THE ROCKIES' most recent home stand was a disaster for Troy Tulowitzki. A man of routine, he had done everything exactly as he had all season long. He had tuned his body in the same way. He had eaten the same odiously healthy things. He had the same audacious choice of music played before each of his at bats—Aloe Blacc's "The Man" ("I'm the man, I'm the man, I'm the man," Blacc sings). He had taken the same controlled but powerful swings. The results, though, just weren't the same. By the end of Colorado's six games, the 29-year-old Tulowitzki's average when playing this season at Coors Field had plummeted by 87 points.
Of course, some perspective is in order here. Tulowitzki had returned to Coors on May 16 having batted .608 through his first 15 games in the thin, oxygen-depleted air. So even a home stand during which he hit .318, as he did against the Padres and the Giants, simply crushed his bottom line.
Most players have statistical splits. So far in 2014, Tulowitzki has had statistical contortions. On the road Tulowitzki is batting .253, with six home runs, 12 RBIs and an OPS of .908. At home, even after last week's relative debacle, he's hitting .521, with eight homers and an OPS of 1.559. "I probably couldn't hit that even if you put me in high school baseball right now," Tulowitzki admits. Says Giants manager Bruce Bochy, "Those are stupid numbers." Baseball was abuzz with theories about the source of the difference. One was the Coors Field effect (sidebar, page 30), an idea Tulowitzki chafes at a bit, though not entirely. "You definitely do feel more comfortable at your home park," he says. "You're used to it, you're used to the box, it's hard for the ump to ring me up when the fans are chanting my name." There was also the fact that most of his away games came in notorious havens for pitchers (Marlins Park, AT&T Park, Petco Park, Dodger Stadium, Chase Field, Kauffman Stadium), as well as, of course, small sample size.
Time for more perspective: Even if you counted just his road statistics, Tulowitzki would be far and away baseball's best offensive shortstop as measured by OPS, by more than 60 points. If you count everything—including his defense, which, according to the Ultimate Zone Rating statistic kept by the website FanGraphs, is the best of anyone at his position—he is, at 2014's quarter pole, on a pace (admittedly unsustainable) to have the best season of any player, ever.
By week's end, Tulowitzki was leading the National League in batting average (.375) and homers (14), and is third with 36 RBIs. "Doing the Barry Bonds thing," says his longtime running mate Carlos Gonzalez. Gonzalez is almost right. By Baseball Reference's numbers, Tulowitzki's current Wins Above Replacement of 4.6—the statistic factors in his fielding—projects to a seasonal WAR of 14.9. Bonds's best WAR was 11.9, which he produced in his 73-homer 2001. The WAR record for a position player is Babe Ruth's, from 1923. It was 14.1.
"He's on everything," says teammate Michael Cuddyer. "If the ball's just a little bit off the plate, he's taking it, and taking it like he knows it's coming." His at bats are so astonishing, suggested a San Francisco radio host last week, that he must actually know what is coming. The host accused Tulowitzki of stealing signs, backed by no evidence more convincing than his home numbers. (In response, during the last game of the Giants series, the Rockies' music operator followed a Tulowitzki hit with Ace of Base's "The Sign.") Walt Weiss, the Rockies' second-year manager, has a different idea. "It's a matter of a great player, a really supremely talented player, being in the zone."
Perhaps Tulowitzki's performance seems preposterous because, in our discussions of who is the best player alive (near-universal answer: Mike Trout), we had forgotten about Tulowitzki. Some of that might stem from the town in which he toils. "At times you want to play in a city where you get more love, but I don't worry about that," Tulowitzki says. More of it likely comes from the fact that his previous bouts with greatness—he entered this year having already produced four seasons with a WAR of 6-plus, a feat equaled by just eight other active players—were pocked and mitigated by periods of inactivity, as he was repeatedly sidelined for weeks and months at a time with ailments to just about every quadrant of his body.
Now, though, as Tulowitzki embraces his prime with the help of an unlikely and unwitting Serbian mentor, there can be no conversation about the game's premier player without him.
LATROY HAWKINS has played in the majors for 20 years, and he has had 624 teammates, but still he vividly recalls the first time he laid eyes upon one in particular.
"Who the f--- is that?" he remembers asking early in spring training in 2007, as he watched a 6'3" rookie stride into the Rockies' clubhouse.
