Fernando Tatis Jr. Enters the Stratosphere

Fernando Tatis Jr. is the superstar baseball needs in 2020. Countering the multitude of anxieties that come with enjoying baseball amid the coronavirus pandemic, his towering home runs, bat flips, and celebratory dancing are as pure a distillation of the joy and excitement as the game can provide right now. Limited to 84 games in his rookie season due to injuries, the buoyant 21-year-old shortstop is off to a red-hot start, propelling an engaging Padres team to a 10-7 record while lighting up social media along the way. Unless you’re an opposing pitcher, it’s nearly impossible not to break out in a smile watching Tatis play.

On Sunday, Tatis crossed paths with a hanging curveball from the Diamondbacks’ Madison Bumgarner. Left fielder David Peralta couldn’t even be bothered to turn around to view the damage:

Admittedly, it wasn’t Bumgarner’s day — he served up a career-high four home runs in just two innings before departing due to back spasms — but it ran Tatis’ streak of consecutive games with a homer to four. The streak ended on Monday night at the hands of the Dodgers, who held him to 1-for-4 with an infield single, but the Padres’ 2-1 victory pulled them within 1 1/2 games of the NL West lead.

Tatis’ streak was part of a six-homers-in-six-games stretch that pulled him into a tie with the Yankees’ Aaron Judge for the major league lead with eight. His run began with a 394-foot opposite field homer off the Dodgers’ Walker Buehler in a 5-4 win on August 3, skipped a game (he settled for an RBI double off Dustin May, who held him in check during Monday’s rematch), then resumed with a 431-foot rocket off Ross Stripling. He punctuated that one with a KBO-caliber bat toss:

The Padres eventually lost that game — the one that ended with Chris Taylor nailing Trent Grisham at the plate — but Tatis’ streak continued via back-to-back games with leadoff homers against the Diamondbacks, first off of Luke Weaver to key a 3-0 win on Friday night, then off Merrill Kelly on Saturday. Tatis’ signature post-home run shimmy was captured for posterity after the former:

That leadoff homer was Tatis’ eighth since the start of 2019, a total that’s tied for fourth in the majors alongside Max Kepler and DJ LeMahieu, behind only George Springer (12), Joc Pederson (10) and Shin-Soo Choo (9).

Tatis actually added an eighth-inning shot off Hector Rondón in Saturday’s game but those accounted for the Padres’ only two runs in a 3-2 loss; the barrage against Bumgarner gave the Padres a 9-5 win. His homer off Mad Bum, the 30th of his career, came in his 100th game; that’s tied for the seventh-highest total of any player (h/t Sarah Langs):

Most Home Runs, First 100 Career Games
Rk Player Team Year(s) HR
1 Mark McGwire Athletics 1986-87 37
2 Cody Bellinger Dodgers 2017 34
3T Rudy York Tigers 1934, ’37 33
Pete Alonso Mets 2019 33
Gary Sánchez Yankees 2016-17 33
6 José Abreu White Sox 2014 31
7T Fernando Tatis Jr. Padres 2019-20 30
Aaron Judge Yankees 2016-17 30
Ryan Braun Brewers 2007 30
10T Adam Dunn Reds 2001-02 27
Matt Olson Athletics 2017-18 27
Wally Berger Braves 1930 27
Trevor Story Rockies 2016 27
Bob Horner Braves 1978-79 27
Yordan Alvarez Astros 2019 27
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

By wRC+ and WAR through the first 100 games, Tatis has outdone all of the fine young shortstops who have entered the league in recent years — and at a younger age:

Shortstops’ First 100 Games Since 2015
Player Team Age PA HR SB BA OBP SLG wRC+ WAR
Fernando Tatis Jr. Padres 20-21 444 30 20 .320 .385 .625 162 5.2
Corey Seager Dodgers 21-22 429 20 3 .301 .368 .530 143 4.5
Francisco Lindor Indians 21-22 442 12 12 .315 .354 .482 126 4.0
Carlos Correa Astros 20-21 436 23 16 .279 .344 .517 137 3.6
Trevor Story Rockies 23-24 428 27 9 .272 .345 .565 123 3.2
Paul DeJong Cardinals 23 414 24 1 .279 .319 .526 119 2.7
Trea Turner* Nationals 22-23 368 14 35 .329 .361 .539 137 3.3
*Played mostly center field and second base (8 games at SS)

Note I’ve included games at other positions; Seager dabbled at third base, DeJong at second, but I separated Turner, who scarcely played shortstop in his first two seasons, from the pack. Note also that Tatis was nearly six months younger than Correa, the youngest of the rest of the group, when he debuted. Finally, here’s a fun fact: April 5, 2016 (Opening Day) marked the 100th game for both Correa and Lindor, who debuted eight days apart in June 2015.

