Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Padres, Together Forever

In 2021, Fernando Tatis Jr. is one of the Padres’ brightest stars. In 2031, he’ll presumably also be one of the Padres’ brightest stars, because he just signed a 14-year, $340 million extension to remain in San Diego, as Dennis Lin and Ken Rosenthal first reported.

That’s a lot of years, and a lot of money, and don’t you worry, we’ll have some ZiPS projections and some calculations of dollars per WAR and an explanation of how the arbitration system impacts this deal. First, though, here’s Tatis having fun:

With that important message out of the way, let’s get down to business. Tatis is one of the best players in baseball right this minute, and he turned 22 a month ago. When he broke into the majors in 2019, he truly broke in. His .317/.379/.590 line was scintillating, and also too short; a stress reaction in his back limited him to only 84 games.

What he did in those games also felt like it might be fleeting. That batting line is spicy, but it was buttressed by a .410 BABIP. Tatis hit the crap out of the ball — his 12.8% barrel rate and 115.9 mph maximum exit velocity were both elite — but no one runs a .410 BABIP forever. Statcast’s xBA, which estimates batting average based on angle and exit velocity, pegged him for a .339 BABIP. xwOBA, which estimates wOBA based on the same data, thought he was a good but not great hitter.

Why the negativity? His strikeout rate was a scary 29.6%, he didn’t walk enough (8.1%), and the granular metrics made those look real. His 15.6% swinging strike rate was the 13th-worst among players who batted as much as he did, and none of the hitters below him on the list had the same kind of success. He also struggled defensively, though mainly with errors — he certainly looked to have the range to stick at shortstop.

In 2020, Tatis basically printed those last two paragraphs, wadded them into a paper ball, and hit them 600 feet to the opposite field. He got better at everything — legitimately, everything! — and did it in a way that looks sustainable. The strikeouts? He slashed them from 29.6% to 23.7%. The walks? Up from 8.1% to 10.5%. He chased less, made more contact, and cut his swinging strike rate to a respectable 12.5%.

Remember that excellent 12.8% barrel rate? His 19.5% barrel rate in 2020 was not only the best mark in the big leagues, but also the ninth-highest mark ever posted (minimum 150 batted balls) in the Statcast era. The guys in front of him? Joey Gallo (twice), Aaron Judge (twice), Miguel Sanó (twice), Giancarlo Stanton, and Nelson Cruz. Five of the biggest boppers in the majors, and a shortstop. Preposterous!

Amusingly, the only thing that fell off was that unsustainable BABIP. In 2019, Tatis delivered a .410 BABIP off of an expected .339 mark. In 2020, his BABIP fell to .308, but his expected BABIP rose to .358. That’s right — Tatis significantly underperformed his underlying batted ball output in 2020, and still managed a 149 wRC+.

Oh yeah, his defense got much better too. He was the second-worst defensive shortstop of 2019 per Statcast. In 2020, he was tied for the best. Even if you don’t quite believe the magnitude of that move, both DRS and UZR had him going from below average to above average, largely by committing fewer errors.

Before 2020 went all pear-shaped, ZiPS projected Tatis for 3.1 WAR. It also gave him a No. 1 comp of young Alex Rodriguez, so it was clearly a believer, but he’d only played a year in the major leagues, and the strikeouts were a concern. He nearly hit that 3.1 WAR projection — in a 60-game season. This year, ZiPS is drinking the Kool-Aid:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Fernando Tatis Jr.
90% .299 .385 .640 455 97 136 25 8 38 112 58 113 43 172 7.1
80% .292 .378 .605 456 96 133 24 7 35 107 57 122 34 162 6.4
70% .290 .374 .581 458 94 133 23 7 32 100 55 128 29 155 5.9
60% .288 .370 .558 459 92 132 22 6 30 98 54 133 28 148 5.5
50% .284 .365 .547 461 89 131 22 6 28 94 52 136 24 142 5.2
40% .284 .363 .530 462 89 131 21 6 27 92 51 142 25 141 5.0
30% .280 .357 .513 464 88 130 20 5 26 89 49 148 21 133 4.5
20% .277 .353 .495 465 87 129 19 5 24 87 48 154 19 128 4.2
10% .269 .340 .465 469 86 126 18 4 22 82 44 165 16 116 3.4

Players who hit the majors at a young age tend to improve in their first few years, but not like this: his 10th-percentile forecast for 2021 is higher than his median forecast in 2020. He simply improved so many things that he already looks like one of the best players in the game, and he’s still only 22.