"That's Troy Tulowitzki, man," replied someone, his identity long forgotten. "He might be our starting shortstop this year."
"Ain't no might be," Hawkins said. "He will be."
"The confidence," explains Hawkins, who returned this season for a second stint in Colorado and is, at 41, both the senior circuit's senior member and the Rockies' closer. "Chest up. Shoulders back. He commanded that first impression."
When Tulowitzki was growing up in Sunnyvale, Calif., he papered the walls of his bedroom with posters and baseball cards that depicted his shortstop heroes. There was the Nomar wall. There was the A-Rod wall. Then there was his favorite: the Jeter wall. It was Derek Jeter he wanted to emulate most of all. "He could do no wrong, I figured," Tulowitzki says. Tulowitzki has worn number 2, in Jeter's honor, for the past eight seasons. On a ledge above his locker in the Rockies' clubhouse, he keeps a framed photo of the Yankees' captain.
At first, Tulowitzki followed his idol's path almost step for step. Jeter was drafted sixth; Tulowitzki went seventh, 13 years later. Jeter reached the World Series as a 22-year-old rookie; so did Tulowitzki. Jeter was Rookie of the Year; Tulowitzki came in a close second, to Ryan Braun. But then something started happening to Tulowitzki that didn't happen to Jeter in his prime. He started getting injured, a lot.
In late April 2008, Tulowitzki strained his left quadriceps, and he missed 46 games. A month after he returned, he cut his right thumb and missed 13 more. In the following years, it began to seem as if he might come to be defined not by the numbers he produced on the field but by the number of times he hit the disabled list. He broke his wrist in 2010. He had groin surgery in 2012. He fractured a rib in 2013. He has spent 260 days of his career on the disabled list, and between his rookie year and this one, he had appeared in 845 of the Rockies' 1,134 games, or slightly less than 75%. Between 1996 and 2012, by contrast, Jeter played in 93% of the Yankees' contests.
Tulowitzki became convinced that the source of at least some of his maladies was the same thing that, for 22 years now, has caused baseballs to travel farther at Coors Field than in any other ballpark: Denver's mile-high altitude. "You hear guys on the bases say, 'My body feels like crap today,' " Tulowitzki says. "I'll say, Man, try to play 81 games here. It's known: You play in Colorado, you're going to be extra sore. There were times when I had slight pulls here and there that I played through, but it wasn't the smartest thing to do. I just ran it out there every day until it broke."
The Rockies have long studied the effects of altitude on their players' ability to physiologically recover, says general manager Bill Geivett, and they have taken steps to help them. For instance, they never hold batting practice sessions immediately before day games. Tulowitzki vowed to take things much further than that. "After my groin surgery was when I really looked myself in the mirror and said, I'm kind of getting frustrated," he says. "I need to do everything I possibly can to put myself out on the field. I wasn't going to let one thing go by."
When Hawkins returned to Colorado this spring, after six seasons elsewhere, he encountered a different man from the precociously disciplined, confident rookie he played with in 2007. "Since then he's refined himself, matured," says Hawkins. "Which every man should do, whether you're playing baseball or anything in life. Older you get, wiser you get, better decisions you make, learn yourself more and learn what you need to do to give yourself the best chance to be successful."
What Tulowitzki needed to do was to focus maniacally on a daily routine that he has designed not just to keep him on the field—he believes that his large stature, for a shortstop, has contributed to his breakdowns—but to operate each night at nothing short of his peak. It involves hours of scripted workouts, stretching, video study, ice baths, hydration and a hyperbaric chamber.
Tulowitzki modeled a significant portion of his regimen after that of a newer and more unexpected idol than Jeter: Novak Djokovic, the 27-year-old Serbian tennis champion who has won six Grand Slam titles and is currently ranked No. 2 in the world. Though he has not met Djokovic, Tulowitzki has two photos of him taped next to his locker and went to see him play Rafael Nadal in Key Biscayne in late March, when the Rockies were in Miami to play the Marlins.