Through Monday, Tatis not only shared the major league lead in homers but was the sole leader in total bases (52) and WAR (1.6), second in slugging percentage (.776), and third in wRC+ (216). Statcast-wise, he’s also tops in average exit velocity (97.6 mph), and hard hit rate (67.4%) and in the 96th percentile or higher in barrel rate (23.3%), expected slugging percentage (.656), and expected wOBA (.421).

It’s a remarkable start to the season for Tatis, whose rookie campaign was nothing to sneeze at, even though it was twice interrupted by injury. Though he missed over five weeks due to a left hamstring strain starting in late April, and then was sidelined for the year by a stress reaction in his back in mid-August, Tatis hit .317/.379/.590 (150 wRC+) with 22 homers, 16 steals and 3.6 WAR in 372 PA as a rookie — a fine showing for a player who entered the year as ranked third on our Top 100 Prospects list, prospect behind only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. and Wander Franco (Baseball America and MLB Pipeline had him second behind only Guerrero, while ESPN’s Keith Law ranked him first).

Tatis isn’t going to sustain his .328/.408/.776 slash line even during this shortened season, but he’s shown promising signs of growth. First off, he’s been more disciplined at the plate, trimming his rate of swinging at pitches outside the strike zone from 31.8% to 25.0%. Last year, he hit just .112 and slugged .131 when making contact with such pitches; among the 219 players with 100 such batted ball events, those numbers placed him in the ninth and fifth percentiles, respectively, and they accounted for 29% of his total of plate appearances. This year, he’s 1-for-17 on such pitches — Monday’s infield single broke the 0-fer — but they account for just 22% of his PA. His xwOBA on such pitches last year (which takes into account his walks and strikeouts) is only slightly higher (.262 versus .256), but at a time that offense is down, that represents a rise from the 16th percentile to the 32nd.

Meanwhile, Tatis has been more disciplined in the zone as well, cutting his swing rate from 72.6% to 65.3%; his xwOBA in the zone has gone from .420 (91st percentile) to .502 (95th percentile). So while he’s striking out slightly more often (31.6% this year, 29.6% last year), he’s making better contact and walking much more often (11.8% this year, 8.5% last year).

As for that contact, the numbers are particularly impressive. Via Baseball Savant, here’s a graph showing the rolling average exit velocity for his last 50 batted balls:

That exit velo has been on the rise dating back the middle of Tatis’ 2019 season. His rolling-50 average was at 87.4 mph on July 21, 2019; that’s the spot on the graph where the line dips below the red average line just before the 175-ball mark. By the time his season met its premature end on August 13, his rolling average was up to 93.5 mph, while it’s now 96.5 mph. In other words, he’s consistently hitting the ball harder.

He’s also elevating it with more consistency, not that Tatis can’t afford to hit grounders with some frequency given his elite sprint speed (95th percentile last year, 97th this year):

Fernando Tatis Jr. Batted Ball Profile
Year GB/FB GB% FB% EV LA Barrel wOBA xwOBA
2019 1.51 46.6% 30.9% 90.4 6.7 13.2% .398 .357
2020 0.95 41.9% 44.2% 97.6 11.4 23.3% .473 .421
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Tatis is barreling the ball almost twice as often as last year, resulting in significantly fewer grounders and a ton more flies. Oh, and in case you were wondering, that 7.3 mph gain in exit velocity is the majors’ largest among batters with at least 200 batted ball events last year and 40 such events this year — right at the point where EV stabilizes; the second- and third-ranked hitters reaching those cutoffs are the Dodgers’ Corey Seager (6.0 mph, from 88.8 to 94.8) and the Indians’ César Hernández (4.7 mph, from 86.0 to 90.7). Two other hitters with slightly fewer batted ball events are in the vicinity of Hernández (the Braves’ Marcell Ozuna at 4.6 mph through 39 batted balls, the Pirates’ Colin Moran at 4.4 mph through 36 batted balls). Small sample caveats apply, but so far, nobody’s even close to Tatis.

As for his defense, back in January, Ben Clemens examined last year’s work, for which the various metrics — which have since been adjusted a hair — were unflattering (-3 DRS, -5.8 UZR, -12 OA), particularly given that he had only about half a season in the field. Clemens observed that while Tatis has the ability to make spectacular plays, throwing errors were a particularly big problem that helped put him into the red: “[H]e’s taking essentially league average plays and chucking them into the stands.” While it’s far too early to get a read on Tatis via this year’s metrics, it’s at least worth noting that he has yet to make a single error, throwing or otherwise.

