Tuesday, November 13, 2007

Tulo vs. Rollins/Braun -- WHAZZA?

Anyone who has followed baseball on more than a superficial level for the past few years can name you a list of the sport's perpetual doormats – the Cubs, the Royals, the Cubs, the Devil Rays, the Cubs, the Rockies – or not. Hold the phone, at least on the last two. While the comically inept North Siders are still waiting to cash a world championship check for the first time since 1908, the Royals are held in the thrall of David Glass, and the Devil Rays are hoping that a long-term rebuilding plan with young stars Scott Kazmir, Carl Crawford, B.J. Upton, and Evan Longoria propels them from zero to hero in a brutal AL East, the Rockies are finally reaping the rewards of their own retooling plan.

The Rockies, brought to baseball's exclusive fraternity in 1993, won a wild card in 1995 on the strength of the Blake Street Bombers – Castilla, Walker, Bichette – and their helium-inflated statistics, taking advantage of a home park that played like a pinball field to offset suspect pitching and raise fans' hopes for a glorious future for the toddler franchise. Unfortunately, the promise never materialized, and watching their brothers in expansion, the Marlins, capture a championship two years later stuck in their craw. It must have required the Heimlich when the Fish did it again in 2003, earning a World Series MVP performance from some kid named Josh Beckett and upsetting the heavily favored Yankees in six games, Aaron Boone's previous ALCS heroics notwithstanding.

While the Marlins were building a winning product and then promptly dismantling it, the Rockies were struggling to build anything at all. They clambered over the ledge of respectability exactly once after 1995, carving out an 82-80 ledge in 2000 back when Coors Field was still Coors Canaveral and pitchers dreaded entering the thin air for the inevitable 10-9 slugfest. The problem was that the Rockies lacked any good arms of their own, a deficiency they attempted to remedy after 2000 by two of the most justifiably mocked free-agent deals in history, ludicrous 7-year/$120 million and 5-year/$51 million pacts to Mike Hampton and Denny Neagle, respectively (two names that cause Rockies fans to exhibit a Pavlovian twitch, close seconds being Lance Painter, Shawn Chacon-as-closer, and Jose Mesa).

Unsurprisingly, the deals failed; nobody could pitch in Coors, or at least not well. After the 2002 season, the Rockies attempted a new solution, storing their baseballs in a climate-controlled humidor to stop them from shrinking, drying out, and consequently traveling 400 feet over the outfield fences (the deepest of any park in baseball for this very reason) if connected with a bat. This solution worked at least in theory, but it didn't matter if nobody on the team could throw them past said bats. Signing free agents to big deals in the era of overspending had left the Rockies' farm system shallow on talent and offering no quick fixes for a team destined to bottom-feeding in a weak NL West (dubbed the Worst after the Padres nabbed a playoff spot in 2005 with an 82-80 mark).

2005 was a year significant for other reasons, although the organization didn't yet realize it. With their seventh overall first-round pick in the June amateur draft, they took Long Beach State shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who had fortunately dropped low enough on the table for them to pick him up; the Seattle Mariners were seriously considering him and passed at the last minute, taking catcher Jeff Clement instead. At 6'3" and 205 pounds, Tulowitzki was a big shortstop in the vein of Cal Ripken. He'd later prove that this was an apt comparison in more ways than one.

Tabbed as a decent-to-good MLB player sometime in the future, Tulowitzki took every expectation and ran with it. He spent the shortest amount of time in the minor leagues of any Rockies player, ever, never played an inning at Triple-A Colorado Springs, and first arrived in Denver in August 2006 for a late-season showing, hoping to unseat incumbent Clint Barmes for the starting shortstop job. Tulowitzki hit .240 with one home run and six RBIs in 96 at-bats over August and the remainder of September; not completely terrible, but highly touted prospects had certainly done better, leading manager Clint Hurdle to announce that it was a "competition" for Tulowitzki and Barmes coming into Spring Training 2007.

