Ever since Troy Tulowitzki broke onto the scene with the Colorado Rockies in their pennant-winning season of 2007, he has been in the national spotlight. There have been so few shortstops in the history of baseball to excel on both offense and defense, but Tulo had the potential to do both at a high level. Despite immediately establishing himself as one of baseball’s elite players, Tulowitzki struggled to stay on the field long enough to earn MVP consideration in any season. However, his suburb yet cautious play in 2014 shows that he might be able to finally win his long-awaited MVP.
Shortstops who have been able to handle the bat have always been held in high esteem, like Cal Ripken, Derek Jeter, Nomar Garciaparra, and Alex Rodriguez. The fact that Tulowitzki has hit over 24 home runs in every season in which he has played in more than 101 games can attest to his offensive prowess, but he has also been unbelievable on the defensive side of the ball. In his career, Tulowitzki has accumulated 12.9 defensive wins above replacement (dWAR), meaning that he has single-handedly earned the Rockies nearly 13 wins more than a bench player solely due to his defensive play. Nobody can argue Tulo’s greatness when he is on the field, but the elephant in the room is that he has only played in 76.5 percent of the Rockies games in his seven full seasons.
Rockies management understands that Tulowitzki’s health is integral to the Rockies success in 2014 and beyond, and they have been very cautious with their shortstop in the first few weeks of the season. He has had multiple off-days and has regularly been taken out of blowouts in the later innings. Nevertheless, Tulowitzki has still been unreal in the first few weeks of the season and although it is early, he might have his first NL MVP award in his grasp. His .468 on-base percentage and .680 slugging percentage are both tops in the National League. His OPS+, which compares a player to the league average in terms of on-base and slugging percentage, is tops in the Major Leagues at 198, signifying that he has been 98 percent better than the average player on offense. On top of that, his defense has been even better than usual, as he has not made a single error on the season.
According to Baseball-Reference, Tulo has already accounted for 2.3 Wins Above Replacement in just 22 games played. If he kept up on this ridiculous pace and played 145 games, he would achieve a 15.1 WAR. To put that in context, 8 WAR puts a player in MVP conversation, only 55 players have ever had a season of 10 or more WAR, and the highest single-season number was Babe Ruth’s 14.0 in 1923. A fifteen-win player, in theory, could raise a team’s win total from 75 to 90, which is effectively the difference between mediocrity and making the playoffs. Obviously, Tulowitzki could never maintain the same ludicrous number over the course of an entire season, but it shows that he has been playing at another level this April. Additionally, Tulo has 1.0 dWAR, meaning that he has already earned his team an entire win solely with his defense. Only four players have ever had a season of 5 or more dWAR, although the highest in a single-season was achieved just last year by Braves’ shortstop Andrelton Simmons, who put up a gaudy 5.4 number. Tulo has also passed the eye test on defense by making several outstanding plays in the field that have ended up on highlight reels.
It is undeniably too early to predict Tulowitzki as the NL MVP, but the Baseball Writer’s Association of America (BBWAA) has a history of favoring shortstops even when another player had a significantly better season. In 1995, Hall of Famer Barry Larkin won the NL MVP despite the fact that he only hit 15 home runs and drove in 66 runs, even though players like Dante Bichette and Greg Maddux had much better seasons. In 2007, Phillies’ shortstop Jimmy Rollins won the MVP over Rockies’ outfielder Matt Holliday even though Rollins had inferior numbers in nearly every offensive category. Clearly, the BBWAA considers more than just statistics, and the fact that a shortstop plays such a demanding position greatly helps his chances.
Frankly, if Tulowitzki keeps up the same offensive aptitude that he has shown this month, he would win the MVP at any position. Of course, the precursor of “if he stays healthy” must be applied to all of these predictions. There was some MVP talk at the beginning of 2013, but that all ended when he fractured his rib on June 13. Tulowitzki is injury-prone, but he is also 29-years-old and in the prime of his career. Not only do the Rockies desperately need Tulowitzki to stay on the field, but Tulo himself wants to prove exactly how incredible he is and the only way he will be able to do that is if can avoid the disabled list. With his start to the 2014 season, Tulowitzki has been unreal, and his first MVP award might finally be near his grasps if he can play anything close to like he has in the early going.
Commentary by Jough Brasch