Everyone already knows that the Colorado Rockies' Troy Tulowitzki is probably the best shortstop in baseball. He's a plus defender. He can hit over .300. He gets his fair share of walks. He's a legitimate 30+ home run threat. He's anchored one of the better teams in baseball over the past four years, including three seasons where he was at least 5.5 wins above replacement. And he's only 26; he's precisely the type of player that you try to build around. Clearly the Rockies agree, because they're paying him $157.75 million through 2020 to be that kind of figure.
And even though his numbers are down almost across the board this season, from .315/.381/.568 last season to .250/.326/.480 this season, a deeper look at his numbers has to make one wonder if the brilliant shortstop might actually be getting even better.
Rather than try to make things more complex than they really need to be, I'll be fairly blunt here: Tulowitzki is swinging and missing far, far less than ever before, and striking out significantly less as a result of that. Given this development, you'd expect the shortstop's batting average to see a nice increase given the increased number of balls in play, but a massive dip in BABIP has actually depressed Tulowitzki's batting average thus far.
From 2007-2010, Tulowitzki posted a .293 batting average on a .319 BABIP while striking out in roughly 16.6% of his plate appearances. As you would assume from the solid average, those are good numbers to have. He swung at 44.1% of the pitches thrown to him, and posted a 6.6% whiff rate. From all the available evidence, you could tell that Tulowitzki was a good contact hitter, but not a great one.
But this season, despite the superficial drop in Tulowitzki's overall numbers, it appears that he may actually be making additional improvements as a hitter in his age-26 season. He's managed to cut his whiff rate significantly, from 6.6% to only 3.8%, and in the process he's sliced his strikeout rate in half- this season he's been sent back to the bench with a K in only 7.1% of his plate appearances.
And while improved contact rates sometimes come at the expense of patience and quality of contact, that doesn't appear to be the case here. He's actually walking even more than he did last year, his batted ball profile is practically identical to last season's, and he's maintaining his unique power for an up-the-middle player.
Some might say that we haven't seen any of this improvement really manifest itself in games yet, but the reality is that his numbers would look far, far worse than they currently do if he was the same player that he was last season. The improved K rate has helped to make up for the decreased BABIP by simply increasing the volume of balls in play, and it's helped to make his numbers look reasonable even though his BABIP has dipped over 100 points from last season. Most players see a 100-point dip in BABIP and their numbers look absolutely awful. Tulowitzki's previous greatness combined with his recent improvement has enabled him to put up some pretty strong numbers even though he's getting killed by poor luck on balls in play right now.
It might be pretty weird to go around touting that some baseball player has improved his ability to make contact while seeing his batting average drop from .315 to .250, but that's the thing about baseball: sometimes, things get a little weird. Because right now, Troy Tulowitzki is proving to be a better contact hitter that he ever was before, but you'd never notice if you simply limited yourself to batting averages.