Barmes himself had once been heralded as the shortstop of the future after starting 2005 (again, a significant year) batting .400, but after the unfortunate and much-mocked "deer meat" incident where he broke his collarbone returning from a hunting trip, he was a ghost of his old self and barely cleared the Mendoza line on his return to the big leagues. But as soon as camp convened in Tucson the next year, it became clear that he was the one headed to Colorado Springs, not Tulowitzki. The 22-year-old impressed with his poise, maturity, intuition, and raw skill, and broke camp as the starting shortstop.

Unfortunately, both rookie and team started out in their accustomed rut; Tulowitzki hit sub-.200 for the first few weeks of the season and the Rockies languished to 18-27 out of the gate. Then Tulowitzki, a rookie never afraid to play the role of a veteran, let his teammates know that the losing which they'd been so used to was no longer acceptable.

The result? The best record in the NL, and second-best in baseball to the Yankees, from May 22 (70-49). The best team batting average in baseball (.280) at the end of the season, now with the humidor cutting down on the cartoonish video-game numbers. The best ERA (3.65) after the All-Star Break. And a phenomenal rookie shortstop centering the middle of the infield which became integral to the best-fielding team of all time – the Rockies' cumulative .989 fielding percentage edged out the short-held record (by the 2006 Boston Red Sox) by a few decimals. Surely Tulowitzki would be rewarded with the NL Gold Glove (despite a long-held bias against giving it to rookies) or the NL Rookie of the Year against top competition Ryan Braun.

The result? He got neither.

The Gold Gloves failed to recognize Tulowitzki's stellar glovework up the middle, instead awarding it to Jimmy Rollins. While Rollins became something of a media darling for his self-assured pronouncement that the Phillies were the team to beat in the NL East (and then making good on it – while aided largely by the Mets' spectacular collapse reminiscent of Philadelphia's own team in 1964) he was an inferior defender to Tulowitzki, who pioneered the spinning, across-body throws ala his hero, Derek Jeter, that routinely landed him on SportsCenter.

Not convinced? Let's take a look at the numbers. Rollins started every one of the Phillies' 162 games at shortstop. He had 717 total chances, handling 706 of them cleanly while recording 227 putouts and 479 assists and turning 110 double plays with second baseman Chase Utley. This was good for a .985 fielding percentage (third in the NL behind Tulowitzki and San Francisco's Omar Vizquel) and a 13.23 range factor (measuring the balls outside of his numerical range that he reached instead of the third baseman or the second baseman). He had a zone rating of .824; all in all, a solid defender and a key component of the Phillies' defense (which made 89 miscues for a .986 overall FP). But Gold Glove? Not if you believe the award should go to the best defender at every position.

Tulowitzki started 155 games at shortstop, missing one or two during his early-season woes and when manager Hurdle decided to give old stalwart Barmes a shot. Despite this, he had 834 total chances, 117 more than Rollins, handling 823 of them cleanly – in other words, he made the same amount of errors in almost 13% more opportunities. Tulowitzki recorded 262 putouts, 35 more than Rollins, and had a whopping 630 assists, beating Rollins by 151. He was part of 139 double plays with second-sacker Kaz Matsui, edging Rollins/Utley by 29, and in all these categories, he was tops in the NL. His .987 fielding percentage in the hole again led all of baseball at his position.

And if this wasn't enough, his range factor beat out Rollins again; Tulowitzki reached close to 16% (16.16) of the balls that weren't in shortstop territory. His zone rating was .866, bettering Rollins by 0.042. And oh yeah, there was that fact of the best-fielding team ever (the Rockies made 68 errors for a .989 FP. In an equally egregious oversight, Todd Helton, who made 2 errors all year for an almost-stellar .999 mark, was somehow passed up for the Gold Glove in favor of Chicago's Derrek Lee, who made 7).

And yet, no Gold Glove for the mantelpiece for the rookie sensation. In a text message to the Denver Post, Tulowitzki shrugged it off, jokingly asking if he'd won the Silver Glove and pointing out that the Rockies captured the NL pennant while the Phillies watched on TBS after being upturned in three during the division series. But he still had a shot to claim postseason hardware in the NL Rookie of the Year category, considered a two-horse race between himself and Milwaukee third baseman Ryan Braun (early favorite Hunter Pence dropped out of sight after a midseason wrist injury).

