As long as there are seasons for sports to exist, there will always be a healthy side of “what ifs” to go with the main course of the games. One of the most consistently served items on the Major League Baseball menu is “What if Troy Tulowitzki was healthy?” and it has been a question that has been asked far too often in recent times.
Tulo is the quick answer to another of the game’s FAQs: Who’s the best at ________ position? And in his case, he is easily the best shortstop the game has seen since Alex Rodriguez’s prime. But of all of the game’s elite talents, none has lost more time, with more regularity, than the Rockies’ franchise guy. The general consensus was he was becoming a guy that would never see his peak because he always seemed to be a top-tier starter on the All-Red Cross team, spending more time disabled than destructive at the plate.
More proof needed? Just as recently as a few months ago, I ranked him as the 12th best player in baseball, but what is more telling is the reasoning behind his 2013 rank of number 24, which still resonates in the perception of who he is now. The hope held out that he could make it to the field and put his rare talent buffet for any position (but especially shortstop) on display at some point, but counting on it was a fool’s bet.
And all of that held true mostly — until this spring.
Tulowitzki has not only put his talents on full display, but he has gone to totally new heights. He is showing why Rockies GM Dan O’Dowd just turned in a quiet laugh every time he took a second to shoot down the persistent rumors that the bottom-feeding Rockies would be willing to part with their star shortstop for even the highest bounty of prospects. He knew that there was little to nothing that could bring back a close to even return for Tulo.
When O’Dowd inked him to a 10-year, $157 million extension to clearly invest in the talented, yet borderline fragile, young talent, he looked at it as nearly a steal, despite others frowning at giving that type of money to a player who was criticized already at the time as injury-prone and destined to be relocated to a position where his production wouldn’t be as exceptional as it was up the middle.
However, he is making those claims laughable as ever now. Because as always, his presence simply takes the Rockies from a run-of-the-mill, wash-of-a-one-dimensional club without him into a team that nearly plays to the level he is singlehandedly at when he is in the lineup. In his career, in seasons that he has made it to the field at least 125 times, the Rockies have averaged 12 more victories per season, including their two most successful seasons in franchise history in 2007 and 2009. That trend is continuing this year, as his unparalleled start has been far from a selfish one — the Rockies have followed suit along with him, morphing into one of the year’s early season surprises as well.
With baseball being the ultimate team sport, where one player has the least chance of making a monumental difference, why is that Tulowitzki is head and shoulders high in individual value? It starts in rarity of ability: There is literally nothing that he’s unable do at a position where concessions are regularly given due to the type of player asked to man it.
The average shortstop, even in today’s more offensively inclined game, is asked to play good-to-great defense, while bringing enough stick to the plate to add on to what’s around him.
Tulo is the exception to both of those requests. Offensively, he produces at a clip that few corner outfielders can even regularly meet. Carrying a .300 career average and 162-game averages of 30 home runs, 100 RBI and 30 doubles a year, he has an offensive split that is exceptional regardless of positional home.
At age 29, he is headed into the collision of his physical and skill set peak, and there hasn’t been a sight like this at shortstop since Cal Ripken Jr. redefined the position to a point that had never been seen before.
Getting regular production from a shortstop is one thing, but what Tulowitzki has done is make the shortstop spot have a first-base-level contributor. Standing in at 6’3″ and 215 pounds, he is both built for the power he produces and stunning with the fluidity that he takes to the field. He is an owner of two Gold Gloves and two Silver Sluggers, and those totals are clipped due only to the fact that he has missed 151 games over the past two years, in seasons where he was easily the best shortstop in the game when he made it to the field. At age 29, he is headed into the collision of his physical and skill set peak, and there hasn’t been a sight like this at shortstop since Cal Ripken Jr. redefined the position to a point that had never been seen before.
What’s more is that he’s an avid student of the game who takes a quarterback-like approach to preparing for the diamond and the various approaches that work best in even the slightest changes of situation, such as one- and two-strike pitch counts. Attention to detail plus surplus of natural talent have made him into the complete product, but the addition of a more than generous amount of protection has seen to it that he gets a chance to make his impact.
However, no year ends in May, and there are lot more games for him to show up and show out in. If the season ended today, he would be the runaway National League MVP, but midseason records and awards mean nothing if they don’t continue throughout the year. If Tulo takes a downturn and has another wrist, leg or otherwise injury, it all goes downhill and the injury trend continues.
Will he hit .390 and run up over 90 extra-base hits like he is on pace to now? That is tough to call. But is there something to be gained from being able to see distinctive talent on full display, while creating a new contender via his daily presence alone? Well, sure there is, even if there is a bit of finger-crossing that comes along with it that he sees it all the way through.
While there is nothing like seeing the best be at their best, there is an extra something special to seeing a guy who has been on the fringe only because he cannot make it to the field finally get the chance to show what he’s all about.
I’m a firm believer that the closest I’ve gotten to Heaven is Game 6 of the 2011 World Series. In the meantime til we cross paths again, I’ll pass along the gospel of the Field of Dreams here, Cheap.Seats.Please, I70 Baseball, and ‘Live From The Cheap Seats’.
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