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Baseball's best: Miguel Cabrera or Troy Tulowitzki?

It might be more of an open question than you think.

Dustin Bradford

Why haven't I been hearing much about Troy Tulowitzki?

It can't just be me. As I write this (on Sunday evening), a Google news search for his name turns up three recent features -- an excellent one by our own Purple Row about his brilliant and uncharacteristic start, one from Troy Renck of the Denver Post declaring that Tulo is "finally comfortable in Rockies' clutch situations," and one from "The Rox Pile" basically passing along Renck's article: the rest, going back at least to mid-May, are just game recaps. The list of articles atop his Fangraphs page currently contains only two items dating from after Opening Day: he's mentioned in a fantasy-tips piece from this weekend, and there's a NotGraphs post from May 30 about his mulleted childhood photograph. People, especially outside of Denver, just aren't talking about Troy Tulowitzki.

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It's not just because he's a Rockie, and no one is taking the Rockies seriously (though, I suspect that's part of it). I know I've heard more about the early-season successes of Carlos Gonzalez and Dexter Fowler and even Michael Cuddyer than I've heard about Tulo. It's almost as though Tulo is taken for granted, like the sense is that if the Rockies were going to do anything this year, Tulowitzi would have to perform more or less like this.

The point isn't just that Tulowitzki is great, which he has been, or that his greatness is being overlooked, which it is. The point is that, at this moment, Tulo may well be the best player in the National League, and there's an argument that he's the best in baseball.

After another brilliant showing on Sunday (2-for-3 with a double, a home run, and two walks), Tulowitski is now hitting .351/.419/.654 -- even given the Coors adjustment, that'sgood for a 180 wRC+. He came into Sunday's game second in the NL in batting average, fourth in on-base percentage, and leading in both slugging and OPS, while also coming in second in both home runs and RBI. On top of that, while most systems saw him losing a step defensively in 2012, they all agree that he's more or less back to his old, elite self on that side of the ball as well, having saved about five runs above average by both UZR and Baseball-Reference's fielding runs, and two-and-a-half runs by Baseball Prospectus' FRAA. In short, he's an excellent (at worst) defender at the diamond's most important position, and also appears to be the best hitter in the National League. He's having a truly special season, one which, if he were to stay healthy and continue at that pace, would be one of the great shortstop seasons of all time. He'd be the second National League shortstop to top 40 home runs (it's been done five times, but all by Ernie Banks). You'd have to go back to Arky Vaughan in 1935 (and before that, to five or six turn-of-the-last-century seasons by Honus Wagner) to find an NL shortstop who posted an OPS+ as high as Tulo's. What he's done so far is really, really special, or, given it's June, at least has a chance to be.

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Right now, the "who's the best player in baseball" question probably starts and ends with Miguel Cabrera, but I don't think it's quite such a landslide so as to preclude a more equivocal "Cabrera or ______," with any of several players filling the blanks depending on how you look at it: Cabrera or Chris Davis or Paul Goldschmidt if you're 2013- and offense-focused; Cabrera or Carlos Gomez (!) if you're 2013- and defense-focused; Cabrera or Mike Trout if you look back just a little ways (and look forward); Cabrera or Bryce Harper if you're really into the looking forward (and aren't too scared by the injuries); Cabera or Albert Pujols if you have a really hard time letting go of the past.

This is the one that makes the most sense to me, though, and seems the most well-rounded: the best player in baseball, based heavily on an all-encompassing look at 2013 but with consideration given to whether the players have the talent and track record to back it up, is either Cabrera or Tulowitzki.

Photo credit: Joe Robbins

Cabrera's outhitting the world, of course; among qualified hitters in both leagues, only Davis (who is tied with him, but in 24 fewer plate appearances) and Tulo are within 25 points of his otherworldly 192 wRC+. Cabrera also doesn't have to deal with anything like the questions people always seem to have regarding Coors Field and whether numbers like wRC+ and OPS+ properly adjust for it. In fact, while Tulowitzki has been brilliant on the road (.302/.361/.613 in 119 PA), he has been, as Rockies hitters likely always will be, much better at home; Cabrera, meanwhile, has hit 11 of his 17 home runs and has an OPS more than 100 points better on the road. Across all of baseball, hitters are performing better at home by about 31 points of OPS, suggesting Cabrera's home park may actually be holding him back quite a bit; Comerica is actually a slight hitter's park these days, though, so that's more likely just a small-sample-size quirk. Regardless, it's clear that no one but Davis can hold a candle to Cabrera offensively, and he's come to the plate 43 more times than Tulowitzki, too. Fangraphs credits Cabrera with producing 31 runs above average with the bat (through Saturday) against Tulowitzki's 20, which seems reasonable given the difference in both quality and quantity.

Defensively, though, the difference is at least as stark in the other direction. Averaging the three leading defensive metrics, Tulo has saved four runs above an average shortstop, while Cabrera has cost the Tigers six runs versus an average third baseman, so that's ten runs (or a full win, in wins above replacement terms) in Tulowitzki's favor, before we even consider that shortstop is a much more difficult position, which by this point in the season gets Tulo an extra couple runs. There's also baserunning, and I have no idea what to do with that. Certainly, Tulowitzki has a reputation as an above-average runner and Cabrera a below-average one, but Tulowitzki hasn't even attempted a steal this year, and that perception may just be their positions and relative sizes; Fangraphs' baserunning statistic completely disagrees, giving Cabrera two runs back. We'll have to assume that's something like a wash for now.

That's pretty remarkably even, to eyeball it -- about 12 runs' advantage for Cabrera on offense, and the same advantage for Tulo on defense -- and that's reflected in the various Wins Above Replacement measures, where Tulo leads Miggy by 0.1 wins by Fangraphs' method, the two are tied at Baseball Reference, and 0.7 by Baseball Prospectus. It's close enough that one has to depend on personal preference, subjective opinion, trust of the various metrics, and so on to determine which of the two has been better so far in 2013.

To the slightly broader question of who is the best player in baseball today (and who is likely to be the best at the end of this season), I suppose that the argument for Tulowitzki is that, while the old saying that defense never slumps just isn't true, it's certainly less prone to streaks and slumps than hitting is, so while both players are likely playing just a little over their heads offensively, Tulo's defensive edge should be expected to stay more constant. Of course, the numbers measuring it are less reliable, but I think everyone can agree that Tulo is a vastly more valuable defensive player than Cabrera is.

At the end of the day, the mere fact that the answer to the best-player question almost has to be "Cabrera or _____" probably means that the single correct answer right now is Cabrera. Tulowitzki could get hurt again tomorrow, or could fall well off again offensively. That said, he's just 28, and as the Purple Row article linked above points out, he's a typically slow starter -- it's July and August when Tulo really heats up -- so he could be in for an instant-classic, all-time type of season. Regardless, though, right at this moment, he's having a career year and has, at the least, a straight-faced argument for the title of best player in baseball. It seems to me we ought to start paying attention.

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