One of the best books I read last year was The Art of Fielding by Chad Harbach. The story revolves around a virtuosic Division III college shortstop named Henry Skrimshander, whose world begins to crumble when he gets a case of the yips and can no longer throw the ball to first base with any accuracy. The book is simultaneously heartbreaking and life-affirming, and I strongly recommend it.
On Tuesday night Troy Tulowitzki made two errors, and one of them almost cost Jamie Moyer his record setting win. Tulo has now accrued six errors in what is still a newborn season, matching his total number of errors from last year. Given that he has always been an outstanding defensive shortstop, this sudden cascade of errors has to be at least a tad bit concerning for Rockies fans. I personally can’t help but see a little bit of Henry Skrimshander in Tulo’s struggles.
I make this connection because it appears that Tulo’s issue is a mental one. We know that he is dealing with a hip flexor issue, but none of his errors seem to have been a result of a reduction in range or discomfort when trying to make an acrobatic throw. Instead, Tulo has been booting the easy plays, the ones that are supposed to be routine and second nature to him. Take Tuesday night, for example. His first error came on a routine ground ball which sent the Padres’ pitcher trudging up the first base line. It’s hard to imagine an easier play for a shortstop than one in which the ball is hit right at him and the pitcher is running, and yet Tulo’s throw was wide of the bag, pulling Todd Helton too far off of it to recover in time. Later in the game, a perfect double play was sent Tulo’s way, and the ball squirted right through his legs and into the outfield. The runner leaving second base did screen him just a bit, but that is a play that Tulo has made 1,000 times in his career. Immediately after the play, Tulo barked some words of encouragement to Jamie Moyer, but they seemed to be more for himself than they were for his pitcher.
Meanwhile, Tulo’s defense on more difficult plays has been fantastic. The bang-bang double plays, the leaping spears of line drives, and the long throws from the hole have all been handled flawlessly, as usual. In other words, it’s only on the plays that Tulo has time to think that he’s making mistakes, which is what makes this defensive slump a bit worrisome. Baseball, as we all know, is an unyieldingly cruel game, and it takes a tremendous amount of mental fortitude to play it at a high level. If you don’t believe me, see the careers of Rick Ankiel and Chuck Knoblauch. Once the Zen-like mentality that one needs to play the game is lost, it can be impossible to get it back.
Now, I’m not saying that Tulowitzki’s career is going to come crumbling down anytime soon. I think he’ll be just fine, but I do worry that his fiery and competitive nature may only make him press harder in his quest to return to his near perfect form, thus extending his defensive slump. Baseball laughs in the face of its players’ attempts to be perfect, and sometimes the best way to succeed is to just let go rather than push harder. This is a lesson that Henry Skrimshander learns, and I hope that it is one Troy Tulowitzki can too.
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