Tulowitzki lost.

True, it was in one of the closest ROY votes in history (winner Braun edged Tulowitzki by two votes). It's hard to ignore the 23-year-old Braun's epic offensive season; called up on May 25, he hit .324 in 451 at-bats, with a .370 on-base percentage, a .634 slugging percentage, 34 home runs, 97 RBIs, and 26 doubles. He scored 91 runs, walked 29 times and struck out 110 times.

In contrast, Tulowitzki hit .291 in 609 at-bats, with a .359 OBP and a .479 SLG. While setting the NL rookie shortstop record for homers, he hit 24 of them, with 99 RBIs and 33 doubles, scoring 104 runs. He walked 57 times and struck out 130 times; while he had a tendency to chase, as evidenced by the high K rate, his eye was clearly better than Braun's. If judged purely on offensive merits, this was Braun's award; Tulowitzki was good but Braun was better, a pure hitter who seemed only primed to improve.

The problem was that this is an award who should recognize the most complete player, and that's where the complications begin to develop. To use the word defense for what Braun did at third base was charitable. Tulowitzki's stellar glovework has been covered; Braun, in contrast, made 26 errors in 112 games at third base (in 248 chances) for a historically bad .895 fielding percentage. To show how poor this is, consider this: Gary Sheffield fielded just under .900 with the Marlins in limited duty as a third baseman in 1993, but the last regular position player to field under .900 was 1978 Red Sox third baseman Butch Hobson at .899. And before him, you have to look back to 1916 and third baseman (there seems to be a trend) Charlie Pick of the Philadelphia Athletics, also .899. And Braun was lower than all of them. He was the worst defensive every day third baseman in a long, long time.

Consider these numbers: a 6.34 range factor and a .697 zone rating for Braun, who was routinely taken out for a defensive replacement in close games with the Brewers ahead, no matter the offense lost with his bat. And then there's this: the plus/minus rating system to judge the difference between defenders. Braun had a -41 rating, the worst for any player in baseball, which meant that he made 41 fewer plays than the average third baseman. Tulowitzki's was +35, the highest at his position again – he made 35 more plays than the average shortstop. That equals out to 80 plays and almost 50 runs a year. Braun is a player made for the AL and the fielding-shielded designated hitter.

And then again, there's this. The Brewers folded up the tent in the second half of the season, allowing the miserable Cubs to take the Central (and be rolled three-and-out by the Diamondbacks in the opening playoff round). All the Rockies did was make history with an unprecedented 21-of-22 run, at one point winning 11 in a row before having their win streak snapped by Brandon Webb on September 28 to put them in the position of having to win their last two games (and have the San Diego Padres lose their last two – and most coincidentally, against the Brewers) just to force a one-game playoff.

That night, Tulowitzki hit a grand slam and the Rockies rolled to an 11-1 win over the Diamondbacks and edged out a 4-3 victory the next day. The Brewers beat the Padres that night and then again, setting up a showdown between Colorado and San Diego on October 1 at Coors Field.

The Rockies fought valiantly for 12 innings with the score tied at 6, having a home run taken away from Garrett Atkins and incorrectly ruled a double, and then they put in Jorge Julio, who promptly served up a two-run homer to Scott Hairston. The Rockies seemed destined for a disappointing exit. Then came the bottom of the 13th inning, facing a do-or-die situation against all-time saves leader Trevor Hoffman.

Kazuo Matsui led off with a double. Tulowitzki shot another one in between Scott Hairston and Mike Cameron (who, playing with a broken hand, likely couldn't have corralled it anyway) to bring the Rockies to within 8-7. Very shortly, he scored the tying run on Matt Holliday's triple, and a few minutes and a disputed slide later, the Rockies were the NL Wild Card winners at 90-73, one year after finishing a dismal 10 games south of .500 at 76-86. Don't get the Rockies wrong, they appreciate the Brewers' contribution – but Tulowitzki brought fire, skill, intangibles, a never-say-die attitude, and raw presence to the team, and yet couldn't be rewarded with anything for it? It's a shame.

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