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Troy Tulowitzki Was the Promise of the Perfect Baseball Player

The shortstop has retired at 34 after a series of injuries, cutting short a career that, at times, seemed destined for the Hall of Fame

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Picture the perfect baseball player being built from scratch. He’d be a sure-handed shortstop, bringing defensive value and forging intangible confidence as the heart of the defense. He’d hit for average and power; he’d look big and strong; he’d be young, and full of promise, and shout to the world with his stats and his highlights and his on-field joie de vivre that this is but a waystation on his path toward Cooperstown.

The perfect baseball player, in other words, was Troy Tulowitzki. For the better part of a decade, he was baseball’s best player at—pitcher aside—its most glamorous position. The 6-foot-3 Colorado Rockie supplied two-way star power and outrageous offense at a traditionally defensive spot on the field, helping bridge the span from A-Rod, Jeter, and Nomar’s offensive revolution to the widespread, power-hitting shortstop generation of the present day.

That player hasn’t looked the part for a while now, with injuries, age, and more injuries consorting to sap Tulowitzki of his on-field performance and send him hurtling off his Hall of Fame trajectory. He joined the Yankees this winter but hadn’t played in the majors since leaving an April 3 game with a calf strain, and he hadn’t played at all since suffering a setback in a rehab game in early May. On Thursday, he made his departure from the sport official, announcing his retirement in a statement released through the team.

He retires as one of the four best Rockies in franchise history and one of the most exciting players on any team of the past 15 years. He never played a defensive inning at any position other than short. He turned an unassisted triple play as a rookie and mastered the art of the in-the-hole jump throw. He once hit 14 home runs in a 16-game span, and he played a central role for two of the most entertaining teams in recent vintage: the 2007 Rockies, who won 21 of 22 games leading into the World Series, and the 2015 Blue Jays, who launched like a rocket as soon as they traded for Tulowitzki and David Price in July. He ends a career full of memories, as a player worthy of their creation and indelibility.

After being picked seventh overall in the now-legendary 2005 draft—eight of the first 12 players selected, plus Jacoby Ellsbury at no. 23, matured into All-Stars—Tulowitzki debuted in Colorado the next summer, vaulting straight from Double-A to the majors and then serving as the Rockies’ Opening Day shortstop in 2007. There, in 155 games at shortstop, he produced one of the top all-around rookie seasons in MLB history: 24 homers, 99 runs batted in, and a .291/.359/.479 slash line that impresses even with a Colorado context—plus one of the best defensive seasons for a shortstop on record, with DRS crediting Tulo with an astounding 31 runs saved with his glove. He lost the Rookie of the Year vote by the slimmest of margins to Ryan Braun (17 first-place votes to 15) but set the stage for his extended stretch of greatness to come.

Tulo struggled to replicate his initial success the following season, dropping his OPS by more than 100 points and seeing his defense regress from extraordinary toward average, but he rebounded in both respects in 2009 and didn’t relent for more than half a decade. From 2009 to 2014, he hit .309/.385/.553, collected 50 percent more WAR than the sport’s next-best shortstop, and signed a long-term extension that was supposed to keep him in Colorado through the end of the 2010s.

But in retrospect, perhaps the most remarkable number from Tulowitzki’s rookie year was that first one: 155. It would represent the single-season high for his career, which, despite all its early success, will be remembered in equal part for its injury interruptions and the tragic, nagging question of what could have been. Tulowitzki exceeded 140 games in a season just three times, and not once after 2011, his age-26 season; he earned both his Gold Gloves, both his Silver Sluggers, and all five years of his MVP votes before turning 30.

He made 11 career trips to the injured list, with a new injury almost every time. He hurt his quad, hand, and wrist; his groin, ribs, and hip; his other quad, hamstring, and ankle; and finally, in the last two years, his heels and calf, which mean he’s batted just 13 times since July 2017.

After leaving Colorado for Toronto in a 2015 deadline trade—which reportedly so angered the career-long Rockie that he shouted at general manager Jeff Bridich and vowed never to talk to him again—Tulowitzki appeared inconsistently and produced at a below-average clip when he has been able to play. Toronto released him in December, and he signed with the Yankees, who needed a shortstop for half a season with Didi Gregorius recovering from injury, but Tulowitzki lasted less than a week before falling prey to yet another long-lasting ailment.

Like a number of his top contemporaries—David Wright and Hanley Ramírez, probably Dustin Pedroia and Evan Longoria, maybe Joe Mauer—Tulowitzki exemplifies the maxim that players make the Hall of Fame in their 30s. In other words: A memorable and statistically viable first half to a career is all well and good, but the dividing line for Cooperstown is whether they can produce a second decade to match the first.

For shortstops under the age of 30, Tulowitzki ranks 15th all-time in WAR, in the same range as Derek Jeter and Barry Larkin; from age 30 on, he ranks 66th, near Jack Wilson and Erick Aybar. He thus falls well short of the average Hall of Fame shortstop in career numbers, wrapping with 44.2 WAR—the exact same total, incidentally, as Nomar Garciaparra, another elite shortstop who fell off track with an injury-aided decline at a relatively young age.

Yet even if it finishes shy of the Hall of Fame expectation, there’s nothing wrong with a Hall of Very Good career. Even accounting for his Coors Field advantage, Tulowitzki was a tremendous hitter; he ends his career ranking ninth all-time in wRC+—which adjusts for home ballpark—for a shortstop (minimum 5,000 plate appearances), just behind Jeter and just ahead of Larkin and Ernie Banks. And in the minigeneration sandwiched between the A-Rod group and the present-day collection of young shortstop stars, Tulowitzki carved his own role as the majors’ best shortstop on offense and defense, at the same time. Not many players in history can say the same.