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If defense helps, Tulowitzki wins

Rookie Braun's offense hard to ignore

Published November 10, 2007 at midnight

In a game where numbers resonate, fielding statistics are barely audible. If putouts and assists, total chances and a player's error total don't spark lively conversation, mention of zone ratings and range factor might end it altogether.

Nonetheless, defense will prove pivotal when either Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki or Milwaukee third baseman Ryan Braun wins the National League Rookie of the Year Award on Monday.

Was Tulowitzki's combination of brilliant defense and stellar offense enough to overcome Braun, a young slugger par excellence with significant defensive shortcomings?

The votes were cast before the start of the postseason, with 32 members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America, two from each league city, listing three names on their ballots with points determined by a 5-3- 1 system.

Tulowitzki hit .291 with 24 home runs - the most ever by an NL rookie shortstop and second most by any rookie shortstop - 99 RBI and 104 runs scored in 155 games. Finishing with 609 at-bats, he had a .359 on-base percentage and .479 slugging percentage.

Tulowitzki led major league shortstops in fielding percentage (.987), chances (834) and assists (561) and made only 11 errors.

"I was just amazed at how consistent he was," said Hall of Fame shortstop Cal Ripken Jr., who had the opportunity to meet Tulowitzki while doing broadcast work during the postseason. "And I knew that he had a bunch of chances and you look up and he only had 11 errors. I said, 'Wow, this kid's really polished and really understands how to play the position.' "

Braun, who began the season at Triple-A Nashville and made his major league debut May 25, batted 451 times in 113 games. He hit .324 with 34 homers, 97 RBI and scored 91 runs.

Braun's on-base percentage (.370) and, in particular, his league-leading slugging percentage (.634) - the latter a major league rookie record, topping Mark McGwire's .618 with Oakland in 1987 - were impressive, but his 26 errors were more than any third baseman in the majors.

Asked whether he thinks his defense will cost him, Braun told the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, "I don't know what they'll use when they vote for the award. It'll be interesting. I definitely made more errors than I wanted to."

Rockies manager Clint Hurdle, speaking on behalf of Tulowitzki, whom he obviously favors, and making a reference to Braun, said, "I know this: You don't take (Tulowitzki) out for defense. And at the end of the day, it would probably take me the entire winter to try and figure out which was his stronger suit - offense or defense.

"I think at the end of the day, if you're going to talk about a rookie of the year and ask that question about every other candidate and if you have a quick answer, they're not complete players. And I would think we'd like to have the best complete player represent the National League as Rookie of the Year."

Braun gets early jump

Braun already has been chosen the top NL rookie by the major league players (Players Choice Awards), The Sporting News and Baseball America. Brewers general manager Doug Melvin took that as "a good sign" Braun, taken fifth overall in the 2005 draft, two picks ahead of Tulowitzki, would win the more-coveted BBWAA honor.

And Braun likely will, unless voters went beyond the more obvious offensive numbers, wonderfully gaudy in Braun's case, and delved into defense, examining what Tulowitzki accomplished playing a more difficult position.

"If their defense was equal, you could still make a case for Tulowitzki," said John Dewan, owner of Baseball Info Solutions and author of The Fielding Bible, which was published last year. "But the defense is no comparison. Tulowitzki should win hands down. But will it happen? I wouldn't be surprised if it's Braun, because I don't think (voters) are understanding the fielding at this point. The only chance is that Braun was so atrocious, that that might have gotten some notice."

Braun's 26 errors came in 112 games at third base and left him with an astoundingly low .895 fielding percentage. Noted statistical analyst Bill James, senior baseball operations adviser for the Boston Red Sox, put that figure into historical context.

"I remember in 1978 (Red Sox third baseman) Butch Hobson fielded less than .900," said James, recalling Hobson's .899 mark. "And at that time, he was the first regular player to do that since Charlie Pick in 1916."

A third baseman with the Philadelphia Athletics, Pick's fielding percentage that season was .899.

"Joel Youngblood in 1984 fielded .893 (primarily as a third baseman with San Francisco)," James said. "Gary Sheffield in 1993 fielded .899 (combined playing third base with San Diego and Florida). Sub- .900 is going some."

James believes Tulowitzki will beat Braun, although not because voters were astute enough to look beyond Braun's glittering offense and give ample weight to his defensive woes.

