Right now, the Yankees appear committed to trotting out Troy Tulowitzki as their starting shortstop. Signed on a league-minimum deal earlier this month, the team sounds convinced Tulowitzki can handle some time at the toughest infield position, at least until the incumbent Didi Gregorius heals from Tommy John surgery.
This strategy is at least a little fraught. Tulowitzki has not been a quality shortstop in nearly three years now. He missed the 2018 season entirely with injury, and his last actual season of play, 2017, left much to be desired. He battled injuries then, too, and when on the field, he slashed a paltry .248/.300/.378. Advanced defensive metrics soured on him as well, with DRS pegging him as an average shortstop after evaluating him as well above average in the four seasons prior.
If we want see what an effective Tulowitzki looks like in the latter stages of his career, we must go back to 2016. He posted a .254/.318/.443 line across 544 plate appearances, combining average on-base ability with legitimate pop. He rated as 10 runs above average at short according to DRS. All told, he profiled as a first-division starter on the infield dirt.
Something close to that 2016 season is what the Yankees are hoping for in all likelihood. They cannot expect Tulowitzki to return to stardom after so many years, but they can pine for a more realistic bounce back from the 34-year-old former superstar. What does Tulowitzki have to do to get there? How can he recapture his form from 2016?
To get an answer, we can take a look at what changed, and what didn’t, for Tulowitzki between his solid 2016 and his replacement level 2017. Let’s start by identifying where Tulowitzki didn’t fall off: his contact skills. After making contact with 72% of pitches out of the zone in 2016, per FanGraphs, he made contact with 71% of pitches out of the zone in 2017. His in-zone contact rate actually increased from 86% to 90%, and his overall swinging strike rate fell. Tulowitzki still was able to put the bat to the ball, and must continue to do so to be successful in 2019.
Rather, where Tulowitzki fell short in 2017 was his ability to actually hit the ball with some thump. At first blush, Tulowitzki’s batted ball profile from 2017 looks awful compared to 2016. His groundball rate skyrocketed from 41% to 53%, meaning he traded in a heap of potentially dangerous air balls for relatively innocuous grounders. Subsequently, his 14% line drive rate and 33% fly ball rate were the lowest rates he posted in any season in which he’s played at least 50 games.
Dig deeper, and the picture looks even worse. Per Statcast, Tulowitzki posted an average hit velocity on air balls of just over 90 mph in 2017, in the 25th percentile of hitters. The year before, he averaged nearly 94 mph in the same metric, in the 75th percentile among hitters. From 2016 to 2017, Tulowitzki didn’t lose his contact skills, but instead saw himself swap out wide swaths of well-struck liners and fly balls in exchange for softly-hit grounders.
Of course, any discussion of Tulowitzki must mention injury. His 2017 season ended in July after suffering an ankle injury running out a groundball. He also missed a month earlier in the season with a hamstring ailment. Perhaps that hamstring injury hampered Tulowitzki even prior to exiting with the season-ending ankle problem, but his OPS splits before and after hurting his hammy are nearly identical. It seems like his problems at the plate were mostly non-injury related.
Whether or not his legs were bothering him throughout 2017, it remains clear what Tulowitkzi must do in order to get back to his 2016 level of play. He must continue avoid any drop-off in his bat-to-ball skills, and he cannot resemble the slap-hitter that he was in 2017. Tulowitzki has to return to where he was in 2016, putting the ball in the air with consistency and authority.
Should Tulowitzki reverse his batted ball trends while playing an average shortstop (while staying healthy, mind you), he will fill in just fine for Gregorius. None of this appears to be a lock. Tulowitzki impressed the Yankees with how he moved in private workouts, but playing up the middle every day in the Bronx will prove a much different challenge. Perhaps Tulowitzki is up to it. The blueprint for success is there if he can wind back the clock a couple years.