ST. LOUIS -- Troy Tulowitzki belongs on the baseball field. Whether a product of self-determination or God-given talent or a little of both, he was made to play shortstop. Where other shortstops simply take their position on the field, Tulowitzki becomes one with his.
As the Rockies go on to the field, Tulowitzki kicks the dirt with his cleats, backward and forward, making a path on the infield. It's ready. Then he spits in his glove, wipes it with his throwing hand and punches the inside. Now his glove is ready, too. He is standing where he has wanted to be since he was a kid: at shortstop, a man with his glove and the infield dirt.
"I think I just enjoy being out there," he said.
Tulowitzki, now in his eighth season in the majors, is off to a great start, batting .319 with eight home runs and 32 RBIs, and hitting .389 with two outs and runners in scoring position. "Usually in my career I struggled early in the season, so it's been nice to get off to a good start and not have an uphill battle," he said.
It wasn't Tulowitzki's bat that generated an interesting tweet this season, however, but his defense. Chipper Jones recently provided his thoughts on the best shortstop in the game:
Y'all are watching the best all around shortstop in the big leagues! Andrelton Simmons.
— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) May 7, 2013
Then later, after what we can assume were many responses from fans saying Tulowitzki is the best shortstop:
Lots of Tulo fans tonite. No offense people. Tulo is a great player. If I was a GM I'd move him to third. Simba and Castro r true shortstops
— Chipper Jones (@RealCJ10) May 7, 2013
Tulowitzki was aware of what Jones tweeted.
"I don’t know why he tweeted that. Maybe he's a little bit bored or something, just watching the games," Tulowitzki said jokingly. "But Chipper is a great guy, someone who I have a lot of respect for."
Most consider Tulowitzki the best all-around shortstop in the game, and he won Gold Glove Awards in 2010 and 2011. But although offense is easy to measure, fielding is more difficult. Between fielding percentage, range factor, defensive runs saved and ultimate zone rating, there are many ways to evaluate a player's defense.
Jones' tweet is a great example of the difficulty in using the eye test to evaluate a fielder. Everyone sees things differently. Even the statistics disagree. Simmons leads in defensive runs saved (plus-11; Tulowitzki is second among shortstops at plus-7) and in UZR, where Tulowitzki ranks 10th.
"We are never going to be able to replace or not utilize true eye scouting," said Justin Hollander, director of baseball operations for the Angels. "I think what the defensive metrics will do is allow us to either verify the eye test or make us question the eye test and have some sort of comparison between the two. I don't think it's a replacement. It's just what we have now we can do better on the data that we have, and I think we will."
Suppose a ball comes off a bat toward Tulowitzki at 104 mph and he gets to it. Then suppose the next inning the ball comes off the bat toward Cardinals shortstop Pete Kozma at 94 and he gets to it, as well. It might look as if both fielded their positions well, but there's a difference in the range and reaction time needed to make each play.
"It's not good enough to say the ball was hit in this spot and the fielder didn't get to it so therefore he either does or does not have the range of someone else," Hollander says. "Well, where did he start? Where was he lined up? How quick was his reaction? What was the velocity off the bat?"
What will it take to have the perfect fielding statistic?
"We all are sort of sitting here anxiously awaiting FIELDf/x to roll out," Hollander said. "I think what we are really missing, and one thing that we would love to see, is more precision with the whole game tied together.
"So, where the fielder was exactly the moment the pitch was released, what the exit speed of the ball was off the bat, what angle the ball came off the bat, how fast the fielder reacted once the ball came off the bat or even before the ball came off the bat. And then, what line or what route [the fielder] took to the ball. And you know then you can measure arm strength, you can measure release time from getting the ball from your glove or if you barehanded it out of your hand, so I think those are things that would tie the whole game together."
At a recent game in St. Louis, Matt Carpenter hit a line drive over Tulowitzki's head. Tulowitzki almost caught it. He jumped and just missed it. Should he have caught the ball? Right now, we don’t know.
