I’m cautiously optimistic Troy Tulowitzki is about to have his best season in a Blue Jays uniform. While he’ll probably never be the hitter he was in Colorado again (a top five hitter in the league), it’s also a good bet he’s a better hitter than he’s shown since being traded to Toronto back in July of 2015. Here’s a few reasons why, even entering his age 32 season, Tulo’s best days as a Blue Jay are probably still ahead of him:
1) Clubhouse comfort
The first year or so of Tulo’s tenure in Toronto was a whirlwind. You had the trade itself, which came as a shock to everybody, followed by that wild run to the division crown snapping a 22 year playoff drought, which of course culminated in the epic five game series against the Rangers in the ALDS.
The roller coaster ride was almost paradoxical for Tulo. In one sense, he was an enormous driver in the team’s late season surge. The Blue Jays were only a .500 team when he showed up in late July, and his magnificent glove work locked down the shortstop position which had been a problem all year up to that point. At the same time however, the typical thump in Tulo’s bat never made it across the continent from the Rocky Mountains, and when the season came to an end in Kansas City, he candidly admitted that he had a hard time getting comfortable in his new home after the July shock wave that shook him to his foundation.
This is part of what makes Tulo a fascinating personality. He’s fiercely loyal, wants to be a leader, and loves to set an example by outworking everyone around him. I’m speculating here, but I actually think one of the reasons Tulo felt uncomfortable in a Blue Jays uniform at first (in addition to the way his time in Colorado ended) was that he never got to impose his leadership skills on the 2015 Blue Jays in the fashion he typically goes about his business. The journey is important to Tulo, and even though the vast majority of the team’s success came after his July transaction, he likes spending an entire season grinding away - arriving to the ballpark early and leaving late - and bonding with his teammates over the marathon quest.
This didn’t happen in 2015. There’s a decent chance that deep down, somewhere inside the engine that drives him to outwork most everybody else, Tulo didn’t feel like he deserved that trip to the promise land (again, this is just speculation). This isn’t to say he didn’t pour his soul into being the best player he could be all year, but grabbed a ticket on the Blue Jay express when it was already in motion, and as regimented and meticulous as Tulo tends to be with everything baseball, that was probably an awkward sequence of events for him. That was the first time in his life he joined a team midway through the season (outside of his August call up in 2006 which doesn’t really count since that team was out of contention anyway).
Flash forward a year and a half and Tulo’s not only established his role in the Toronto clubhouse, but he’s the happiest I’ve seen him during spring training in years. One of the biggest signals that he’s fallen in love with being a Blue Jay is that he and Rowdy Tellez went out to dinner earlier this month and they put in enough time talking baseball that Tellez took six pages of notes. At his core, Tulo not only wants to get the best out of himself, but he also wants all of his teammates to get the most out of themselves too.
Back in Colorado, he spent most off seasons taking a young player or a high end prospect under his wing by inviting them to his house and showing them what he does to prepare for each season. The Denver media dubbed this annual event "Camp Tulo," and some of Camp Tulo’s graduates over the years include Dexter Fowler, Nolan Arenado and Trevor Story.
It remains to be seen if this clubhouse gratification will translate to the batter’s box, but Tulo is smiling more often, walking around Dunedin with a gait that would make you believe he owns the place, and taking time to answer questions and help his younger teammates improve. This is the role that makes him relaxed, and sometimes, that’s the best medicine for a hitter.
2) Tulo will almost certainly get off to a better start than last year
In a mostly forgotten move, Tulo experimented with a new swing last spring. Instead of the familiar toe top that brought him so much success over the years, he tried out a leg kick routine, similar to the one Josh Donaldson uses.
It did not go well. Despite good intentions and trying to get better at the plate, Tulo couldn’t duplicate Donaldson’s success with this timing mechanism and eventually went back to the stance that made him the superstar he’s been for most of his career.