"I feel like tennis is very similar to my position at short, a lot of lateral movement, a lot of wear and tear on the body," Tulowitzki says. He admired Djokovic's unflagging energy and began to hear about how the tennis star credited his endurance to his strict gluten-free, dairy-free, low-sugar diet. Last year Tulowitzki bought Djokovic's book, Serve to Win, which is part biography and part nutritional guide. "I had a dream, and it wasn't to be one of the best," Djokovic wrote. "There were two men in the world who were the best—Federer and Nadal—and to them, I was nothing but an occasional annoyance, one who might quit at any moment when the going got tough. These guys were the elite; I was stuck somewhere in the second tier." Tulowitzki was hooked.
Last September, Tulowitzki had dinner with teammate Jorge de la Rosa and their shared agent, Paul Cohen. He capped it off with a Pizookie, a concoction of ice cream and cookie. "That's my last dessert until spring training," he told them. As it turned out, Tulowitzki says, "I think I took it even further than that. I haven't had a dessert since."
His Djokovic-inspired dietary discipline extends beyond even that. He has hired a personal assistant, Tommy Bolin, to travel with him to each city and stock his hotel room with appropriate food items, acquired from Whole Foods. "Some of that stuff, I don't even know how you eat that stuff and drink that stuff," says his father, Ken, who worked as a truck driver for 25 years before retiring in 2010 to manage properties his son owns.
"These green shakes he makes, he's always trying to give them to me," says Gonzalez. "I say, 'No, man, don't be afraid to throw a burger in your body one day.' But it's working for him."
It's working so well, in fact, that he has refused to allow what is, for most people, a rather disruptive life event to throw him off course: His wife, Danyll, gave birth to the couple's first child in January. Troy got to christen the boy; he chose the name Taz. "I wanted it to be a T, and I wanted it to be real short," he says. "When I was filling things out as a kid, writing 'Tulowitzki' was hard at times. Took up all the space on the paper, and you're always looking for more room." Taz has his own locker in the Colorado clubhouse, and Troy buys most of his clothes. Other than that, Tulowitzki admits, "My wife, for the time being, does pretty much everything for him. She understands I'm a little crazy, but she knew what she was getting into before she married me." Every other night, when the Rockies are in Denver, Danyll zips Troy into the hyperbaric chamber he installed on the first floor of their house, before heading upstairs with Taz. Troy spends the next eight hours dreaming about how he is going to make the next day precisely the same as the last.
SINCE THE ROCKIES last made the playoffs, in 2009, their offense has essentially been a two-man show, centered upon Tulowitzki, when he is healthy, and Gonzalez. This year has been different. Through Monday, the Rockies had crossed the plate 262 times in 51 games, putting them on pace to score 832 runs. They have done it thanks to a newly deep lineup that features, in addition to Tulowitzki, five other regular players batting better than .300 and five of the league's top 15 RBI leaders. They were also 27--23. "That's how a team wins, when you don't count on just Tulo and CarGo every day," says Gonzalez. "Everybody's hitting. Everybody's raking."
"We're not as youthful as we were a year ago," says Weiss. The synchronized maturations of fledgling hitters like second-year third baseman Nolan Arenado (who was batting .305 before a broken finger sidelined him) and fourth-year outfielder Charlie Blackmon (.319) have nicely complemented not just Tulowitzki and Gonzalez but also recent imports like former Twins Cuddyer (.321) and Justin Morneau (.314).
Even so, everyone on the Rockies knows that the club's only two playoff appearances this millennium—in 2007 and '09—came in the only two seasons of Tulowitzki's career in which he played more than 150 games. This is Tulowitzki's team, now more than ever, playing for the first time since 1997 without the presence of Todd Helton, who retired this winter after 17 years with Colorado. "He probably used to take a backseat because Helton was here," says Hawkins. "Now, everybody's looking to Tulo."
They see a player who has become perhaps baseball's foremost ascetic, whose modified Mohawk might as well be a tonsure. "I think when you have a goal in mind, and that's to be the best player, you have to go out of the box a little," Tulowitzki says. "Maybe, at times, I miss out on things. But I know it goes by really, really quick. I felt like the other day I was a rookie playing in the World Series. Now I'm sitting here at 29, one of the older guys on the team, who the younger guys come up to and ask questions. My career's half done already. For the time being, it's baseball, and it's all baseball." So far, the result has been anything but routine.
Does Troy Tulowitzki have a shot at the MVP? Cliff Corcoran's Awards Watch column takes an in-depth look at his chances and scopes out his competition. For more, visit mlb.SI.com