Monday brought a multitude of eye-catching Tatis-related headlines: he was named the NL Player of the Week (Frankie Montas earned AL honors, making it a tough day for White Sox fans), ESPN published a splashy feature on him by Jeff Passan, and Dominican MLB insider Hector Gomez reported the possibility of a long-term extension:

Tatis’ dad, of course, is Fernando Tatis, who played 11 years in the majors between 1997 and 2010 and is best remembered for hitting two grand slams in one inning on April 23, 1999. Tatis Jr. and the Padres both denied that such a thing was imminent, but Passan quoted the youngster as saying he wanted to stay in San Diego and earn a statue like Tony Gwynn.

Tatis has a ways to go before he earns a spot alongside Gwynn, or Mike Trout. But whatever gap existed between him and any other young, ascendant star such as Alonso, Bellinger, Lindor, Ronald Acuña Jr., Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman, Juan Soto — damn, there’s a hell of a lot of talent 27 or younger in today’s game — is closing fast.





Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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Lopsided Trades
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Lopsided Trades

2000s young (22 and under) phenom turned legend: Pujols
2010s: Trout (Harper honorable mention)
2020s: Soto/Tatis

Based on their success so far at such a young age, we are blessed with two legends in the making for the coming decade. I love baseball!

dcracker
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dcracker

Acuña wants a word.

sbf21
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sbf21

Acuna will get there when he does a little less showboating and a little more hustling.

That’s why I hate the references to bat flips and bat drops, etc. When that helps a team win a game, I’ll care. But the only time such displays make a difference are when a batter ends up on first base with a 400 foot single instead of at second or third because they were admiring their shot instead of running.

It adds nothing to my enjoyment of the game. One reason why I like Judge so much. He clobbers a ball and he runs around the bases.

Bartolo Cologne
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Bartolo Cologne

Nah. Your lack of “enjoyment” of someone’s personality doesn’t stop them from being a 5.6 WAR player as a 21-year-old.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

You left out Jason Heyward, Manny Machado, Carlos Correa, Corey Seager. Heck even Starlin Castro was a promising young player at one point. Success at that age does not translate to legitimate superstardom – just ask Bryce Harper. The most recent decade is a perfect example for you. Tons of young guys brought up early in the most favorable hitting environment of all-time and you have one on your list. Trout is kind of from another planet rather than being representative of anything – very old school and hard working as opposed to handed an opportunity and showboating. I am not aware of a showboat that ever really developed beyond the level which he entered the league. Was Miguel Cabrera not a young call-up as well?

Bartolo Cologne
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Bartolo Cologne

1) This is not the most favorable hitting environment of all time (hello, steroid era)
2) Trout is from another planet, but not for the reasons you presume. You have no clue how hard these professional athletes work, and to think you can gauge that by how much they enjoy a home run says much more about you than it does about them.
3) C’mon, there have been plenty of showboaters who have been phenomenal players: Reggie Jackson, Rickey Henderson, and David Ortiz are a few that come to mind. Pete Rose got the nickname “Charlie Hustle” as a pejorative dig because much of his “hustle” was for show. Babe Ruth was an infamous showboater (remember the calling of the shot? talk about arrogance). You might say the shot call is unverified, so here’s another story that is: In 1930, Babe Ruth signed a contract that paid him $80,000 a year. When Ruth was asked if he thought he deserved to be making more money than President Hoover, he said, “’Why not? I had a better year than he did.”
4) I highly recommend that you read the seminal baseball work, The Glory of Their Times, which is a collection of interviews with great players from the early days of baseball (1890s-1920s), including a number of HOFers. One of the themes throughout the book is how players from that era, in their older years (the interviews were done in the 1960s) were disappointed in how baseball had developed into a sanitized, corporate, and generally more boring sport. They reminisce about all the crazy characters, the wild antics, the daring plays, and the sometimes-sketchy gamesmanship that they thought made the sport special, and was largely lost by the 1960s. Your perspective really only reflects a very specific era of the game that defined it for an older but still alive generation, but isn’t an accurate portrayal of its longer-term history or its present.
5) I have a strong suspicion that watching baseball is going to become less fun for you over time, even as it becomes more fun, and relatable, to others.

sbf21
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sbf21

I’m very acquainted with the history of baseball. I grew up memorizing the backs of baseball cards as a kid.

