Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki has always had the requisite talent to be one of the very best players in baseball. Thus far in 2014, talent, health and production have come together to form the foundation for a special season.
On the path to April's NL Player of the Month award, Tulowitzki established himself as something even bigger: an NL MVP candidate.
The 29-year-old Rockies star is off to a blistering start—.408/.512/.786, 9 HR, 29 RBI—in 2014. When his eighth and ninth home runs of the season cleared the outfield fence at Coors Field on Monday evening, another notice was sent to the entire National League: Free from injury concerns, Tulowitzki's all-world ability is out in full force.
While it's impossible to expect a OPS bordering on 1.300 for an entire season, don't be surprised if baseball fans start uttering Tulowitzki's name with Mike Trout and Miguel Cabrera when the most important and valuable position players in the game are mentioned.
Due to a combination of injuries—279 games missed from 2011 to 2013—and awful play from the Rockies in the NL West, Tulowitzki's stardom has been suppressed and largely forgotten. Without nationally televised games, meaningful September baseball or day-to-day brilliance for young, impressionable fans to consume, a special player was lost.
Doubt surrounding Colorado's highest-paid player was evident. As Tulowitzki explained to Nick Groke of The Denver Post, it fueled his return to stardom.
"No doubt I think I've had so many things to kind of fuel the fire the last couple of years—the injury history, people constantly talking about that," Tulowitzki said.
Now, as the Rockies reap the benefits of a middle-of-the-diamond player hitting like a modern day Ted Williams or Barry Bonds, it's time to recognize just how great Tulowitzki is playing and how good he's been over the years, despite time lost to injury and the abyss of Coors Field.
When Tulowitzki burst on the scene in 2006 and 2007, the Rockies emerged from nondescript franchise to World Series participant. At the age of 22, Tulowitzki racked up 292 total bases and looked poised to carry the Rockies to October on a yearly basis like another famous No. 2 that played the position.
Of course, that narrative didn't play out. Since a World Series loss in 2007, the Rockies have only made the postseason once. During that span, only one 90-win season (2009) has occurred with Tulowitzki as the franchise player and dominant force at shortstop.
Despite the losing, Tulowitzki has been a special player. From 2009 to 2011, Tulowitzki finished in the top eight of the NL MVP voting every year. During that span, his 19.3 WAR ranked fifth in baseball, per Baseball-Reference (subscription required). Outside of Evan Longoria, Albert Pujols, Ben Zobrist and Ryan Braun, no player in baseball provided more value to his respective team.
For as good as he was during those seasons, he's even better right now. When added together, a once-in-a-generation shortstop has emerged. Tulowitzki's hot start in 2014 has catapulted him into the top spot among OPS leaders at the shortstop position.
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The history of baseball is littered with special talents at shortstop, but Tulowitzki currently owns a higher on-base plus slugging percentage than any shortstop ever to play the game. Even when factoring out Alex Rodriguez—more career games played at third base—the distinction is remarkable. For as great as Cal Ripken, Nomar Garciaparra, Honus Wagner and Derek Jeter were, Tulowitzki has overtaken them all.
To be fair, Coors Field plays a role in that success. Spending 50 percent of a career in one of the greatest offensive venues in history will inflate numbers, but don't mistake Tulowitzki for a Coors Field creation. His .473 road slugging percentage is higher than the career marks of Miguel Tejada, Robin Yount and Alan Trammell, per Baseball-Reference.
Now, the question becomes: Can the great Rockies shortstop put together one full season of eye-opening and game-changing play?
Based on the first 31 games of 2014, the idea of opposing pitchers slowing him down is becoming less and less believable. Heading into play on May 5, Baseball-Reference had already credited Tulowitzki with 3.3 WAR for the young season. To put that in perspective, Ryan Howard's best season WAR was 5.2.
If, say, Tulowitzki played at this level for 150 games, Trout and Cabrera would be forced to cede the co-mantle they share atop the sport. Only three players in baseball history—Babe Ruth, Carl Yastrzemski and Rogers Hornsby—eclipsed 12.0 WAR in a single season. At this rate, Tulowitzki would reach that mark by early August.
Eventually, a slump will occur and statistics will wane. Yet, if the Rockies can get 150 games from their leading man, a legitimate NL MVP should materialize. With that, contention could follow for a franchise desperately in need of meaningful games after the All-Star break.
This early-season charge isn't reminiscent of recent late-career bloomers like Chris Davis or Jose Bautista. Instead, a former potentially great player has graduated into a healthy and dominant force in the National League.