What’s going on with Tulo?

Troy Tulowitzki has been in the news lately because of his desire to be traded away from Colorado (and then his desire not to be), but less publicized is the fact that he’s also in the midst of one of the least productive offensive stretches of his career. His above average walk/low strikeout plate approach has done a 180 this year, with the Rockies shortstop posting a career-low walk rate and career-high strikeout rate. With the trade rumors continuing to swirl, we have to wonder: What’s going on with Tulo?

Since first being promoted to the major leagues in 2006, Tulowitzki has shown one of the best all-around toolsets at the shortstop position: He’s hit for power, he’s walked at an above average rate and he’s limited his strikeouts. Those abilities, combined with great defense, have made him one of the best players in baseball when healthy. Following another season that hinted at what could be if he was able to stay on the field, his numbers have been less than stellar in 2015. In addition to a conspicuous lack of home run power, other parts of his game have fallen off. To start with, let’s take a look at his career walk and strikeout rates compared to league average, updated with this season’s numbers:

Tulo_K_BB_Rates

As we can see, a slight uptick in strikeout rate might not be terribly worrisome, given the fact that we only have just over a month and a half of the season under our belt. However, the almost total cratering of Tulowitzki’s walk rate is concerning. After a career built on walking at an above average clip, he now has the seventh-lowest walk rate in the majors among qualified hitters. It’s unusual to see such a drastic decrease in walk rate with an established player, and it requires some attention.

The main driver of that decreased tendency to take a free pass: Tulo is swinging and missing at more pitches out of the strike zone. Take a look at his swing rates from 2007-2014 compared to his swing rate this year:

Tulo_Heatmaps

Not only is Tulowitzki simply swinging more often, he’s expanded his swing zone high as well as inside. After swinging at just under 26 percent of pitches outside of the strike zone throughout his career (league average is 30 percent%), he’s swung at 36 percent of them in 2015. Let’s put it another way: Up until this year, Tulo has swung at pitches outside of the zone at the same rate as players like Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt, and Edwin Encarnacion — hitters known for their patience and power. This year, he finds himself alongside names like Juan Lagares, Ryan Howard and Marlon Byrd.

That’s not to say a player can’t be successful by swinging at a higher rate of pitches out of the strike zone. Plenty of hitters do it. Those types of hitters just usually have a tendency to strike out more and walk less than the hitters highlighted before, and many make up for their lack of plate discipline with great contact ability (like Pablo Sandoval). Unfortunately, Tulo’s contact rates have actually dropped to career lows this season to go along with that more aggressive approach, and that helps explain his current struggles.

The increase in swing rate in and beyond the top of the strike zone is what we should focus on next, as it represents the main problem Tulowitzki’s facing: trouble with fastballs. Let’s take a look at his average pitch type values, which weigh the outcomes of each different type of pitch (whiffs, balls or strikes, hits or outs, etc.) for the years prior to this one vs. 2015:

Season wFastball/C wSlider/C wCutter/C wCurve/C wChangeup/C
2006-14 1.40 -0.06 2.12 1.53 1.48
2015 -1.19 1.41 -2.64 -1.11 0.75

After spending an entire career punishing fastballs and cutters, Tulowitzki has suddenly had serious trouble with those pitches this year. To be fair, he’s had trouble against curveballs in 2015 as well, but having trouble with hard pitches is more of a problem if you’re a hitter who’s known for being able to drive the ball. That shows up in his whiff rates on fastballs: after a career of posting a whiff rate on hard pitches (12.5 percent) under the league average (around 15 percent), Tulowitzki has whiffed on 18.8 percent of fastballs, cutters and sinkers he’s offered at so far in 2015. He already has more strikeouts (nine) on fastballs in and above the upper third of the strike zone as he did in each of 2014 (six), 2013 (seven) and 2011 (seven).

Another trend that has surfaced this year is his fly ball and home run distance, which has continued its decline from the past two years. Let’s take a look at how far his fly balls and home runs have travelled over his career (excluding 2012, when he missed almost the entire season) compared to the league average:

Tulo_HR_Distance

After being in the top 15 in the majors for fly ball and home run distance in 2009 and 2010, Tulowitzki has declined for the past three years; he now sits just above the league average of 275 to 280 feet. As a 30-year-old, Tulo should already be in the decline phase of his home run power, and we also know he has had his share of injury problems. Age and injury are both factors we know impact batted ball distance, so we shouldn’t be surprised if his power output decreases along with them.

Tulo is showing a different, more aggressive approach at the plate in 2015: He’s swinging at more pitches out of the zone, making contact less and not putting up the numbers we’re used to. It’s still early, and some of this could still be noise — knowing the talent he possesses, no one should count out his ability to suddenly bounce back. We know this for certain, however: Tulowitzki is struggling in places he usually thrives, and there are red flags related to his numbers that should cause some concern. Whether those concerns truly come to fruition, and whether they will be Colorado’s to address, is something only time will answer.