Two weekends ago, Troy Tulowitzki met with members of the media and confirmed that he would not play for the remainder of the 2018 season. During the same media availability, he told reporters that he plans to be ready for spring training next season. And that he expects to play shortstop everyday for the Blue Jays.
Tulo’s plans for 2019 were met with plenty of skepticism and criticism from all corners. Can a 34-year-old shortstop really come back after a year and a half absence and provide more value to the Blue Jays than Aledmys Diaz, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and potentially Bo Bichette? Would a Blue Jays’ front office focused on a youth movement even want him to?
At Fangraphs, Jay Jaffe did some research that painted a pretty bleak picture of over-30 shortstops returning to action after missing a year to injury. There aren’t a lot of success stories to be found – Tony Fernandez, who produced a 2 fWAR season after missing his age-34 season being the most valuable.
After seeing Tulo struggle through 66 games in 2017 before he was carried off the field with an ankle injury, it doesn’t feel like Tulowitzki is capable of returning to form. But unlike the other shortstops on Jaffe’s list, Tulowitzki is coming from a much higher base level of talent, even if that feels like another lifetime ago. As Jaffe acknowledges, Tulo was the most valuable shortstop in the game between 2009 and 2014.
Since 1950, only nine shortstops have produced at least five seasons of five Wins Above Replacement or better before they turned 34. Tulowitzki is one of them. His combination of offensive and defensive abilities allowed him to post a 5.5 bWAR season as recently as 2014. And 3.4 Wins as recently as 2016, his last full(ish) season. If you lower the bar to three seasons over five WAR, the list expands to sixteen players. For reference, Aledmys Diaz, has been worth 0.9 WAR (which puts him on a pace for about 1.3 bWAR) this season as Tulo’s primary replacement. Lourdes Gurriel Jr. has been worth 0.2.
|5+ WAR Shorstops 1950-Present|
|Cal Ripken Jr.||8||1983||1991||22-30|
This group of players has fared better as they age into their mid-30s. Of the sixteen shortstops that produced at least three seasons of five WAR before age-34, five of them produced seasons of over 3 WAR at age 34 or later. Three more – Ernie Banks, Alan Trammel and Alex Rodriguez did so at different positions (which, maybe Tulo would consider eventually?)
|Elite Shortstops After Age 33|
|Pee Wee Reese||3||1953||1955||34-36|
|Cal Ripken Jr.||2||1995||1996||34-35|
None of these players missed a full year like Tulowitzki, let alone a year and a half. Many of the elite shortstops comparable to Tulo also played in different eras, ones without increased velocity, defensive shifts, or the high bar for replacement level thanks to the emergence of superstars like Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa. On top of all this, his injury-shortened 2017 performance was his worst to date.
In addition to Tulowitzki’s on-field abilities, he has been praised by players and coaches for his intangibles and leadership skills. But if the front office’s handling of the Josh Donaldson injury situation tells us anything, the Jays don’t seem particularly interested in letting veterans play out the string and may not value Tulo’s off-field contributions to the team more than they value giving a young player like Gurriel Jr. or Bichette an opportunity.
While age waits for no man, players as talented as Tulo have the benefit of regressing from a much higher peak, and there are examples of players remaining productive into their mid and late 30s. Eight players with similar peaks of performance were able to produce three Win seasons at age-34 or later and four players were able to do it more than once. As bleak as the Tulo situation may be, ten months ago we were making these types of arguments to justify re-signing Josh Donaldson (who is one year younger than Tulo) to a lengthy extension. And Jose Bautista a year before that.
This isn’t to say that Tulowitzki is likely rebound, only that there is some historical precedent for a player as talented as Tulo providing strong value into his mid-30s. Even at shortstop. Given his injury history, recent performance, and a long layoff, there is a lot working against the Blue Jays’ veteran shortstop. Call it more of a possibility or a puncher’s chance than the likely outcome. But given how much the Blue Jays owe the shortstop, it might be in their best interest to find out before deciding to cut him lose for nothing even if they’re inclined to give the team’s younger players first crack at the job. Players as talented as Troy Tulowitzki don’t come along very often. Even a diminished Tulo could be better than a fully capable younger player.
Lead Photo © Kevin Sousa-USA TODAY Sports