That scenario represents one of the most important missing elements from fielding statistics.
"There's an episode of 'Seinfeld' where Jerry says, 'Oh, little Jerry Seinfeld just ran from my place to Newman's place in 30 seconds.' And they smile and somebody says 'Is that good?' And everybody says, 'I don’t know.'
"So we need to develop a baseline for what is a good [fielder] and what is great; what is average and what is below average. If we start getting all of that information, which we will have with FIELDf/x over the course of seasons, not months or half seasons, we can start to develop baselines for what is normal and what is extraordinary."
Range factor is, simply, assists + putouts per nine innings. It's plays made. Tulowitzki led the NL in 2007, 2008, 2010 and 2011 and ranks second this season. How many shortstops would have caught Carpenter's line drive? Maybe none. Tulo came close.
"I've got Fielding Bible awards, stuff that I don't understand," Tulowitzki said. "These zone ratings and things like that, there's so many different numbers you can look at. I think the one thing you can't tell is the anticipation, where the [shortstops] are setting up, just the smartness of it. It's not even on defense. You can really help by going and telling a pitcher to calm down. I've been there before. That's the stuff that is not going to come up on the stats sheet at all."
Rockies starting pitcher Jeff Francis said Tulowitzki is always thinking on the field, always trying to find that edge.
"He's one of the best shortstops in baseball, so knowing that he's behind you certainly gives you a lot of confidence to let the hitters hit it, knowing that he's going to make most of the plays behind you," Francis said. "Not only that, when he makes trips to the mound at certain times, you can tell he knows what's going on in the game, when he's just giving you a rest ... things like that."
For Tulowitzki, the model shortstop is Derek Jeter.
"Obviously I idolize him," Tulowitzki said. "He's someone that's a leader, a clutch player, just very smart. There's a reason why he plays short at the age he is; it's just because he's very headsy."
Tulowitzki, at 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, is built like Jeter. Watch Tulowitzki take ground balls before the game and you'll notice he has similar movements and a fluid motion like Jeter does when he’s fielding. Jeter and Tulowitzki seem to have the same sense of timing. (Of course, the defensive metrics have long suggested Jeter's range is subpar.) Is there something he can see as the ball comes off the bat?
"I think anticipation is the best word to describe it. Anticipating where the ball would be, knowing what the hitters in this league like to do. I can position myself better than some guys. I'm a bigger guy than a lot of those guys. ... The athletic ability does help, but then the downside of it is being so big, I think it's taken its toll on me with some injuries, but it's the only position I know. I feel like I'm the most valuable there."
Although 38-year-old Jeter has cemented himself as one of the best shortstops of all time, Tulowitzki is 10 years younger and has had some injuries in the past few years. This is why Jones' tweet about Tulowitzki moving to third raises an interesting point.
Tulowitzki said that if there is ever a point in his career when it would benefit the team more for him to play third base, "I'll be all for it."
"But now I'm more valuable at shortstop than I am anywhere else," he said. "We have a great young third baseman (in Nolan Arenado). I'm still one of the better [shortstops], so I don't think there's a reason to make the switch. The other thing is, my injuries haven't happened on defense. They've been more running the basepaths. Things like that. So I feel like I should stay there."
As a shortstop, Tulowitzki said, you are in control of so much on the field, and he enjoys that. He says great shortstops are leaders on defense, and, during the games, he's constantly talking on the field, putting guys in certain spots.
"He's a very unique player," manager Walt Weiss said. "I think there was a trend there several years ago where there were some offensive shortstops. People thought that was going to be the new wave; I disagree. I think the position is far too demanding to expect guys to contribute that type of offense. Tulo is a very unique player. He's one of the best defensive shortstops in the entire game, and he hits in the middle of the lineup."
Anna McDonald is a regular contributor to the SweetSpot blog.