And ZiPS projects Tatis to remain near the top of the game for years to come:

ZiPS Projection – Fernando Tatis Jr.
2021 .284 .365 .547 461 89 131 22 6 28 94 52 136 24 142 -2 5.1
2022 .289 .373 .584 450 93 130 23 7 32 102 54 140 23 155 -2 5.8
2023 .290 .377 .588 452 95 131 22 7 33 105 57 144 23 157 -2 6.0
2024 .288 .379 .608 451 97 130 22 7 36 109 60 150 22 163 -2 6.3
2025 .287 .379 .605 443 96 127 22 7 35 108 60 148 22 162 -3 6.1
2026 .291 .384 .626 433 96 126 21 8 36 109 60 141 22 168 -3 6.3
2027 .292 .384 .625 421 93 123 21 7 35 106 58 130 20 168 -4 6.0
2028 .295 .388 .636 407 90 120 20 7 35 105 56 123 20 172 -5 6.0
2029 .294 .385 .637 391 86 115 18 7 34 100 52 116 18 171 -6 5.5
2030 .291 .379 .615 374 79 109 16 6 31 92 48 106 17 164 -7 4.7
2031 .287 .371 .590 356 71 102 15 6 27 82 43 96 15 156 -9 3.9
2032 .282 .362 .558 326 62 92 14 5 22 70 37 83 12 146 -10 2.9
2033 .278 .353 .495 299 53 83 12 1 17 57 31 71 9 128 -11 1.6
2034 .270 .340 .456 274 45 74 10 1 13 46 25 60 6 114 -13 0.7

That’s nine consecutive years of projections above 5 WAR, and it’s actually more absurd than that. Take a look at the numbers, and you’ll notice he never projects for even 500 at-bats. If you think he’ll get to 550 on average, that’s an extra 1.5 WAR per year. I’m not saying 550 is a reasonable assumption — he’s yet to play a full season, and everyone gets hurt once in a while — but the point is that the rate of production ZiPS forecasts is Trout-ian.

The projected OPS+ numbers for mid-20s Tatis are staggering. The last shortstop to approach that level of consistent production was A-Rod. The last one before that? Literally Honus Wagner. You could make arguments for young Nomar Garciaparra or Rogers Hornsby when he moonlighted at short, but the fact that I have to reach back before integration for similar levels of production should tell you how ridiculous he is.

Some of that comes down to the fact that better offensive players are playing shortstop these days, but that’s only a tiny part of it. The world isn’t awash with hitters this good, let alone hitters this good who can actually field. Up-the-middle defenders who hit this well at this young an age are unicorns.

What does a unicorn cost? A billion dollars if you ask Silicon Valley, but $340 million in baseball. The 14 years of Tatis’s contract replace one year near the league minimum, three years of arbitration, and 10 years of free agency. To think through what the Padres have done here, we’ll have to think our way through those arbitration years and see what we have on the other end.

The first-year arbitration record is $11.5 million, set by Cody Bellinger after his MVP 2019 season. To that point in his career, he’d accrued 15.4 WAR, but more importantly for the baseball-card-stats driven process, he hit .278/.368/.559 with 111 home runs and 292 RBI to go along with that MVP award. If Tatis hits his projections for this year, he’ll take a .294/.370/.567 line into arbitration, but with only 67 homers and 192 RBI due to his curtailed playing time.

If he has an MVP award, he’ll likely have exceeded those numbers, which puts him in position to exceed Bellinger’s number — but he likely won’t have an NL MVP award, because they only give one of them out per year. Gambling odds place him at around one in eight to take home that particular trophy in 2021. Something along the lines of $10.5 million is a more reasonable estimate.

That second year of arbitration? The record there was also set by a reigning MVP — Mookie Betts got $20 million after his scintillating 2018, and he also conveniently received $10.5 million the year before. It would be foolhardy to project Tatis to reach those heights, though. Betts hit a what-c’mon-stop-lying .346/.438/.640 en route to 10.4 WAR in 2018, while we project Tatis to be coming off a .289/.373/.584 season. Francisco Lindor received $17.5 million with worse offense but better defense (and more playing time) than Tatis projects for, so let’s use that number.

