Last week, we took a long look at why Mike Trout is so good at the plate: in short, his unique swing enables him to hit low pitches with such historic excellence that it masks his considerable deficiencies on pitches up in the zone. This season, Trout’s closest peer is Colorado’s Troy Tulowitzki (“Tulo”), who’s finding success in a completely different way than Trout. How so? By murdering just about everything he sees.
No, you’re not colorblind. The above hot zone chart is correct. Tulo is legitimately hitting .314+ on eight out of nine sectors of the strike zone. More impressive still, he’s hitting over .292 (small sample size alert, but still!) on eight sectors that aren’t even in the strike zone. That means that out of the 25 squares in which a baseball can be pitched, Tulo is hitting at least .043 points higher than the league average in 16 of them.
How on earth is he doing this?!
We could stop our analysis at “he’s good at baseball,” and that wouldn’t be inaccurate, but it also wouldn’t be any fun. Instead, let’s take an in-depth look at the funky-looking swing that has propelled Tulo to best-hitter-in-the-game status in 2014.
(A final note before we dive in: before you cry “Coors Field!”, note that Tulo is third in MLB in wRC+, FanGraphs’ comprehensive offensive formula that adjusts for ballpark effects. He’s undeniably helped by Coors Field, but his wRC+ shows he’d still be a superstar in any home stadium.)
To give you a quick sense of what Tulo’s swing looks like, check out this opposite-field double off Max Scherzer from last week’s All-Star Game.
There are two things that stand out immediately:
- Tulo swings really hard.
- Between the movement of his feet and his bat, he’s got a whole lot going on before he swings.
In the second respect, especially, Tulo is anything but textbook, as conventional wisdom suggests that less pre-swing movement is better. It’s hard enough to hit major league pitching without excessive pre-swing movement, or so the logic goes.
Let’s take a quick look at Tulo at the three crucial junctures in the pre-swing buildup process. This will give us a sense of just how much movement occurs before he starts his swing.
Part 1: Starting Stance
From such a wide starting point, it would be nearly impossible for Tulo to generate significant power with a conventional stride. Jeff Bagwell, Albert Pujols, and a few others may beg to differ, but they’re the exception, not the rule. But Tulo addresses this issue with his unique stride …
Part 2: Mid-Stride (just before the pitcher releases the ball)
As Tulo loads his weight onto his back foot, he actually brings his feet narrower than they are at his starting stance. This occurs via a rare, difficult-to-execute technique called a “toe-tap,” named for the movement of the hitter’s front foot, which moves backwards and taps the ground before continuing forward again. The toe-tap brings significant power potential, but it usually presents balance issues, too. As a result, most toe-tappers cover only a small horizontal distance with their front foot. Tulo is not “most toe-tappers,” though. He has perhaps the biggest toe-tap in the league, covering considerable distance in either direction. Tulo also moves his bat more than most, which, combined with his huge toe-tap, adds up to an abundance of pre-swing movement.
Given the maxim about limiting pre-swing movement, you’d think that all of this would leave Tulo horrendously unbalanced when it comes time to swing. The next image, however, reveals that Tulo is firmly under control …
Part 3: Front Foot Down, Ready to Swing
At this stage—right before he swings—Tulo is in a rather ideal position. Despite the extensive movement that precedes this, Tulo lands with exceptional balance in a nice wide base. The balance helps him both repeat his swing mechanics and—perhaps more importantly—successfully track incoming pitches. Further, Tulo’s bat is locked and no longer moving when his front foot hits the ground. This is essential, as he’d have no chance of hitting major league pitching were his bat still moving at this point.
The beautiful thing for Tulo is that he gets to this very ideal pre-swing position via a ton of rhythm with his bat and with his feet. Were he to simply start from this spot, he’d still have the same balance, but he’d have nowhere near the power/bat speed potential.
In a sense, it’s almost like Tulo developed this swing by messing around and finding a way to swing as hard as humanly possible—his swing is more or less baseball’s version of a Happy Gilmore golf swing. This gives him better rhythm than anyone else in baseball, which helps him reach close to absolute maximum bat speed on every swing, just as it did for Gilmore and his 400-plus-yard drives. Yet he’s athletic enough to do all of this in a consistently controlled manner, so not only does he garner huge power benefits—he’s third in the NL in home runs—but also equally huge contact and pitch-tracking benefits. He’s first in the league in batting average and on-base percentage, too.
The final mechanical item of note is Tulo’s bat angle at contact. We’ll discuss this extensively in a bit, but for now suffice it to say that—much like Goldilocks’ porridge—Tulo’s bat angle usage could be characterized as “just right.”
HOT ZONE IMPLICATIONS
Again, Tulo is sporting an absolutely nuclear hot zone this season.
High, low, inside, outside … it doesn’t matter. Tulo hits the living daylights out of everything.
First, how is Tulo able to smash pitches, both high and low? The short answer? His near-perfect use of his bat angle. Consider the contact points of two different Tulo homers to see just how well he angles his bat, depending on pitch location.
It’s worth noting that Tulo’s bat angle here, taken in a vacuum, isn’t truly perfect. To make absolute maximum contact, Tulo would need a bat angle more like Mike Trout’s, whose “base” bat angle is the steepest in baseball. But hitters struggle to vary their base bat angles too much, which can lead to problems for guys whose base bat angles are either too horizontal or too vertical. Consider Trout, who destroys anything low but is hitting .093 on high pitches this season. Thus, if Tulo utilized a Trout-esque hyper-vertical bat angle, he might be able to add a few feet to his average home run distance on low pitches, but he wouldn’t have nearly the success he does on high pitches. Now check out the much flatter angle of this next home run.
