Canadian sports fans haven’t had many reasons to give the Colorado Rockies the time of day since Larry Walker was traded out of Denver, but that all changed in the midnight hour on July 28th, 2015. The Rockies became the talk of baseball in two countries when they dealt star shortstop Troy Tulowitzki along with LaTroy Hawkins to the Blue Jays in exchange for starting shortstop Jose Reyes, and pitching prospects Jeff Hoffman, Miguel Castro and Jesus Tinoco. That deal changed the complexion of the Blue Jays and heralded their rise to division champions. Tulowitzki’s last few months as a member of the Rockies were covered by the Rox Pile for their season in review. As for Tulowitzki’s precise contributions to Toronto’s torrential tear through the latter half of the season, they are hard to quantify in mere statistics.
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Tulowitzki played in 41 games in the regular season for the Blue Jays in 2015, interrupted by three weeks recuperation after his shoulder blade was cracked by Kevin Pillar‘s zirconium skull in a collision during a double-header against the Yankees on September 12th. He returned for the final series against Tampa Bay, playing in two of three games. During his time in the American League, he posted a .239/.310/.387 slash set, well below his career averages as well as the averages he set this season prior to the trade. Tulowitzki hit five home runs, driving in 17 runs, while scoring 31 of his own.
He was the starting shortstop in all 11 postseason games for Toronto. He struggled against the Rangers, only collecting two hits in five games, although one hit was a home run. In a losing effort versus the eventual champions in Kansas City, Tulowitzki was arguably the most consistent Blue Jays hitter, batting .308 with a .522 slugging percentage and seven RBIs. Were Toronto to go on to win the series, Tulowitzki would have been a strong candidate for MVP.
That first game sure was something, huh? In his debut against Philadelphia, Tulowitzki had a monster day considering he just flew into the country. Tulo went three for five with two doubles and a home run, knocking in three while scoring three. Perhaps the performance have been taken with a grain of salt given it was against a Phillies squad that would have had a tough time handling the Sugar Land Skeeters at that point in the season. That first game did something to the fan base though. Having a front office that would go out and get a five-time All-Star for a stretch run, get a guy who would provide an instant charge in the lineup, it energized the entire city and brought fans back to a stadium that had long been forgotten. Tulowitzki’s greatest impact this season might have been getting a beleaguered base to fall in love with this team again.
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His defense wasn’t bad, either. Reyes had become a liability in the field as the injuries sapped his legs of all that lightning speed he had with the Mets and destroyed his range. Reyes’ fielding percentage was a career worst .953 and he was costing the Blue Jays 18 runs more than the average defensive shortstop. Tulowitzki was inserted into the infield and settled the position down. He didn’t make a single error in the 39 games that he played at shortstop, and turned a cheese box position into a black hole, saving the Blue Jays 21 runs against the average shortstop! It was a complete 180 from the Reyes era, and that kind of confidence helps the pitching staff perform better. In the games Tulowitzki played, the Blue Jays’ ERA dropped from 4.06 on July 28th down to 3.83 when he took the mandible to the scapula. Pitch-to-contact pitchers like R.A. Dickey and Marco Estrada were better the second Tulowitzki entered the field of play.
While Tulowitzki brought his glove, his “buttered-up pancake” glove to Toronto, his bat was deported after that first game against Hawaiian beach ball hurler Jerome Williams. In addition to the below-average averages that he put up, any time Tulowitzki did make contact, they were not for power. Tulowitzki had just six extra base hits before leaving the double-header in the Bronx. His slugging percentage dipped 51 points in that stretch, a trend that does not befit a man who hits sixth in the lineup.
Another problem was that the man who hits sixth in the lineup, and third for most of his career was asked to bat in the leadoff spot upon arrival in Toronto, and Troy Tulowitzki does not have the tools of a prototypical leadoff man. Tulowitzki is not a threat on the basepaths as he had not attempted more than five steals in a season since 2010. Also, batting leadoff and batting sixth require different mindsets. Leadoff men focus solely on getting slap hits, getting on base any way they can to score runs, while 3rd or 6th men in the lineup try to belt doubles and home runs to plate them. Tulowitzki was better at the latter, posting a +.500 slugging percentage in five of his previous six seasons. Asking him to set tables instead of clear them was like asking the head chef to wait tables without telling the customer how the food is prepared. It took Tulowitzki out of his rhythm and hampered his ability to settle in with the club. Replacing him with Ben Revere wasn’t just a matter of promoting a hot bat. It was a matter of mercifully ending Tulowitzki’s failed tenure atop the lineup card.
Coming back to that fateful fly ball from Didi Gregorius on September 12th, the three weeks that Tulowitzki derailed the first time in four seasons that he would have appeared in over 130 games. Injuries are going to be a problem for Tulowitzki, although missing time on a freak collision with Iron Jaw is much more promising than hip or groin surgery. The Blue Jays do have the luxury of being able to plug Ryan Goins in should Tulowitzki go down again, but obviously the goal is to keep Tulowitzki happy, healthy and producing on the field.
It should be easier to do now that Tulowitzki will have time to properly adjust to life in Canada. Talking with reporters following the Blue Jays’ elimination, he admitted the trade from Colorado shook him to his core. “It’s been a tough year for me…Just with everything that went down with the trade. It threw me for a loop. It threw my family for a loop.” With a full year to settle down in Toronto, to go through spring training and not have to worry about persistent rumors about whether or not he was going to be traded, Tulowitzki should experience a bounce back season at the plate. Granted the trust with front office folk that was destroyed won’t be improved with the dismissal of the GM that brought him into town, but he’s survived such transitions before in Colorado, and if Tony La Cava remains in place, it should help ease Tulowitzki’s fears that he might be moved again before his contract expires in 2020.
Tulowitzki will be counted on to deliver the same kind of performance in the field that he did for the Blue Jays last season while rediscovering his offense at the same time. If he can do that and avoid a trip to the disabled list, the Blue Jays stand a good chance of starting a playoff streak in 2016 as opposed to beginning another drought.