Tulo just as impressive at shortstop

BY Ken Rosenthal • April 20, 2011

You know Larry Bowa. Former major-league shortstop, manager and coach. Crusty. Old-school. Not one who dispenses praise easily.

Bowa gushes about Troy Tulowitzki’s defense.

You know Cal Ripken Jr. Hall of Famer. Pioneer for bigger, taller shortstops. Brilliant, analytical baseball mind.

Ripken gushes about Tulo’s defense, too.

Tulowitzki, 26, was at it again Wednesday, continuing his torrid offensive start by going 3-for-5 with two doubles in the Rockies’ 10-2 victory over the Giants.

But to fully appreciate Tulowitzki, an early front-runner for National League MVP, you’ve got to watch him as carefully in the field as at the plate.

Advanced statistical measures confirm what most everyone can see: Tulowitzki is one of the top defensive shortstops in the game.

“What he does better than anything is anticipate — his anticipation is unbelievable,” Bowa says. “His first step is as quick as I’ve seen at that position. You don’t see a guy that big with that much agility.

“And the arm strength he possesses — I’ve never seen that kind of arm. Going (into the hole), you’ll see (Derek) Jeter jump. This guy makes that throw a lot without even jumping.”

Tulowitzki’s ability to field balls on his backhand and throw out runners from deep in the hole between short and third astonishes even acrobatic shortstops such as the Mets’ Jose Reyes.

When Tulo made such a play on a sharp three-hopper by the Mets’ Daniel Murphy on April 13 at Citi Field, Reyes was dumbfounded.

“He threw that ball right in the chest of the first baseman!” Reyes says. “He makes that play look easy. I don’t know how he does that.”

Ripken recalls throwing side-armed to first on most routine grounders, but over the top from the hole. Tulowitzki, even on his longest throws, doesn’t always go over the top. His arm is that strong.

“From the hole he can make the running play and throw from multiple angles and still be extremely accurate,” Ripken says. “I find that amazing.”

 



Ripken played at 6-foot-4, 220 pounds, according to STATS LLC. People remember him mostly as the “Iron Man,” playing in a record 2,632 consecutive games. But he was a remarkable athlete, a soccer player in high school, an avid basketball player in the offseason.

Tulotwitzki, 6-foot-3 and 215 pounds, might be even more athletic — in Ripken’s words, “a big man who can the play position like a smaller guy.”

How does Tulo do it?

Start with his explosive first step.

“It’s something I work on, something I take pride in,” Tulowitzki says. “There are probably 20 shortstops in the game, maybe more, who are faster than me running. So, I’ve got to try to find a way to make up ground.

“With my first step, and how big I am, I can maybe do in one step what they have to do in two to make up as much ground as me. I try to use that to my advantage.

“I like to anticipate. If you were to watch me play a game, I would be moving, jumping more than most people without even a ball getting hit to me. I always find myself moving, chasing the foul balls, trying to get that first step.”

Tulowitzki says he was taught from a young age, “If you’re going to make a mistake, do it aggressively.” Bowa, the Dodgers’ third base coach, from 2008 to ’10, recalls Tulo telling him last season that he wants every ball hit to him, and doesn’t care if he makes an error.

“It’s not reckless abandon,” Bowa says. “His mindset is, ‘I can make every play.’ And he can.”

Bowa loves that approach, loves how Tulo takes charge on popups, loves that he often serves as the first cutoff man on balls hit to right-center field — plays that the second baseman normally handles.

Ripken raves about something else: Tulowitzki’s mind.

“My first impression of Tulo when I first saw him play was that this guy has a ton of talent, but he also is a thinker,” Ripken says.

“One example was when he blocked the base on a throw from the catcher on a steal and got the out. I asked him if he was aware of the base stealers in the league who slid head-first. My question was to find out if he considered the risk of blocking the base.

“He understood the question immediately and then took it to another level. He said yes and that he also knew all of the ones who wore the plastic molded cleats instead of the metal.”

That is exactly the kind of thing that Ripken might have researched during his playing days — the kind of thing that distinguishes a player who is hellbent on being great.

Rich Dauer, the Rockies’ third base coach, was a teammate of Ripken’s with the Orioles from 1981 to ’85. The similarities between Ripken and Tulowitzki, Dauer says, go beyond their size and athleticism.

“We came up through the Orioles’ system learning the hitters,” Dauer says. “We added a lot of range to our defensive schemes because we knew where the ball was going to be hit.

“Cal was an expert at playing the ball wherever it was going to be hit. Troy has taken that same approach to his game. Those great plays he keeps making in the 5-6 hole where he jumps up and throws to first base, they’re only made because he’s already cheating over there in the first place.”

 



Even today, the odd scout will tell you that Tulowitzki is a third baseman playing shortstop, great arm, not-so-great range. Tulo dispels such talk with his play on an almost nightly basis, but he heard it even when he was at Long Beach State.

The Rockies took Tulowitzki with the seventh pick of the 2005 draft. To this day, Tulo believes he would have gone higher if he had been willing to move to third base.

“Some teams wanted to draft me as a third baseman. I told them not to take me,” Tulowitzki says. “I felt like shortstop was my calling, and that I could do it even at the big-league level. I think I’ve proven that. And now it’s about just trying to stay there as long as I possibly can.”

Tulowitzki signed a 10-year, $157.5 million contract extension during the offseason. He will be 36 when the deal expires in 2020. Maybe he will be a third baseman by then. Maybe not.

Few players are willing to talk about their place in history while still active. Ripken declined to look that far ahead even after breaking Lou Gehrig’s consecutive-games record and reaching major milestones.

Tulowitzki, though, does not hide his career aspirations — and in his mind, staying at shortstop is critical if he is to reach them.

“A few years back, I might have said that being a shortstop, I would make a lot more money on the free-agent market. That’s not going to happen now because of (the deal) I just signed,” Tulowitzki says. “But that was always something in the back of your head.

“You have a middle infielder with power. The history, your mark in the game changes a little bit. You want to get into talk of some of the best shortstops of all time, the Hall of Fame, things like that, a shortstop with power definitely sticks out in other people’s minds more than a third baseman with power.

“Even though I’m a young player, those things go through my head. I care about it.”

For proof, just watch him when some unlucky soul hits a grounder into the hole. Watch Tulo backhand the ball. Watch him jump. Watch him throw.

“He moves so smooth, I don’t know how he does it,” Jose Reyes says.

Bowa, Ripken, Reyes.

Shortstops from three different generations.

All blown away by Tulo.



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