Finally, there’s his last year of arbitration to consider. Betts received $27 million, besting Nolan Arenado’s $26 million. We’re off into speculative territory here, but that sounds good enough to me — $27 million it is. That works out to four years and $55.6 million, but that’s probably the high end. Arbitration relies on precedents, and it would be hard for Tatis to make significantly more than that, but players sometimes underperform their projections (shocking, I know). To account for that possibility, let’s lop off an unscientific $5.6 million and say that Tatis projects to earn about $50 million over the next four years (Kiley McDaniel arrived at the same estimate last month).

If that’s what the Padres expected to pay in exchange for four more years of Tatis, that means that this deal covers 10 new years and $290 million in new money. With ZiPS projections for those years in hand, I can tell you that the math works out to $6.6 million per projected WAR, a phenomenal rate for the Padres; it’s less per win than they paid Manny Machado, and they had to include a player option in his deal to sweeten the pot.

Does that mean I think that this deal is unfair to Tatis? Not at all. He might be receiving less for his services than a projection system thinks he should expect to make in four years, but he’s also getting it right now. Going through arbitration and hitting free agency would likely carry greater rewards, but there are also plenty of ways it could go wrong; heck, that back injury was less than two years ago.

It’s also extremely speculative to talk about the 43.7 WAR that ZiPS thinks Tatis will accrue from 2025 through 2034 when he’s compiled 6.5 WAR in his career so far. What he’s done at such a young age is nearly unprecedented, which explains the exuberant projections, but you can hardly blame someone for taking a Scrooge McDuck-level pile of money after 143 major league games. He could even ask for it in coins if he wanted to — I’m sure the Padres would oblige.

If Tatis posts a 4.5 WAR season this year, it would barely be a disappointment. But it might stunt his arbitration payout, and given that arbitration considers previous performance, there could be a cascading effect of shortfalls. And baseball might not be in the same financial place when he reaches free agency. Perhaps a CBA-related shutdown will change the nature of compensation. This is simply a safe decision to take a ludicrous sum of money.

Are the Padres losing out, then? Hardly. They’re essentially betting on math. Hitters this good this young don’t often flame out; 15 hitters have posted a 140 wRC+ or better through age 21 in at least 600 plate appearances. Nine are Hall of Famers, which might sound low, but that doesn’t count Shoeless Joe Jackson, Mike Trout, Albert Pujols, Juan Soto, or Tatis. The only player who hit those highs and faded away was Hal Trosky Sr., who accrued 29.1 WAR from 1933 through 1940 before his career was undone by debilitating migraines.

More specifically, the Padres are betting that talent and production stabilize quickly, or at least that the risk of failure isn’t particularly high. Could Tatis get hurt? Sure. Could he underperform for a year or two, which could have saved them some money in arbitration? Sure. If he plays as we expect him to, however, the Padres would hand him his arbitration money and then need to pay more for his free agency years. In essence, they’re fronting the risk of some unlikely tails in exchange for a discount on a long-term superstar.

If I can take off my analyst hat for a minute and put on my baseball hat (wow, that was convenient), I think this is a tremendous deal for everyone involved. Tatis got a life-changing contract that didn’t feel icky in the way that Ronald Acuña Jr.’s (or especially Ozzie Albies’s) deal did. This isn’t a contract that will make people cry foul about the unfairness of MLB’s economic model, and that’s unquestionably a good thing in my eyes. Arguing about whether Tatis should get $340 or $360 million is never going to be a compelling way of looking at the finances of the game, and that’s all to the good.

The Padres locked up a core piece and guaranteed a little certainty to do so at a discount. In doing so, they continued a blockbuster winter that solidified their ascent to one of the most exciting teams in the game. With Tatis in tow, they’ll remain exciting for years to come. The most dynamic player in the game, arguably the face of baseball, is now one of the highest paid players. There’s simply no way to look at this deal and come away disappointed — unless you play in the NL West or wanted to sign Tatis in four years. For people thus affected — sorry. For everyone else, it’s a great day.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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3 years ago

In my dreams, I see Ted Williams & Tony Gwynn imitating Snoopy’s “Happy Dance” at this announcement; good for baseball, great for “Slam Diego!”

Shirtless Bartolo Colon
3 years ago
Reply to  marcusthelion

Biggest news coming out of Petco Park since, well, you know….

3 years ago

Man, your profile pic is something else.