"I think there are patterns in the vote that are inexplicable and sometimes maddening," James said. "And it's possible that those patterns will result in overlooking Tulowitzki's, A, defense and, B, contributions to a championship team. That isn't my read on what's likely to happen. There's excellence and there are the things that voters like."

Namely, what James calls "a huge attention effect in award voting." Tulowitzki began acquiring that when he turned an unassisted triple play April 29 at Coors Field against Atlanta. It was only the 13th time in major league history that feat had been accomplished.

"Starting with the unassisted triple play," James said, "Tulo-witzki seemed to be popping up on SportsCenter quite a bit."

Defensive edge to Tulo

Turning to something far less visual, Dewan helped devise the plus/minus system for evaluating defensive play on batted balls, using a scoring system where each batted ball is rated for velocity, location on the field and type - line drive, grounder, etc.

Dewan said Braun's minus- 41 rating - it's the worst minus rating for a player at any position - means he did not make 41 plays the average third baseman would have made. Tulo- witzki's plus-35 rating was the highest among shortstops and meant he made 35 more plays than the average shortstop did.

"The difference between the two is huge," Dewan said, "almost 80 plays, and that comes out to about 50 runs a year."

Ripken didn't try to quantify Tulowitzki's play at shortstop as much as observe it with the perspective of one having played untold innings and handled virtually every imaginable situation at the position. Ripken said that, living in the Baltimore area, he didn't have the opportunity to see many Rockies games.

"The one thing that jumped out at me right away watching him play before I met him was, he has natural leadership abilities," Ripken said, "where he seemed to know what was going on in the middle (of the infield). He seemed to take charge. He seemed to direct. He didn't have any problems communicating, which was really cool.

"So when I saw that, I said, 'Hmm, I'd like to talk to him.' And by talking to him and just discussing some of the plays and trying to get inside his head, I really like how he thinks about the position."

All of which bodes well, of course, for Tulowitzki and the Rockies regardless of whether he beats Braun. Hitting .326 at Coors Field and .256 on the road will work against Tulowitzki. And Braun put up full-season offensive numbers despite spending two months in the minors.

Ultimately, the rookie award comes down to defense, specifically whether voters looked closely at Braun's 26 errors and followed the dots to his fielding percentage. But with so many statistics so readily available, who really looks at fielding percentage?

"Yeah, nobody really does," Dewan said. "But Ryan Braun's was so bad, maybe some people did."

How they compare

Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki led or tied for the lead among National League rookies in seven of 14 offensive categories and ranked in the top three in 10 of them. Brewers third baseman Ryan Braun led or tied for the lead in four of the categories and ranked in the top three in nine of them.

Tulowitzki Category Braun

.291 (7th) Batting average .324 (4th)

24 (3rd) Home runs 34 (1st)

99 (1st) RBI 97 (2nd)

48 (1st tie) Multiple-hit games 48 (1st tie)

104 (1st) Runs 91 (2nd)

177 (1st) Hits 146 (3rd)

292 (1st) Total bases 286 (2nd)

33 (1st) Doubles 26 (6th)

5 (3rd) Triples 6 (2nd)

7* Stolen bases 15 (4th)

57 (1st) Walks 29 (7th tie)

.359 (7th) On-base percentage .370 (4th)

.479 (6th) Slugging percentage .634 (1st)

62 (3rd) Extra-base hits 66 (1st)*Not In Top 10

Above and beyond

Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki led all major league shortstops in total chances and assists by wide margins.

Total chances Player

834 Troy Tulowitzki

720 Jhonny Peralta

717 Jimmy Rollins

Assists Player

561 Tulowitzki

479 Rollins

461 Khalil Greene

Rather curious

Beginning in 1949, a rookie of the year has been chosen in each league by members of the Baseball Writers' Association of America. It took until 2000, with Atlanta's Rafael Furcal, for a shortstop to win the honor in the National League. Last year, Florida's Hanley Ramirez became the second NL shortstop to win the honor.

Meanwhile, during that same 58-year span, a shortstop has been rookie of the year 14 times in the American League - Harvey Kuenn (1953), Luis Aparicio (1956), Tony Kubek (1957), Ron Hansen (1960), Tom Tresh (1962), Alfredo Griffin (1979 tied), Cal Ripken Jr. (1982), Ozzie Guillen (1985), Walt Weiss (1988), Pat Listach (1992), Derek Jeter (1996), Nomar Garciaparra (1997), Angel Berroa (2003) and Bobby Crosby (2004).

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