Covering the Front and Back Pages of the Newspaper
September 15, 2009
I'm generally suspicious of efforts to argue that the most valuable players in baseball are anyone other than the best players. That said, due to the way teams are constructed, there's no denying that there always seem to be some guys whose presence and success is especially important to their teams, and right now there are very few players more critical to a team's success than Troy Tulowitzki with the Rockies. Tulowitzki's rise in 2007 coincided with the team's meteoric run to the World Series, his injury-plagued 2008 coincided with the team's equally dramatic decline, and now the Rox, counted out early, have the whip hand in the NL Wild Card race and are the last second-place team that's really alive despite chasing a Dodgers team that looked for much of the season like the class of the game.
Jim Tracy, of course, deserves his share of the credit for the Rockies turnaround - they've played .646 ball under him after Clint Hurdle was sacked with the team 10 games under .500. And much of the credit goes to the pitching staff, with the revival of Huston Street leading a strong bullpen and Ubaldo Jimenez anchoring a more-than-adequate rotation. Despite his strong arm, Tulowitzki can't claim a ton of credit for that: Colorado is (in part due to its park) below average in team Defensive Efficiency, and its pitchers have prospered more by allowing the 5th fewest homers and walks in the NL, as well as a league-average strikeout rate.
But the Rox catching fire also coincided neatly with when Tulowitzki started hitting 10 games into Tracy's tenure. On June 7, the team was 23-32 and 14 1/2 games out of first place, and Tulowitzki was batting an anemic .216/.306/.377; since then, he's hit .315/.396/.596, with 20 homers, 62 Runs and 60 RBI in 86 games played; the Rockies have gone 56-30 in those games. The Colorado offense has had only a few other real surprises - Seth Smith, the development of Carlos Gonzales, a respectable OBP by Dexter Fowler - but Tulowitzki has been the biggest difference-maker.
Anyway, I didn't have time to do a really comprehensive rundown or figure out if somebody else has, so I'm sure I missed someone interesting or useful, but I thought it would be fun to run the record of the Rockies with Tulowitzki in and out of the starting lineup over the 2007-09 period against a comparison group of other stars (I left off people like Hanley Ramirez who haven't missed enough games to be worth asking - as it is, there's something of a small sample size issue with Pujols and Jeter). Here's the result - the last column is the team winning percentage with the player in the lineup minus the team winning percentage without him in the lineup, with the difference multiplied by 162 games to give a value of the difference in wins:
Simply compiling a chart like this helps explain its limitations. Multiple Mets are atop the chart in good part because they were all injured at once this season, multiplying the impact of their absences. The same is partly true of Tulowitzki; it wasn't just his absence that doomed the Rockies last season. On the other hand, for believers in the notion that one player only has so much impact, the size of the gaps here is pretty striking. It's probably not wholly coincidental, either, that Vlad Guerrero's numbers look so poor given that the bulk of his missed time has come this season, when he has been less than stellar (the Angels are 41-38 with Guerrero starting, 45-19 without).
As for A-Rod, well, until the Hated Yankees win in the postseason, nothing compiled on his behalf can answer his critics (and as long as he's on the team, all postseason failures are charged to him and him alone). But, you know, the Yankees really are a better team with him in the lineup, and not just this season; in 2007-08 they were 12-20 without him.