo's 2016 season so far: (Note: This is from the CATCHER'S POINT OF VIEW. So Tulo would be standing to the LEFT of this image.)
I've circled in black seven boxes down and away that account for 47.5% of the pitches Tulo's seen so far this season. The scouting report is pretty clear here. Fill up the lower, outside corner of the strike zone as much as possible; and so far, opposing pitchers have had an enormous amount of success with that plan as Tulo's watched pitch after pitch paint the edge for strikes. In addition to this, Blue Jay foes are doing it early and often in the count. Despite Tulo's low 2016 swing rates we discussed above, the first pitch of his plate appearances this year have been a strike a whopping 64.9 percent of the time, which is a significant jump from the 59.1% he's seen in his career.
Here's something very important to note though. This book on Tulo is nothing new. If we look at what pitchers have thrown him in his career, we see almost the same story as we see in 2016.
Notice I said ALMOST. In the 2016 image, the most common box pitchers hit on the grid (by a good margin) is the box on the bottom right INSIDE the strike zone (10.76 percent to the next closest box of 6.96 percent). However, in the career image here, the most common box pitchers hit (again by a good margin) is the one diagonally below and away from the strike zone (9.16 percent to the next closest box of 6.46 percent). In short, teams have always tried to stay down and away from Tulo, but this year he's run into a string of pitchers who have done an exceptional job of locating pitches just close enough to catch a strike call, but also just far enough away to avoid getting wrecked.
And they stay down and away from our superstar shortstop for good reason. Take a look at his career slugging percentage when he swings at pitches in each box of the zone:
There's really only one place in the zone you can historically throw to Tulo where he's not going destroy you. He has a career slugging percentage of .549 or higher in seven of the nine strike boxes, and one of the two where that's not the case is surrounded by death squares on three sides. With the low slugging percentage strike zone box of .438 also connected to Tulo's three weakest boxes overall (.252 slugging percentage or lower), the place to attack becomes rather obvious. Not only is the down and away box in the strike zone the safest of the nine choices, but it's also a lower slugging percentage than what Tulo produces in seven of the 16 boxes outside of the strike zone. When Tulo's on a hot streak, this is the only escape hatch for the opposition.
Knowing this, let's look at one more image from our Brooks Baseball friends to further enhance our understanding of the dance Tulo and opposing pitchers usually engage in. This time, it's the percentage of pitches Tulo swings at in each box:
So here's the game; Tulo tends to go after pitches in eight of the nine boxes in the strike zone, firing away at least 58 percent of the time if he gets an offering there. The down and away box we've put the microscope on comes in at a significantly lower 50.1 percent, and the only reason it's probably that high is because pitchers try to relentlessly attack that spot with two strikes and Tulo has to protect. If there was a way to only box swings attempted to do damage (therefore eliminating swings attempting to foul a pitch off and stay alive), the difference here would be even larger.
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As Tulo seemed to get better and better through his age 29 season, my personal eye test watched his hot zone slowly expand further and further toward / into the edges of that bottom right box, and he damn near had it closed off completely when his hip flexor went kaboom in July of 2014, derailing a season that saw him on pace for 9.0 WAR.
Since returning from that surgery, Tulo's bat speed hasn't been as quick. His hip drive hasn't been as explosive, and the time he has to make those all important decisions at the plate has slipped by fractions of a second. Just enough to erode the area of Tulo's hot zone in the critical down and away portion of the strike zone. I keep waiting for Tulo's old bat speed to reemerge as he gets further away from surgery (his defense seems to have come back 100%), but I'm becoming less and less optimistic about that happening.
The effect is small, but hugely impactful. Now, pitchers have a slightly larger margin for error within the strike zone when aiming for that corner down and away. The results are as ugly as you'd expect. Tulo sees more pitches in an unfavorable portion of the strike zone, and in his new, slightly weaker state, he has a harder time doing damage or even making contact at all. The hunter has become the hunted.
As we saw tonight (he hit his home run as I wrote this piece), Tulo can still do Tulo stuff when he gets pitches on the inner half of the plate or up in the zone as well as ever, but he's not going to get many of those to hit if he can't turn the tide of the battle in that pesky portion of the strike zone. Tulo doesn't have to win down and away - He never has - But he does need to keep pitchers from completely annihilating him in that location as they have during the first ten games of this season. If he can start turning some of those pitches into base hits to right or even just foul them off more often, he'll force pitchers to adjust and ultimately drag more battles back into an arena where he still holds the advantage.
If you don't want to read all that, here's my quick take away:
1) Tulo is swinging and missing more often than ever. This is concerning, but the sample size is small and he can adjust.
2) Pitchers are also doing a better job of pitching to him and hitting his weakest portion of the strike zone. I think this is a combination of an unlucky run for Tulo and the fact that he's a little easier to pitch to since his hot zone seems to have shrunk post hip surgery.
3) I didn't mention this in the rest of piece because it doesn't take any sort of in depth analysis, but Tulo's BABIP this season is just .130 compared to a career mark of .320. So even if he keeps swinging and missing like this, we'll see some improvement as that criminally unlucky number starts to rise.
4) It's not time to panic yet, but Tulo's next month or two is really important. He has to show that he can fight back and reverse the ugly contact trend that has stained his tenure with the Jays to this point. This may require better timing, a new approach at the plate, or hopefully, as we've seen with so many great hitters in slumps over the years, just the simple medicine of more at bats.