Of course, whenever you make major changes to your swing like this, it’s very easy to throw off your timing, and it’s possible that this is what happened here. 32 games into his season on May 9, Tulo was hitting just .165 / .265 / .304 (.569 OPS). He had become almost unrecognizable at the plate. Keep in mind, this is the same guy who just two years earlier in 2014 posted a 1.317 OPS over his first 32 games of that season.
In all my years of watching Tulo, I’ve never seen him look as lost at the plate as he did for the opening stretch of last season. It was a humbling experience, especially for a guy with as much intensity as Tulo. Anyway, the hope here is that this slump was heavily fueled by a combination of him still settling in during his first spring as a Blue Jay and not having his timing right at the plate after tweaking his stance. How much of it was those two items and how much of it was just age and injuries catching up to him will play a crucial role in the type of play Tulo is going forward.
3) Tulo played the last two months of 2016 with a chip fracture in his thumb
Another mostly forgotten sub plot of the 2016 season was the chip fracture Tulo suffered in the July 31 game against the Orioles. Much like the first two points here, it’s hard to tell exactly how much this impacted his hitting ability, but it’s safe to say it didn’t help matters. Since chip fractures are largely about pain tolerance, Tulo only missed three games and played routinely for the rest of the season, but he didn’t hit at the same clip he was hitting before the incident.
I bring this up because July of 2016 was Tulo’s best month as a Jay, and in some aspects, the only month where he wasn’t battling some form of stormy seas. In August of 2015 he was stunned the Rockies traded him. In September 2015 he broke his scapula in a collision with Kevin Pillar. Then at the start of the 2016 season, he experimented with the Donaldson leg kick and threw off his timing. In May of last year he suffered a quad injury and hit the DL, and then when he came back at the end of June, he had his Coors Field reunion, which I’m sure was an emotional distraction for him. Finally, he had to play August and September with this chip fracture.
Now I doubt all of these things had a profoundly negative impact on Tulo’s bat (some probably didn’t bother him at all), but it’s also a pretty safe bet that at least a few of them did, and at the same time, it’s worth noting that Tulo hit .308 / .350 / .538 (.888 OPS) last July during his "uneventful month" with the Jays. Now I’m not going to proclaim that this is the real Tulo you can expect going forward because A) it’s only a one month sample size, and B) in baseball, you can generally expect something to work against you for a month or two each season. However, the fact that Tulo had that month after his Coors visit and before this last injury bit him is a good sign, and at the very least suggests he’s a better hitter than the .745 OPS guy we’ve in Toronto so far.
4) Tulo was actually a little unlucky last season.
So we know Tulo finished last season with .761 OPS, and we know he finished with a BABIP of .272. If that sounds low to you, you’re probably correct. For one, Tulo has a career BABIP of .316, so last year’s number was 44 points below that average. But that’s not really fair since he’s not in Colorado anymore. However, thanks to the advancement in baseball statistics over the years, we have this scary looking formula which can tell us what a player’s BABIP should be in any given year:
xBABIP = 0.392 + (LD% x 0.287709436) + ((GB% – (GB% * IFH%)) x -0.152 ) + ((FB% – (FB% x HR/FB%) – (FB% x IFFB%)) x -0.188) + ((IFFB% * FB%) x -0.835) + ((IFH% * GB%) x 0.500)
If you plug in all of Tulo’s 2016 numbers into those categories, you find that his expected BABIP comes out to .293. So not as high as it is for his career, but still 21 points off where it should have been. Add 21 points to Tulo’s average and slugging percentage and you have a guy with an OPS of .800 even with the stance tinkering and injuries.
In other words, even if those other factors mentioned above had zero impact on Tulo’s game last year, he’s still coming off a season in which he should have reached an OPS of .800 the way he was swinging the bat.
Is Colorado Tulo ever coming back? No probably not. He’s not arguably the best player in baseball anymore when healthy. However, as far as Blue Jays fans are concerned, their best days with Tulo are still likely ahead of them, and hopefully they start next Monday.