Every acquisition is a careful balance of risk. An MLB team signing me to a $50 million contract carries a tremendous amount of risk, since I’m not particularly likely to be much of an MLB player. The Yankees’ acquisition of Troy Tulowitzki, conversely, carries less risk since he’s being paid the MLB minimum and can be DFA’d without many other considerations should he be unproductive.
However, as it appears more and more likely that the Yankees will rely on Troy Tulowitzki to be the Opening Day shortstop, it comes time for us to assess the likelihood of nonproductive performance. Particularly because every day it looks more like Tulo will be counted on for something real in 2019.
We don’t have a lot of information on what Troy looks like today. He clearly impressed MLB teams at his showcases enough that there was real competition for his services, but most professional baseball players look good when they’re alone on a field taking ground balls. How Tulo does playing four days a week or more, against MLB pitching, is a different story.
In a perfect world I’d look at the Statcast data for a showcase, since the rawest data tends to be the most stable. There’s less noise in a player’s exit velocity, for example, than in triple slashes. Unfortunately, even if Statcast/Trackman data was recorded for Tulowitzki, it’ll never become public, and we’re left with the most recent data we have, from his last games played back in 2017.
That last year, Tulowitzki posted a 79 wRC+, tying him with the great Mike Napoli for 288th in baseball among hitters with at least 250 plate appearances. Add to that the fact that it wasn’t luck that dragged him down:
The building blocks of hitting just regressed hard. Tulo was making weaker contact and far more of it on the ground, which just sets your offensive ceiling so low. As well, this is a particular concern with aging players:
Tulo hasn’t really lost much against the fastball - he’s still able to make good contact on swings. Against the changeup, though, he has lost a lot, since he’s going to the plate focused on fastball, and probably cheating a bit. This is something you see a lot in older players. Alex Rodriguez posted a 218 (!!) wRC+ against fastballs in 2015, but posted a 139 against changeups. The actual raw number isn’t as important as the fact A-Rod was 40% better against fastballs, because he had to pick one pitch to look for.
Not only is he not able to hit with much upside, his speed has all but vanished. Troy’s sprint speed was just 25.6 feet per second, while MLB shortstops average 27.1. His speed isn’t likely injury based either—he was below positional average in 2015, and in a relatively “healthy” 2016 his sprint speed was 25.5, virtually identical to his 2017 mark.
Tulowitzki runs, and plays, more like Greg Bird (25.4 ft/s) than a big league shortstop. I’m not trying to pick on the guy, but his 2017 exit velocity was a half-mile-per-hour less than Greg Bird’s 2018 mark, while hitting more balls on the ground. Their xWOBAs were identical.
Now, it’s fair to say that maybe Tulowitzki’s base was hurt, he couldn’t get his legs under him because he was battling an injury, and that may be true. Using at least one contemporary example, though, leg injuries don’t hurt your raw hitting stats as much as it might seem.
Gleyber Torres, for example, kept a steady launch angle in 2018 despite battling a hip injury for a notable chunk of the season. This is why Statcast is so reliable; it’s measuring things that tend to stay consistent.
We know that Tulowitzki is a hard worker. We know that he’s open to changes, famously experimenting with a high leg kick in 2016, taking notes from then-teammates Josh Donaldson and Jose Bautista. We know that he’s humble enough to admit when something’s not working, like when he abandoned that leg kick for a more conventional toe tap later that same year.
Still, the quantifiable data we have access to doesn’t give much optimism to Tulowitzki’s case. He’s 34 and will play his first games in April since June 2017. In a lot of ways, the expectations for Troy Tulowitzki and Jacoby Ellsbury should be the same, down to our collective anticipation of a DL stint.
The risk for Tulowitzki is lower, because of his contract status. At the same time, don’t hold your breath expecting a real replacement for Didi Gregorius. The stick just doesn’t look like it’s there anymore, he’s not getting any faster, and is being asked to play the most important defensive position on the diamond.