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Rockies Journal: Can Ezequiel Tovar eclipse Tulo as franchise’s best shortstop?

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2024-05-25

Rockies Journal: Can Ezequiel Tovar eclipse Tulo as franchise’s best shortstop?

Ezequiel Tovar is quietly becoming a star.

While the Rockies’ reconstruction project will likely take years, the soft-spoken Tovar is rapidly becoming one of baseball’s best shortstops. And he’s only 22 years old.

Last Tuesday night at the Oakland Coliseum, Tovar had the first two-homer game of his career. His fifth-inning blast traveled 443 feet, his seventh-inning shot went 411. Tovar doesn’t think of himself as a home run hitter, but he’s got plenty of power.

His two-homer night, along with his consistent and oftentimes spectacular defense, got me thinking. Does Tovar have a chance — a chance, mind you — to be the best shortstop in Rockies history?

During spring training, he signed a seven-year, $63.5 million contract with a team option for 2031 that could boost the agreement to $84 million over eight seasons. He’s a bargain and will likely play in purple for a long time.

But will Tovar become good enough to supplant Tulo over the long haul?

For those who might have forgotten, Troy Tulowitzki was a force of nature for much of his 10-year tenure with the Rockies. In 2007, as a rookie, he played with an attitude and a fire that helped the Rockies reach their only World Series. He was a five-time All-Star with a career WAR of 44.5. His 13.9 defensive WAR with the Rockies is exceeded only by Nolan Arenado’s 15.6. Had injuries not derailed his career, Tulo would be a lock for the Hall of Fame.

Tulo, who wanted out of Colorado, was dealt to the Blue Jays at the 2015 trade deadline. But hard feelings about how that trade went down still linger, at least from Tulo’s side. The drama surrounding his departure has soured some fans’ memories of his time in Colorado, but he was a great player.

He could be abrasive, even toward his own teammates (ask Ubaldo Jimenez), but he gave the Rockies an edge they needed.

A look at the back of Tulo’s baseball card reminds you of how good he was in his prime. Consider his 2009 season when the Rockies made the playoffs with what was arguably the best team in franchise history. Tulo slashed .297/.377/.522 with 32 homers, 25 doubles, 92 RBIs and 20 stolen bases and finished fifth in the NL MVP voting.

I’m not forgetting about Trevor Story, who had a terrific six-season run with Colorado before departing as a free agent after the 2021 season, but Tulo set the gold standard at short.

As one former Rockies player told me: “I think Tulo and Story have Tovar beat by a long way, offensively. Overall, Tulo was in a league of his own compared to Tovar and Story.”

Still, when all is said and done, Tovar might make his way onto the Rockies’ Mount Rushmore.

He’s already an elite defender and getting better. He was a Gold Glove finalist last year and has a good shot to win gold this year. Tovar has made one error in 213 total chances, a .995 fielding percentage that is the best among all major-league shortstops.

While Tovar’s arm strength can’t match the likes of St. Louis’  Masyn Winn or Pittsburgh’s Oneil Cruz — or Story before his elbow injury flared up — Tovar has a cannon when needed.

If you’ve watched Tovar play, you already know he has soft hands, solid range, and is particularly adept at charging baseballs. According to Statcast, Tovar ranks in the 89th percentile among all infielders in outs above average.

Last season, Tovar posted a .988 fielding percentage, the highest for a rookie shortstop in major league history, breaking Tulowitzki’s record of .987 set in 2007. His 2.2 dWAR was the third-highest for a rookie in Rockies’ franchise history, trailing only Tulowitzki (3.9, 2007) and Nolan Arenado (2.3, 2013).

Tovar is a doubles machine. He hit 37 last season, tying Hall of Famer Todd Helton’s single-season franchise rookie record. His 73 RBIs and 56 extra-base hits were the most by a Rockies rookie since Tulo in 2007 (99 RBIs, 62 extra-base hits).

Tovar entered the weekend series with the Phillies slashing .274/.307/.463 with seven homers. His 21 extra-base led the Rockies and tied for eighth-most in the NL.

That’s the good stuff, but there are still holes.

He’s an aggressive hitter with a 62.5 swing percentage, the highest in the majors. His  61 strikeouts are tied for the eighth-most in the majors. His 3.7% walk rate is less than half the big-league average of 8.4%.

Tulowitzki, by contrast, knew how to reach base consistently. His career walk rate was 9.4%, and his on-base percentage with the Rockies was robust, at .371.

Manager Bud Black is a huge Tovar fan but sees the shortstop as a work in progress. Still, Black sees improvement at every turn. A prime example was Tovar’s power surge on Tuesday. His first homer came off Athletics starter Aaron Brooks, the second off lefty reliever Scott Alexander.

“You saw the first at-bat of the game when he chased the slider for the strikeout,” Black told reporters in Oakland. “Then he got a pitch up in the strike zone — homer. And then he showed (his) talent with the low pitch off Alexander. He’s talented and he’s learning on the fly.”

Tulo’s learning curve as a hitter wasn’t as steep. He should have been the NL rookie for the year in ’07 when he hit .291 with 24 homers and 99 RBIs. Early in his career, Tulowitzki played alongside incredibly talented players like Matt Holliday, Carlos Gonzalez and Helton, but in a lot of ways, Tulo set the tone.

Tovar isn’t that player yet. But who knows, by 2030, he might eclipse Tulo.

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