On the early morning of July 28, 2015, a blockbuster trade shook the MLB. Colorado Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki and veteran pitcher LaTroy Hawkins were sent to Toronto in exchange for Jose Reyes and three pitching prospects: Miguel Castro, Jeff Hoffman, and Jesus Tinoco. It was the type of trade usually reserved for the offseason, when clubs are concerned with either building up or tearing down their rosters.
Prior to the trade, the Toronto Blue Jays had hopes for a deep playoff run, but after the addition of Tulowitzki and Detroit Tigers pitcher David Price, the team both won the AL East pennant and achieved a postseason berth for the first time since 1993. Toronto eventually fell to the Kansas City Royals in the American League Championship Series.
There’s no question that 2015 marked the rejuvenation of Canada’s baseball fandom. Josh Donaldson’s first year in Toronto was embellished by his AL MVP crown and the fact that he gained two All-Star teammates. Just two Septembers later, it’s impressive to note how much has changed. As of September, both players have caught the injury bug: David Price as a member of the AL East leading Boston Red Sox, and Tulowitzki being ruled out for the season with ligament damage in his right ankle in August after awkwardly stepping on first base a month before.
Despite the excitement that followed Tulowitzki’s trade, his performance in the two seasons he has donned blue and white has been, at best, average. And so the question remains: was he really that great of an offensive acquisition for Toronto?
Before that question can be answered, a different one must be asked: when traded to Toronto, was Tulowitzki all that exceptional of a player to begin with?
The answer may not lie with the Tulo himself but rather with his former home, Coors Field. Entering 2015, Tulowitzki’s career looked to be on track for an incredible playing history. He played six seasons with a batting average (BA) over .290, was a four-time All Star, and his Gold Glove defense placed him in the company of many iconic shortstops. But this is not necessarily all Tulowitzki’s doing — his home field, where half of his season’s games were held, has long been home to rumours that it inflates home players’ batting averages.
First, some things to consider about Coors Field: opened in 1995 in Denver, its dimensions in feet run 390-415-375, and it stands 5,280 feet above sea level. The latter number alone may knock shortstop phenomenon Tulowitzki off his pedestal. Coors Field stands significantly higher above sea level than any other MLB stadium; the Arizona Diamondbacks’ home, Chase Field, clocks in at second highest, standing 1,082 feet above sea level — over 4,000 feet less than Coors. And when considering the effects altitude has on both pitched and batted balls, it becomes apparent that not all stadiums offer equal hitting opportunities.
Let’s make the physics lesson quick: Magnus Force — or, the lift that applies to spinning balls — and drag are both reduced in Coors due to the high altitude of the field. Because of this, the ball travels about nine per cent further, so a home run that is hit 415 feet in Yankee Stadium, which is sea-level, is estimated to travel 450 feet in Coors. The trajectory of the ball’s flight also makes for sharper-hit balls, which can evade outfielders and turn into base hits.
Taking this into consideration, I looked at the BAs at home and on the road of all thirty MLB teams from 2010 to 2016, and I found that the Colorado Rockies are the most inconsistent. The discrepancy between home and away batting averages is astronomical. In 2010, the Rockies topped the league with their .298 BA at home, yet on the road, their BA was the worst of all thirty teams at a measly .226. In 2014, Colorado was again the best of the league, hitting .322 at home, and second worst on the road, hitting .228. Tulowitzki followed a similar trend: in 2014, despite playing four more games on the road, Tulo hit 14 home runs at home and seven away, hitting .417 at Coors and only .257 elsewhere. Tulowitzki’s home/away splits are as follows: at home he hits .310, and away he hits .269. Where he was consistently hitting either of the numbers, the first would make him a future Hall-of-Famer and the second would make him slightly better than mediocre. And after leaving Coors, Tulowitzki’s first full year as a Blue Jay was underwhelming: his BA of .254 was below league average.
Hidden behind all these numbers and statistics is one corroborated detail: Coors Field is kinder to its home players than any other field in the MLB. Whether it’s the altitude or the different dimensions, Rockies players both current, like Nolan Arenado and Carlos Gonzalez, and former, like Troy Tulowitzki and Matt Holliday, have significantly higher and better statistics at home than they do on the road.
The argument that players are just more familiar and comfortable in their home fields is valid, yet no team’s performance discrepancy is as significant as Colorado’s. In 2014, both the Detroit Tigers and San Diego Padres proved that consistency was not an impossible feat; the former had the second-highest batting average both on the road and at home, and the latter placed in last or second-last in both splits. In fact, the Tigers hit more home runs on the road — an impressive achievement given that teams don’t visit fields for more than four days in a row. Tulowitzki, once considered the face of the Colorado Rockies franchise, is beloved in Toronto — fans wear his jersey proudly, and chants of “Tulo” fill the stadium every time he comes up to bat. But his celebrity going into Toronto is, in part, due to the way in which his former home field was built.
Altitude doesn’t teach all the things Tulo has done, like hitting a home run, fielding a ball, or turning an unassisted triple play, but altitude does help the ball travel, and according to Tulowitzki’s disproportionate splits, Coors played a role in his rise to fame and success. When a player is the most paid person on their team — Tulowitzki, along with catcher Russell Martin, topped the Blue Jays payroll with $20 million salary per year — excellence is expected of them. It’s the kind of excellence that Tulowitzki has not yet shown.
Coors can’t instill talent in an athlete. When Matt Holliday left Colorado in 2009, his play did not severely worsen. Players have both flourished and diminished following departure from the Rockies. Though Tulowitzki’s stats have been in decline ever since he left his previous team, fans have only been getting louder and more vocal in their support for the once-prodigious shortstop. It’s a good thing the kids are happy, but at the end of the day, fanfare doesn’t win you ballgames.