Why Troy Tulowitzki is playing better than anyone right now

MLB columnist
Yahoo Sports

All offseason, Troy Tulowitzki heard the same thing. Just watch, people said. He's going to change you. Taz Tulowitzki is now 5 months old, and in one respect, those prognosticators were correct. Tulowitzki didn't used to have a purple T-shirt with "TAZ" written across the front, graffiti-style.

As for the other part – the if-you're-not-playing-well-he's-gonna-put-a-smile-on-your-face sentiment – well, it's safe to say those suggesting as much don't know Tulowitzki very well. In a game of constant transformation, Tulo is positively inert, sameness a security blanket he clutches with a kung-fu grip.

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"I don't change for much," he said. "I'm not that guy and I never have been. I love him. I won't take it out on him. But I take baseball pretty serious. When I'm frustrated, I'm frustrated, and nobody can put a smile on my face. Nobody."

Granted, Tulowitzki hasn't had much to frown about. He has been the best player in baseball over the season's first six weeks, and it's not even close. In a game with a paucity of elite shortstops, he plays standard-bearer. During an era in which strikeouts are skyrocketing, his whiffs have cratered. He punishes pitches inside and out, up and down. His .391 batting average, .497 on-base percentage and .750 slugging percentage all lead baseball by wide margins, and his 11 home runs top the National League leaderboard. The only way he could be any better is if he played Gold Glove-caliber defense. Wait. He does that, too.

Accordingly, the Colorado Rockies find themselves in the thick of an interesting NL West race, ostensible contenders so long as Tulowitzki remains in the middle of the lineup. Which is always the rub with him: After 260 days spent on the disabled list over his eight major league seasons, according to Baseball Prospectus' injury database, Tulowitzki's health has come to define his career as much as his brilliance, which was evident upon his first full season in 2007.

The Rockies went to the World Series that year. In 2009, they made the playoffs. No surprise, those were the only two seasons in which Tulowitzki played close to a full complement of games. He'd rather have six months of good health over six weeks of great production.

"Being healthy is No. 1, but winning is right there with that," he said. "I have so much joy playing this game. At times I don't show it because I'm so focused, but it's a joy to be out there. Especially with how many times I've been on the DL."

This may be the most talented Rockies team since his last year without a trip there. Its lineup brims with big bats beyond Tulowitzki: fellow superstar Carlos Gonzalez, burgeoning All-Star Nolan Arenado, breakout hitter Charlie Blackmon, a revitalized Justin Morneau, reigning batting champ Michael Cuddyer, the powerful Wilin Rosario. It's an American League lineup in National League clothes, and placing it inside the tinder box that is Coors Field has led to conflagrant numbers for Colorado at home: .355/.401/.600. The Rockies essentially field a lineup of Lou Gehrigs when in Denver.

Just as important, the Rockies believe, is their approach with two strikes. One of the great laments among old-time baseball men is the death of the two-strike approach, in which a hitter shortens his swing in order to avoid a strikeout. The rumors of its demise have been greatly exaggerated. Tired of watching hitters hack away at third strikes, manager Walt Weiss and new hitting coach Blake Doyle spent spring training imploring the Rockies to embrace the two-strike approach.

The numbers tend to support the Rockies buying in. They are far and away the most successful two-strike team in baseball this season, hitting .213/.268/.353 with a major league-best 21 home runs – more than 36 percent of their total. Major league batters as a whole have hit .175/.244/.264 on two strikes this season, and the 2013 Rockies spent the year in the same ZIP code: .181/.243/.274.

While it's a bit of a chicken-and-egg question – Are the Rockies hitting better as a whole because they're better on two strikes, or are they better on two strikes because they're better as a whole? – Doyle sees it as the former. Even after striking out 23 times in two games against Kansas City, the Rockies' strikeout rate of 17.7 percent is down nearly 2 percent. That could even out, of course, particularly as teams get a better sense of how to attack the shorter swings Colorado wants.

"Our third swings, two-strike swings, do not mimic our first-strike swings," Doyle said. "We work on it in batting practice. It's something the guys have embraced and just done a good job with. ... When you have athletes like this who are big and strong, squaring the ball produces. And even with two strikes, the balls will go out of the ballpark."

The approach is working for Tulowitzki. His .861 OPS on two-strike pitches ranks fourth in baseball. It's nearly 200 points ahead of where he was last season, and Gonzalez, Blackmon, outfielder Corey Dickerson and others join him near the top of most of the two-strike stats. It's a product not just of the approach, Tulowitzki said, but of the same sort of give-and-take among hitters prevalent with the Boston Red Sox – the team that three of the previous four seasons had the best OPS with two strikes.

Hitting is a language the Rockies love to talk. When Tulowitzki sits in front of a computer, studying video and looking at statistics and tendencies – Doyle calls him the most prepared player he's ever seen – Arenado will creep up behind him and sneak a peek over his shoulder. During meetings, veteran hitters will give detailed scouting reports on longtime pitchers, and younger players aren't afraid to do the same for pitchers they may have seen in the minor leagues.

Winning tends to foster such collaboration, and between the lineup and a pitching rotation with reinforcements on the come – the rehabbing Tyler Chatwood and Brett Anderson, and big-time prospects Jon Gray and Eddie Butler – it's not far-fetched to think it could happen this year. And that edifies Tulowitzki, whom the Rockies considered trading this offseason after the third season of his 10-year, $157.5 million deal.

"I definitely like it here and want to stay here," Tulowitzki said. "I signed with the Rockies for a reason. I felt comfortable here. I wanted to be like some of those guys who play on one team their whole career. It doesn't happen too often. But when you think about the Rockies, you think about Todd Helton, and I want to be that next guy in line."

He's not going anywhere, not now, not when he's playing like this. He'd rather not change at all, thanks.

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