MASTER NOTES: Tulo coming up short?

The Toronto Blue Jays have been playing their best player, 3B Josh Donaldson, at shortstop the last few games, which has sparked discussions about whether Donaldson could play there regularly next year while Troy Tulowitzki takes his increasingly fragile and slow-footed self over to the hot corner.

The debate heated up on August 30, when Tulowitzki came back to town for some medical work on his shredded ankle, and spoke with the reporters on the Blue Jays beat. And according to stories in both the Toronto Star and the Globe and Mail, Tulowitzki declared that he’ll be back in 2018—and that he’ll be playing shortstop.

What happens with Tulowitzki next year could be interesting because will be an indicator of how teams with supposedly advanced front offices are going to manage popular but declining players who get in the way of potentially helpful changes.

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First, Troy Tulowitzki is no longer an elite hitter. In fact, he’s no longer even an average hitter.

Fantasy owners have known this for a while, because it’s been a while since Tulowitzki was fantasy-relevant. He was a reliable mid-$20s player from 2009 (a splendid season of 32-92-20-101-.297) through 2011. He lost 2012 to injury, earning a buck, then bounced back to the low-$20s in 2013-14. Since the 2015 trade from COL to TOR, though, his value has been sliding faster than newspaper futures.

He finished 2015 as a $15 player, then felt the full effect of leaving Coors: $11 last season, and just $2 this year before being done for the year with that ankle injury. Over the last three years, which includes his last part-season in COL and his first part-season in TOR, his BA has gone .280-.254-.249, and his SLG has gone .440-.443-.378. His HctX 126-110-101. His SB days are as ancient as Nero’s fiddle—he has six bags in the last six seasons.  

He’s also battled injuries large and small, which is one reason for the gossip about moving him to third. The idea is that the corner-infield spot is less physically taxing than the keystone.

That’s true, and it’s a worthwhile consideration, although some might wonder why a player whose hitting is sub-par for a shortstop is approriate for third, usually a position for highly productive hitters.

But the real reason the 3B move looks appealing to many fans—and, perhaps, the Blue Jays’ front office—is that Tulowitzki, clearly no longer an above-average hitter, is no longer an above-average shortstop, either.

Tulowitzki used to be a slightly above-average defensive shortstop. I looked at him using Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games (UZR/150), which, extremely simply, is a widely used metric that looks at how many balls the fielder successfully handled in his assigned “zones” compared to peers at his position. I compared him year-by-year to players who played at least 70% of the team’s innings at shortstop.

In most of his years, Tulowitzki was around sixth- or seventh-best out of 17-21 shortstops. His peak was a fourth-best UZR/150 in 2010. Until 2013, his UZR/150 floated between around +5 and +8, meaning he was five to eight runs better than the average shortstop. For context, elite defensive shortstops—Andrelton Simmons, Brandon Crawford, Brendan Ryan—are +18 to +25 or so. Then Tulowitzki started to decline, and his UZR/150 this season was -2.2, worse than the average shortstop.

As well, even when he was above-average, Tulowitzki was making his fielding stats by being steady and consistent on ordinary plays, not by reaching and successfully fielding more batted balls. From 2012 to 2016, he converted 97% of plays scored as “likely” or “routine” chances by Inside Edge. But all MLB shortstops were around this same high level. On the tougher plays, an elite guy like Simmons pulls away:

Chance Type              Tulowitzki    Simmons
Unlikely to Impossible       12%         17%
Even                         62%         72%
Likely to Routine            97%         98%

In that toughest group at the top, both Tulowitzki and Simmons faced about 200 chances, so that 5% advantage for Simmons means 10 more outs. Pennants have been lost with less.

* * *

In the newspaper stories, Tulowitzki addressed his fielding, and insisted he still has the chops to play the most demanding infield position. It wasn’t clear whether one of the reporters asked about the many defensive metrics showing his decline, but Tulowitzki did address the issue. Sort of.

He said, “I think sometimes what people read into is the metrics and the zone ratings, whatever.”

But since the metrics and the zone ratings, whatever, show a rapidly declining infielder, he also said, “Hey, I’m not getting the job done. But I feel like I bring a lot to the table defensively.” Which is like you going to your boss and saying, “I know I haven’t sold anything this quarter, but I feel I bring a lot to the table as a salesman.” You get the job done, or you don't. What you bring to the table doesn't matter, unless you're a waiter.

Tulowitzki further explained that “so much of being a shortstop is about being able to slow the game down for your teammates and your pitchers, taking charge in the infield.”

I confess I literally have no idea what any of this means. I imagine that to “slow the game down” means something like telling the other players to relax and take it easy in tight spots. But this seems to me more like a veteran thing than a shortstop thing. Surely he could slow the game down as a third baseman, or a coach. Or, if he could yell loud enough, a beer vendor.

And “taking charge in the infield” is just one of those things guys say. How does a player take charge? And of what (or whom)? The manager and coaches position the players defensively, based on opponents’ metrics and zones and whatevers, so what else is there? I guess he could yell, “Throw it to first!” if a teammate was about to fire the ball out into left field or roll it into the dugout, but what else? If “taking charge” was really something useful on a baseball field, George Patton would be in Cooperstown.

In short, about the only reason Troy Tulowitzki can provide for staying in that position is that he thinks he should. I don’t know if the team will try to move Tulowitzki to third next season, whether because they want to give Donaldson a try or sign someone. If they do, I hope Tulowitzki is more willing to change than he seems to be now.

He might not believe the defensive metrics, and indeed they have enough questions and weaknesses to justify some skepticism. But that said, all the major defensive metrics describe Tulowitzki as a player whose fielding skills, especially range, are declining. And if the team’s managers believe they’d be stronger with Donaldson (or anyone else) at short and Tulowitzki at third, surely it is Tulowitzki's duty to put the team’s interest ahead of his own and comply.

We have some examples from the recent past. When the Orioles asked the declining Cal Ripken to make room for the better fielding Manny Alexander, he grabbed his third baseman’s mitt and moved over. Team first. Manny Machado, a top shortstop prospect, moved to third because the Orioles had J.J. Hardy, a better-fielding shortstop, already in place. Team first.

And of course, when Yankees team captain Derek Jeter had the opportunity, outfield to strengthen the team by moving to the outfield and turning shortstop duties over to the much better fielding Alex Rodriguez... never mind. I guess Jeter slowed the game down and took charge of the infield.

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  For more information about the terms used in this article, see our Glossary Primer.