Tulowitzki: When a First Rounder Isn’t a First Rounder

Last week I touted the old guy Beltre over the young 3B. Now I’m going to tell you to pass on the veteran SS who has superstar potential. Why is that? It’s simple: at bats. I’ll go into the stats behind Troy Tulowitzki  and admit that he’s capable of elite production, but I’ll also convince you that he’s not a first-round pick in any but the deepest leagues.

  • Tulo set highs in many categories during the 2014, despite a shortened season.

His triple slash were all career highs, as was his HR/FB. He’s not old per se, but at 31 it seems unlikely he’s found a new level and this is the norm. Bear in mind that career highs are just that, the highest point, and so it’s far more likely he regresses a bit. I’d argue that when you consider a full season, most players have highs and lows, good luck and bad luck. Tulo started hot, and before he could experience any real cold spells, he got injured.

He had a career high BABIP, so even though I expect him to hit above .290 every year, you can’t expect an average as high as 2014 again, given his second-best BA is 25 points lower than 2014. The fact that he had a career high LD% as well doesn’t bode well for 2014 being a new level. What’s more, he’s had a rise in his K% the last two years, compared to his 2010-12 levels. There are other smaller factors at play here as well: more swinging out of the strike zone despite fewer pitches seen in the zone, and a three-year rise in swinging strike rate. For 2015, I’m projecting lower than most, more in the .290 range rather than anything over .300. That’s still good, but it’s certainly a drop from 2014.

Now let’s look at his power stroke. Tulo set a career high in SLG, ISO, and HR/FB. Is any of this sustainable? I’m on board for 20-25 HR every year (if healthy!), but I’m not going to bank on 30+ from him. Again, the spike in HR/FB isn’t really sustainable over a full season. He was over 25% in the first two months, but he dropped to 11% in June. With a full season, odds are he’d be much lower than his hot start. His fly ball rate is a bit over league average, so that will guarantee him 20 HR with decent health, but also bear in mind that he got a boost from Coors Field, with 14 HR at home and 7 HR away in 2014.

  • He’s potentially a top-5 player in the game if he gets 450+ AB, so he has to be worth an early pick.

I freely admit that when Tulo is healthy and gets 450 AB, he is a force to be reckoned with. However, let’s look at that AB benchmark again. For Tulo, we have to say, “Oh, he got over 350 AB this year? He had a good season.” For most top players, we expect (and need) well over 500 AB to reach elite value. Looking at CBS 5×5 rankings for 2014, the lowest AB total for any top-20 hitter is 539. The next lowest is 548, and ten of the top-20 are over 600 AB.

As good as Tulo was in his short 2014, he was only the 67th ranked hitter, and 99th overall. What are his AB totals the last three years? Not so good: 181, 446, and 315. His high BA may look good on the surface, but the fewer AB he nets, the less impact his BA has on your team BA. For example, I play in a 15-team 5×5 league, and the best team BA in 2014 was .283. Let’s say your team nets 5,000 AB in a season and hits .270. Tulo’s 2014 BA, as amazing as it was, only raises the team BA to .274 due to his low AB total. In my 5×5 league, the four points are just short of helping the #2 team surpass the #1 team in BA, and it’s only half the points needed to go from #3 to #2. His home run total as a counting stat was still very helpful, but R, RBI, and even BA were less of a factor for a roto team over the long haul of a season.

Steamer’s projections look great for Tulo and hint at what he can do: .303/85/28/92 would be great, a return to his glorious place atop the rankings. But what are their projected AB? They pencil him in for 522 AB (602 PA). FanGraphs readers are a bit more realistic, pegging him for 470 AB (yet giving him more R and RBI than Steamer), but that’d still be higher than his last three seasons.

When it comes to first round picks, you need to get full value out of your player. Missing early in the draft, whether through injury or regression or bad luck, can drastically affect your team’s rankings. Trout, Miggy, and McCutchen are obvious early picks, and rightly so based on their skill levels; they also have a 3-year average of 583, 596, and 575 at bats, respectively. When it comes to the middle or end of the first round, who will you take? The star shortstop who hasn’t been consistently healthy in his entire career, but may produce like a first-round player? Or will you take the safer pick in Cano (average 609 AB over 3 years), Beltre (595 AB), Pence (632 AB), or even Desmond (569 AB)? I know where my pick is going, and it’s not Tulowitzki.

Kevin Jebens

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Fantasy baseball player since 2000; winning leagues ranging from 12-team H2H to 18-team experts 5x5. Has written for various baseball blogs, including the 2013 Bleed Cubbie Blue Annual.