Tulo takes this high fastball from Mike Minor—which is actually not even in the strike zone—and gets on top of it enough to launch it well over the wall at Turner Field. Trout and other extreme lowball hitters, who rely on a steep bat angle to drive their success on low pitches, can’t even dream about hitting a home run on a pitch this high. But Tulo does it frequently—seven of his 21 home runs have come on pitches that are either high strikes or higher. And the brilliant part for Tulo is that his bat angle is not so horizontal as to hinder him on low pitches—he’s hitting .400 on low strikes, after all.
So how can Tulo also dominate both inside and outside pitches?
In theory, the data overwhelmingly suggests that it’s hardest for most baseball players to hit inside hard pitches and outside offspeed pitches. The mechanics of gearing up to hit a 98-mph fastball on the inside corner generally leaves the hitter vulnerable against a 75-mph curveball on the outside corner, and vice versa. As a result, many guys crush one of those pitch types but struggle mightily on the other one. Thus, it’s incredibly rare to find a hitter who genuinely mashes both of those categories.
On hard pitches in that middle-to-inside zone (even ones that miss the strike zone high or low), Tulo is hitting .415 with a gargantuan .830 slugging percentage. Here’s the first area where Tulo’s extensive pre-swing rhythm helps him in a big way. Think about the Happy Gilmore comparison (it will be helpful if you disregard the fact that Gilmore’s swing is a ridiculous work of fiction). Via his moving approach to the ball, Gilmore gets a ton of momentum going so he can swing the golf club incredibly hard. Tulo is basically doing the same thing with his toe-tap, except he’s doing it in real life. The end result of all that momentum is huge bat speed, which enables Tulo to smash fastballs, no matter how hard or where they’re thrown.
You can see that Tulo isn’t completely flawless on this pitch type—he does struggle with hard stuff up and in. Thus, it would seem sensible that the best way to attack him would be with a steady diet of high and tight fastballs, right? But alas, pitching is not nearly that simple. Even superhuman locators like Clayton Kershaw have trouble hitting that spot with consistency. So what happens if they miss the inside target? Welcome to the launch zone.
On high, hard strikes that are either down the middle or outside, Tulo is able to utilize his horizontal bat angle to devastating effect. He’s hitting .667 and slugging at a ludicrous 1.444 clip on pitches in that zone. So though it may seem logical to try to attack Tulo with hard stuff up and in, it’s not nearly that simple. If you miss your spot, there’s a big chance it’s going for a hit, and often for far more than just a single.
Now let’s consider Tulo’s hot zone on offspeed pitches that are either on the outside third of the plate or even farther outside, which are ostensibly the most difficult pitches to hit for someone who hits middle-to-inside fastballs so well.
Tulo’s only problem area is the dreaded way-outside-and-way-low square, which are generally two-strike pitches in the dirt. Like every hitter, Tulo doesn’t have a ton of success there, but he’s hitting an incredible .429 against offspeed pitches in the other nine outside sectors.
So how, exactly, is Tulo able to absolutely destroy soft stuff away and the hard stuff in?
Tulo’s extensive pre-swing rhythm via the toe-tap and bat movement comes back into play here, but in a different way than it does on hard and inside pitches. Here, all that rhythm leads Tulo into a slow sink, or continued bending, of his front knee once his foot lands. In other words, once Tulo’s front foot lands, instead of being forced to start his swing right away, he can continue a very slow bend of his left knee—which helps him maintain his balance and bat speed potential—before he starts his swing. For less rhythmic hitters, it’s not nearly as easy to continue that knee bend as it is for Tulo. But the flow of Tulo’s pre-swing movement enables him to land and continue his rhythm via that bent front-knee.
You’ll have to look closely, but watch Tulo’s front knee once his foot lands on this outside Madison Bumgarner changeup. It might be easier to see by watching the “pause” in his upper body after his front foot lands—you’ll notice that he doesn’t start his swing right away.
Rather than instantly locking his front knee upon landing and starting the swing before the ball gets deep enough—as less rhythmic (read: most) hitters do—Tulo’s extensive pre-swing rhythm helps him sink into that knee and let the ball travel enough so that he can not only get the barrel on Bumgarner’s offering, but hit it out in the toughest home run-hitting park in baseball. Again, this is quite subtle, but if Tulo’s front-knee sink can buy him even a tenth of a second, that can be the difference between a broken bat (or swing and miss) and a home run.
This ability to sink into that front knee, if needed, is perhaps the biggest reason for Tulo’s inside fastball and outside offspeed success. He’s not a true front-foot-land-and-go guy, as most hitters are. But his dominance on hard stuff inside—which is facilitated by his rhythm-generated bat speed—shows that he can certainly land-and-go when he needs to. Meanwhile, if he needs to use that same rhythm to sink into his front knee and wait for an offspeed pitch to reach the outside corner, he can definitely do that, too. Add it all up, and you get a guy who is legitimately unpitchable.
It is also interesting to note the landing spots of Tulo’s home runs during his otherworldly 2014 season. Here’s the map via the excellent ESPN Home Run Tracker.
That kind of foul-line to foul-line power is almost unheard of. But Tulo’s incredible rhythm—the source of his huge bat speed as well as his ability to wait on offspeed pitches—enables him to consistently launch balls to all fields.
Considering that Tulo leads MLB in runs, batting average, on-base percentage, and on-base-plus-slugging percentage, it’s safe to say that he’s been the best hitter in baseball this year. That he’s doing it while swinging out of his shoes on every pitch, makes him that much more worth celebrating.