The curious case of Troy Tulowitzki’s low K rate and missing bat speed

When trying to explain the Toronto Blue Jays’ disappointing 35-36 season to date, you can point to many culprits. Injuries have wreaked havoc on the roster. Jose Bautista has fallen well short of expectations. They’re 0-90,000,000,000,000 in games in which they’ve tried to claw back to .500.

Still, no Jays player has missed career AND recent norms in 2017 more than Troy Tulowitzki. (Jose Bautista might be further behind career norms, but we expect a lesser version of Bautista after last year).

In an injury-shortened 37 games, Tulo has batted a mere .235/.297/.333 this season. Adjust for park effects and that line ranks 130th among the 141 American League hitters with as many plate appearances as he has. When a five-time all-star and two-time Silver Slugger award winner is keeping company with journeymen such as Adam Rosales and even a no-hit bench jockey teammate like Ryan Goins, you know that something is very wrong.

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To help diagnose the problem, I enlisted the help of Ryan Parker, a Frisco, Texas-based hitting coach. Here’s what he had to say:

“Looking at Tulo in 2016 vs. 2017, there are several small differences in his swing pattern. The general idea is that his moves got just a bit bigger, but his actual launch got slower. In 2016, Tulo used a small, double-tap-type stride. His bat starts at about a 45-degree angle. As his foot taps, his hands tip the barrel to a vertical position. In 2017, his bat starts flatter to the ground, he picks his foot up higher to begin that first tap, and his arms move the barrel to a vertical position during that tap. In this side view clip courtesy of @HyattCraig, it’s easy to see the “bigger” moves in 2017.”

“While the 2017 version has bigger moves, the actual launch is slower,” says Parker. This is the key point. In 2016, the barrel almost snaps behind his body before whipping around to contact. In 2017, the barrel just falls behind before turning to contact. It’s like he went from trusting his swing speed to be there (2016) to using bigger moves to force speed (2017). Everyone’s swing slows as they age and this new swing has bigger, forced motions that may be more difficult for Tulo to time up. The combination of getting older, recovering from a lower body injury, and new timing moves is a tough combo for any hitter.”

The numbers bear out Parker’s diagnosis, especially as we dig deeper. A wide array of hitters ranging from Yonder Alonso to Logan Morrison to Brett Gardner to Tulo’s Jays teammate Justin Smoak have parlayed a combination of harder contact with hitting more balls in the air to produce unexpected power spikes this season. On the flip side, Tulowitzki is one of the four everyday players who’ve seen the biggest drops in hard contact on balls hit in the air in 2017.

Here’s some more perspective. Tulowitzki’s first full season in the big leagues was 2007. In this, his 11th full season in the majors, Tulo’s suddenly producing career-worst numbers in every major batted-ball category. At a time when everyone and their dog knows how harmful it is to hit the ball on the ground, he’s burning worms at a career-high rate of 49.5 per cent. His flyball rate of 36.2 per cent is his lowest since ‘07. His line-drive rate of 14.7 per cent is his lowest ever, and the 10th-lowest among all AL hitters with as many times at the plate.

He’s hitting infield popups at a career-high clip of 16.7 per cent, which is ostensibly the same as striking out, since those pretty much never produce hits.

Now, he’s something really weird: Not striking out is the one thing he’s suddenly doing really well. Tulo’s 11.7 per cent K rate is the lowest of his career, and the eighth-lowest in the American League.

It’s just that he’s not doing anything with all that contact made. Tulo’s severe drop in exit velocity stands out immediately: Balls are coming off his bat at an average of 85.9 m.p.h. this season, a huge drop from his 90 m.p.h. mark last year and 89.6 m.p.h. in 2015. Imagine a pitcher losing four m.p.h. off his fastball in a single season; you would assume something was seriously wrong with him and start to wonder when a visit to Dr. James Andrews might be coming.

As Parker noted, it’s possible that Tulo was compensating for his hamstring injury by making more pronounced moves to generate bat speed, and that lingering soreness or a new bad habit has caused those exaggerated moves to continue. Players do start to lose bat speed and reaction time with age, which makes you wonder if the offensive drop that started once Tulo stopped playing his home games at Coors Field following the Jays’ 2015 deadline deal might be exacerbated by a subtle change in his reflexes.

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For Jays fans, the best hope at this point is that this is all just noise. If Tulo can rediscover his old hitting stroke as his hamstring injury fades into his rearview mirror, we might look back at this rough stretch as just a 145-plate appearance aberration. If this is just small sample size plus an injury, then there’s good reason to expect a return to 25-homer form, if not necessarily the player who put up video game numbers in his prime playing at mile-high altitude.

The only way to know for sure is to wait.

But in the here and now, nothing’s going right. Parker’s analysis suggests that Tulo’s not likely to revert to vintage Tulo form until he regains the quick and deadly snap that’s previously defined his swing. Numerical analysis suggests he has little hope of being much of a threat when he’s hitting groundballs at a Juan Pierre-like rate, and making weaker contact than pretty much any elite hitter in the game.

For the Tulo chant to return in full force, a lot will have to change.