Tovar poised for '24 breakout for Rockies

December 20th, 2023

This story was excerpted from Thomas Harding’s Rockies Beat newsletter. To read the full newsletter, click here. And subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox.

Rockies shortstop 's 2023 rookie season lived up to the hype, yet it went by quietly.

Tovar finished among the most storied rookies in club history in multiple statistical categories:

• 37 doubles, tied with Todd Helton (1998) for the club record
• 153 games, second behind Troy Tulowitzki (155 in 2007)
• 73 RBIs, most on the 2023 team and fourth among Rockies rookies behind Tulowitzki (99), Helton (97) and Garrett Atkins (89 in 2005)

And these were Tovar's offensive ranks among National League rookies:

• Tied for first in doubles
• Third in games played, runs, RBIs, hits (147) and extra-base hits (56)
• Fourth in triples (4)
• Eighth in home runs (15)

Also, since Tovar didn’t turn 22 until Aug. 1, he became the first rookie to make at least 150 appearances in his age-21 season since Carlos Correa (2016).

Defensively, Tovar was a finalist for the Gold Glove Award after finishing second among NL shortstops in Defensive Runs Saved (13) and tying for second among all shortstops in Outs Above Average (16).

Despite all of that, Tovar didn’t show up among the nine vote-getters in NL Rookie of the Year stakes. Aside from being a Gold Glove finalist, Tovar's sport-wide acclaim was largely absent.

Some reasons that Tovar slipped notice were beyond his control. Among them were Colorado’s 103 losses. The retooling Rockies featured two meteoric rookies -- Nolan Jones, who finished fourth in NL Rookie of the Year voting after catching on in the second half to finish with a .297/.389/.542 slash line to go with 20 home runs and 20 steals, and center fielder Brenton Doyle, who won a Gold Glove.

The only rookie in the Rockies’ lineup throughout the season, Tovar hit .214 over his first 26 games. But he gradually found his swing and flashed power, to the point that manager Bud Black moved him around the lineup -- at times because he was among the most productive players on a struggling offense. Black also marveled at Tovar’s defensive awareness.

Tovar’s steadiness may have allowed him to slip under the radar. But that same trait can make him an unmistakable leader as the team tries to improve behind its young players in 2024 and beyond.

“He didn't get the national exposure that other players got,” Black said. “He had a .287 on-base [percentage] -- that needs to improve. But I think for him, in a year or two, on the national stage, he'll be a guy that's talked about as a really good player. He's a future All-Star.”

General manager Bill Schmidt added, “No doubt he has those qualifications. The more he plays, the more experience he gets, the more his confidence -- he’s going to continue to grow.”

The struggling Rockies dealt many of their veterans -- particularly in the bullpen and in the starting lineup -- before the Aug. 1 Trade Deadline. It just so happened that nearly every opponent in the final two months was at least nominally in the postseason race. Blown leads and close, heartbreaking losses piled up -- but Tovar performed best through his team’s most frustrating point.

In 54 games from Aug. 1 onward, Tovar slashed .248/.293/.393 with five home runs, and he tallied six of his 11 stolen bases. He didn’t put the ball in play as much as desired (60 strikeouts to five walks in the final two months), but he ended his year playing mostly winning-type baseball.

Tovar went through it with a steady spirit, and he never let frustration become an unnecessary opponent.

“Nobody wants to lose,” Tovar said, with bullpen catcher Aaron Muñoz translating. “I hate losing. We've got to take those types of losses, and look at the positives. That’s the only way we can approach those losses. Learn from them and continue to grow.”

Tovar’s coolheadedness allowed him to go into the offseason with a key assignment – to lay off outside breaking balls and force pitchers to challenge him over the plate. He will always be an aggressive swinger -- he walked just 25 times last season -- but trimming his chase rate and hitting pitches in the zone should cut down on his 166 strikeouts in 2023.

“I’m still chasing that pitch, although I work on it in the batting cage,” Tovar said at season’s end. “I’m trying to get better at it, but you’ve got to give pitchers some credit as well. But I’m learning to avoid making that same mistake.”

If growth continues, no one will be making the mistake of overlooking Tovar’s impact.