Tulowitzki comfortable with approach
Shortstop sees aggressiveness on first pitch as key
DENVER -- Royals pitcher Kyle Davies had a sound idea on Saturday: start out with a strike. Problem was the hitter was Rockies shortstop Troy Tulowitzki, who wanted to finish things off quickly.
Tulowitzki swatted Davies' first pitch into the stands for a home run in the Rockies' 3-0 victory. And it isn't the first time Tulowitzki has swung without waiting.
Last year, Tulowitzki hit .463 on the 67 times he put the first pitch in play. It was the sixth-highest average in the category in the National League. Fred Lewis, then with the Giants, led the league at .540 on 24 first-pitch at-bats. Of the top 10 in first-pitch average, only the Marlins' Hanley Ramirez, the league batting champ, put more in play (117). Tulowitzki's nine home runs on the initial pitch tied for second-most in the National League with the Phillies' Jayson Werth and the Brewers' Prince Fielder. The Cubs' Derrek Lee led the league with 11.
This season, Tulowitzki is hitting .292 (7-for-24) on the first pitch. The homer off Davies was his first this season on an initial offering. That's a good average in most situations, but since first-pitch average is the on-base percentage he'll need to heat up in that regard to justify his strategy in the eyes of others.
No matter what anyone says, if Tulowitzki sees a pitch he believes he can drive, he won't let it go, no matter when it is thrown.
"I think I've had criticism since I've been here swinging at the first pitch, but I know I'm very successful swinging at the first pitch," Tulowitzki said. "It just goes with being aggressive.
"I'm an aggressive hitter. If there's a pitch around the plate, why not go get it. That's my take on it."
Getting it done on first pitch2009 first-pitch batting average leaders
The most notable disagreement over Tulowitzki's approach came last May 21 at Atlanta. Immediately after Dexter Fowler drew a four-pitch walk in the Rockies' 9-0 loss to the Braves, Tulowitzki grounded into a double play on a first pitch. Then-manager Clint Hurdle, feeling the Rockies as a team were not using proper hitting approaches, benched Tulowitzki the next game.
It would be improper to say the benching caused the Rockies to replace Hurdle with Jim Tracy seven days after the benching, -- the team was struggling throughout the year -- but such a move with a player considered to be a leader was a sign of how things were headed in the wrong direction.
Tulowitzki never changed his approach. He was struggling at the time of the Atlanta game, but he turned his year around and finished at .292 with 32 home runs. Tulowitzki started this season slowly as well, but has three homers in his last four games going into Tuesday's opener of a three-game series against the D-backs and a six-game National League West homestand, with the Rockies facing the Dodgers starting on Friday.
Tracy said the Rockies are better when Tulowitzki is aggressive and on a roll, which seems to have started.
"When you have a couple of key components in your lineup and you're waiting for them to go, it just seems like everyone else kind of waits on them, they struggle along with them," Tracy said. "Then all of a sudden they start figuring some things out, and the rest of the group goes, 'Well, I guess it's OK to move forward.'
"I think we're starting to get closer because that shortstop is one of those key components offensively."
And you can bet if Tulowitzki sees a first pitch that he likes, he'll offer at it.
"I feel I have good plate coverage, and there are a lot of pitches I can handle off the plate, even," Tulowitzki said. "A lot of pitches look good to me."
The approach certainly doesn't bother Rockies hitting coach Don Baylor, who ticks off the names of Hall of Famers Robin Yount and Paul Molitor, former batting champion Bill Madlock and productive hitter Bill Buckner as strong first-ball hitters. Baylor, the 1979 American League Most Valuable Player with the Angels, recalls doing it often himself.
"My theory is if you're looking for a fastball, you can make an out on your first swing or if it's 3-2," Baylor said. "A lot of guys have real good averages on the first, get-me-over pitch. We call it 'ambush,' especially if he has a good curveball or slider. If he throws you the fastball, get on it."
"Bill Madlock was that way. You'd ask him, 'What kind of breaking ball does the pitcher have?' He'd say, 'I don't know. I'm hitting the fastball.'"
There have been teams who have pushed on-base percentage as an across-the-board philosophy, at least at the lower levels.
"For me, it's discouraged too much," Baylor said. "The first pitch might be the best one you're going to get. So the next pitch, you foul it off, now it's 0-2 and you've got one swing. "
Tulowitzki said he didn't adopt the strategy by watching someone else. He was born that way, and at no point was he going to change it.
"You're going to get out occasionally on a first-pitch swing," Tulowitzki said. "But you're going to do some damage sometimes, so you might as well do it. You're going to mess up in this game. Anytime you mess up you might as well do it aggressively.
"If someone doesn't have any power, then he wants to take pitches, draw walks and get on base for the big guys. My job is to swing the bat."
Thomas Harding is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.