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Peter Gammons: Troy Tulowitzki, Travis Shaw, and attention to the defensive side

Troy Tulowitzki

Less than a 16th of the season had passed Friday night, and Troy Tulowitzki was hitting .139. “I don’t care,” said Blue Jays manager John Gibbons, “if he doesn’t get another hit all season. His defense is that good.”

“Of course,” laughed Gibbons, “he will get another hit.”

A week and a half of a six month season leads to a wasteland of hyperbole. Tulowitzki is an 11 year star with a .295/.368/.506 slash line, a 121 OPS+ and an .874 OPS that is elite for a shortstop. He’s made some adjustments in his swing that have yet to be in sync.

Worry not. He is out of Colorado, where players wear down because they don’t properly recover. “The hits will come,” says Tulo, seemingly without concern. So will a string of 10 run games from the Blue Jays, which may be the best lineup in the league.

But on a team with a legitimate top-of-the-rotation starter in Marcus Stroman and an elite closer in 21-year old Antonio Osuna, what is most impressive about Toronto is their defense.

Russell Martin, Tulowitzki, Ryan Goins and Kevin Pillar are all elite defenders. Josh Donaldson is one of the two or three best third basemen in the league. Jose Bautista is not only cerebral, but a max effort right fielder.

“I have to believe there haven’t been many championship teams,” says Gibbons, “that don’t have really good shortstops. Teams that win more than one championship.”

The Red Sox may belay Gibbons’ observation, winning three world series in nine years with Orlando Cabrera, Julio Lugo and Stephen Drew.

David Price was everything we hoped him to be, really more when one takes his character and unselfish team attitude into account,” says Gibbons, “but I really believe Tulo made this team what it was last season, and what we can be.”

The element of Tulowitzki’s defensive game that fascinates Toronto teammates and the staff is his throwing. “I’ve never seen anyone who can throw from more angles and positions that Tulo,” says Gibbons. “He’s a big man, but he plays like a little guy. His athleticism is beyond believe.” One executive who scouted Tulowitzki at Long Beach States says his “gymnastic ability to throw was the tool that most fascinated me.”

“I have always prided myself in my throwing,” says Tulowitzki. “Even in high school, I worked on it. I still work very hard on it. I try to take balls at every type of angle, in the hole, up the middle, charging… Sure, there were times in Colorado with the air that I got pretty tired. But throwing is something I believe has to be worked on constantly.”

“You see infielders take ground balls, but very seldom do you see them take the grounders and make throws the way they do in games,” says Gibbons. Catchers work on their throwing. The best outfielders do.” (I remember shagging with Dwight Evans in early batting practice on the road, and he always power-shagged, busting his behind to get in position to properly catch balls and go right into his throw. That work ethic resulted in being one of the best right fielders of his generation, and a big part of his throwing was always catching balls in position to step and throw)

Teamates claim Tulowitzki often says that the majority of infielders’ errors come on throws. In his 11 major league seasons, Tulowitzki had made 74 errors (none since being traded to the Jays). Of those 74 errors, 33 are listed in Baseball Reference as being on throws. He made seven errors on throws his rookie seasons, five one other season. Period.

In 2015-16, 283 of the 608 errors by shortstops—46.5%–have come on throws.

In his career, he leads shortstops in assists, range factor and total zone runs. This season Tulo, Xander Bogaerts and Addison Russell lead all MLB shortstops in total zone runs at shortstop, albeit a small sample size.

Arguably the best, most reliable thrower in the last forty years was Alan Trammell. In 20 major league seasons, he made a total of 224 errors, only 46 on throws. Twenty years, 46 errant throws (in his 20 seasons, Jeter made 254 errors, 122 on throws, while Cal Ripken’s 17 seasons at short, saw 225 errors, only 50 on throws).

While the Blue Jays watch Tulowitzki’s work ethic so that he gets rid of throws strongly, quickly and accurately however he reaches them, so too, on the other side the Red Sox have come to marvel at the throwing of Travis Shaw.

Now, for a guy who was moved to first base for awhile, Shaw’s athleticism has surprised the coaches and the front office. “I know I am very impressive with his defense,” says Dave Dombrowski. “Travis gets rid of the ball very quickly,” says Brian Butterfield, “and he does so with arm strength and exceptional accuracy. He impressed all of us when he came up last year, but he’s better than we imagined. And his throwing is special.”

Shaw grew up playing catch with his father Jeff Shaw, who in his two-time all-star career had 203 saves, a 2.33 earned run average and a 7:2.2 K:BB ratio. “From the time I first started playing catch with my father throwing was really important,” says Travis. “I always took pride in it. I pitched some in high school, but I have applied the pride in throwing to third base or any other position. I learned from the time I was a little kid that throwing is something that requires pride and constant work.”

You see it now when Shaw comes out to begin warming up. He takes his warm-up tosses seriously. He likes to practice throwing from all the angles and depths third base requires from the time he goes in the field. The coaches kid that is clearly the son of a pitcher who made his mark throwing strikes, and has been doing it since kindergarten.

Troy Tulowitzki has the highest fielding percentage of any shortstop in baseball history. Going into Saturday’s game, Shaw had played 16 major league games at third base, without making an error.

There is no chance involved. In Trammell, Ripken, Jeter, Tulowitzki or, as we may be watching, Travis Shaw.

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