On The Matter Of Troy Tulowitzki's Defense

Denver, CO, USA; Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki (2) fields a ground ball during the ninth inning against the San Francisco Giants at Coors Field. The Giants won 4-2. Mandatory Credit: Chris Humphreys-US PRESSWIRE

As I write this, Troy Tulowitzki is the league-leader in errors committed. Wait, Troy Tulowitzki, really? I'm going to have to double- and triple-check that. Turns out ... well I'll be damned. What's going on?

Wednesday night, the Colorado Rockies played the San Diego Padres, and Troy Tulowitzki wasn't in the lineup. Starting at short for Colorado was Marco Scutaro. On its own, that's not a big deal. It was a pre-planned day off. Players get those sometimes. Alex Rodriguez got a routine day off for the New York Yankees. Rare is the player who starts 162 games in a season.

But there was some chatter around Tulowitzki's day off. Jim Tracy wasn't just giving him some time to rest up - he was also giving Tulowitzki something of a mental break. And Troy Tulowitzki could use a mental break, because Troy Tulowitzki hasn't been playing like himself.

Nevermind the .762 OPS. Not too many people are thinking about Tulowitzki's bat. They're thinking about Tulowitzki's defense, because it hasn't been up to par. You've probably heard the little statistical nugget. During the 2011 regular season, Troy Tulowitzki committed six errors. So far in the 2012 regular season, Troy Tulowitzki has committed six errors.

It's ... weird is what it is, as Tulowitzki is a back-to-back Gold Glove winner. And where some Gold Gloves are jokes, Tulowitzki's weren't. He's demonstrated over his entire career that he's an outstanding defensive shortstop, so nobody was prepared for him to struggle like he's struggled.

Now, there are two things to talk about here. One is how amazing it is that Tulowitzki's already committed six errors. The other is whether this is likely to continue. We'll begin with the former, and I won't pass up this opportunity to make my good friend Dave Cameron look silly:

It's not entirely fair to compare 2012 Tulowitzki to 2011 Tulowitzki, because in 2011 Tulowitzki committed the fewest errors of his career. But not by a lot - between 2007-2011, he never committed fewer than six, and he never committed more than 11. His fielding percentage ranged between .984 to .991. I know that we're talking about fielding percentage now, and fielding percentage is stupid when you're trying to conduct real analysis, but Tulowitzki's fielding percentage in 2012 is .905. We're just using this for reference.

Tulowitzki has six errors. Nobody on the leaderboard I'm looking at has more than four. A year ago, Tulowitzki committed the same number of errors as Chase d'Arnaud. And that's interesting because Chase d'Arnaud played just over 200 innings. Tulowitzki's always been sure-handed, and it's unsettling when a constant starts to look like less of a constant, and for seemingly no reason.

Now there's the matter of sustainability. Has this all been a fluke, or is there something seriously wrong? It couldn't hurt to look at all six of Tulowitzki's misplays. We begin:


I'm a little uncomfortable with this even being called an error. Tulowitzki's throwing to second base while moving away from second base, and while he's made that play a bunch of times before, this was a hard throw and a short-hop. The second baseman could've corralled this throw for an out.


Tulowitzki throws wide of first. What might not be apparent in the .gif is that it's raining, and has been raining for a while. And it's very cold. Tulowitzki struggles to get a grip on the ball, which is understandable given the conditions.


Another throwing error, from the same game as above. Wet, cold, tough to grip. Before we excuse Tulowitzki completely, there was only one other error in the game, by pitcher Jhoulys Chacin on an attempted pick-off. If the other players had trouble, they didn't show it the way Tulowitzki showed it. But the conditions are still something to consider.


Here we have a hard shot, off the bat of Cory Luebke which Tulowitzki probably wasn't expecting. The ball might've hit the lip between the grass and the dirt. Tulowitzki would say he should've made this play, and he's made it before.


Not sure what to say about this one. It's a throwing error. It's the pitcher running. Troy Tulowitzki really wants Padres pitchers to reach base, possibly so they have to run the bases and end up getting worn out.


And here's error number six, which is probably the worst of them all. It's just a grounder that goes right through Tulowitzki's legs and on into the outfield. We began by giving Tulowitzki the benefit of the doubt, but we can't in good conscience give him the benefit of the doubt here.

So, those are Tulowitzki's mistakes. One of them might not have been an error. Two of them might have been caused by lousy playing conditions. Three of them are legitimate, and you wonder if the early errors contributed to the later errors.

You could try to draw some The Art Of Fielding parallels if you wanted, and if you've read it. But then, it's not like Tulowitzki has been screwing up everything. An inning after error number six, Tulowitzki played a part in a successful double play. His fielding percentage is .905, not .000. However, while there might not be an exact match to the struggles of Henry Skrimshander, more generally, Tulowitzki has a revealing quote:

"I think about it ... Yeah, it's in my head," he said. "I'm taking the field and thinking about it. I never thought about defense. I just go out there and play, and if I make an error, I made an error. But I wasn't worried about it. So, yeah, I think about it. It's in my head. I'd be lying if I said it wasn't in my head. I think about it because I care."

Tulowitzki is aware of his defense, where he's accustomed to playing on autopilot. One figures that the best defenders in baseball play on autopilot, letting their bodies do everything without their minds getting involved. It's probably not a good thing for Tulowitzki to go out there and think about everything he has to do. He's at his best when things are coming naturally, and at the moment, things aren't coming naturally.

So with Tulowitzki, we're in unfamiliar waters. It's not hard to imagine him over-thinking things all season, with each successive error making him more afraid of the next. But then, we don't want to go too far. We needn't pretend like we have a firm grasp of athlete psychology, and Troy Tulowitzki's defense is slumping. Players slump all the time at the plate or on the mound. They usually work through them. Things feel off, until, in time, they don't feel off anymore. Then everything's better.

Troy Tulowitzki should be better, and I'd guess that he should be better soon. Will he get better in time to defend his Gold Glove award? As far as that's concerned, we'll just have to see, and we'll also have to pretend to care because honestly who cares about the Gold Glove awards? Let's be real.


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