I have no problem with flamboyant ballplayers and big personalities. I’m a Yankees fan after all. Reggie’s ego did cause a rift on the team when he was signed as a free agent (the whole “I’m the straw that stirs the drink” thing) but he busted it when he was playing the game. His ego was too big to make a fool out of himself the way Acuna has on multiple occasions. Rickey absolutely did dog it his last year in pinstripes but even that was because he simply got tired of playing for the Yankees, not because was was narcissistically styling.

All of you who gave me a thumbs down must have forgotten that Acuna was benched mid-game last August by his own manager for not running out a “home run” (that turned into a single). And you must have forgotten that he apologized and promised that he learned his lesson and would never let his team down again only to do the exact same thing in a playoff game a couple of months later in October against the Cardinals. Which led his own teammate, Freddie Freeman, to call him out after the game.

“It’s frustrating. I think you have that conversation once. Kinda beat a dead horse if you keep having that same conversation over and over again. That can’t happen in the playoffs. That can’t happen in the regular season.”

So has he learned? You tell me. Last week he hit his first HR of the year in a blowout game against the Mets. He’s hitting .184 and leads the league with 19 K’s. So he does a stutter-step dance around the bases and then comes out for a curtain call in an empty stadium. In a blowout game where the run was meaningless. What a sad pathetic display.

Acuna is a marvelous talent. He just doesn’t honor that talent or show respect to his teammates or the game of baseball. I’m not surprised by the thumbs down. Style has won out over substance with much of the public.

Ralph Rowdie
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Ralph Rowdie

When you realize your arguments about “showboating” and “respecting the game” are couched racist ideals then you will realize why you are receiving downvotes.

sbf21
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sbf21

What a bunch of bullshit. Playing hard and not being selfish in a way that hurts your team has nothing to do with the color of your skin.

As I said, Reggie Jackson played with a huge ego and he never embarrassed himself the way Acuna has. Willie Mays played with great flour and he always hustled. Hank Aaron and Frank Robinson to say nothing of Jackie Robinson always played with an edge to their game. As noted already, Juan Soto and Aaron Judge play the game the right way. Derek Jeter always played hard.

If you think that giving 100 percent effort or expecting it from extremely well paid players is racist then I’ll suggest that you are operating with a severely impaired mind.

Ralph Rowdie
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Ralph Rowdie

I’d counter he’s played pretty damn hard to get to where he is and has helped his team win far more than he has hurt them since he’s been in Atlanta.

He just hasn’t done it in a way you find appealing.

sbf21
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sbf21

And I suppose that Braves manager Snicker and Freddie Freeman and Ozzie Albies are also harboring racist ideals for calling him to account.

Bartolo Cologne
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Bartolo Cologne

I just want to be clear, sbf21, that my second response was meant for RonnieDobs and not for you. I think the two of you are making different arguments, both of which I disagree with, but yours is an argument I can at least respectfully engage on, whereas RonnieDobs’ argument is not. That guy needs a major reality check on multiple fronts.

Basically, my point to you is two-fold:
1) While I think there is something to be said for the importance of hustle, turning a double into a single twice over 162+ games in which a player was cumulatively worth 5.6 WAR is not enough to move the needle on how great they are or how important their value to a team is. If he continues his career at the pace he’s at and plays 15+ seasons, he will be a HOFer with 20-odd doubles less than he should have. He’s had a slow start this year, but it’s a tiny sample size in the weirdest season of all time—we can’t draw any conclusions from it. I think the Braves are sleeping just fine.

2) Just because someone is exuberant and showboats and does bat flips does not mean that they don’t play the game hard or “the right way”. I think Tatis is actually a good example of this. He plays with a ton of flair and personality, and he succeeds at wild plays that basically no one has any business even trying, and he pimps his moonshots, but he does all of that while absolutely busting his butt out there and giving 100%. Not only that, he has already shown in his young career that he is learning from his mistakes and getting better (if you watched his SS defense last year and this year, it is much cleaner and crisper now, and he’s also clearly learned the importance of sometimes eating a throw instead of throwing it away). There is a cohort of mostly older, white fans that have a very narrow view of what qualifies as “correct” play and have been rubbed the wrong way in recent years by mostly foreign, black, and latino players that don’t fit their ideal. For now, I’m more than willing to chalk up a couple of overly-confident mistakes to Acuna becoming an overnight superstar at 21 years old, if it means that he’s putting up sensational numbers while bringing a unique, dynamic, and fun personality to a game that has had too little of that for too long.

sbf21
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sbf21

Thanks for the clarification.

Regarding Acuna, it isn’t only twice but I agree that he’s an exceptional ballplayer. I’d like to be able to root for him, I just can’t. I will if he cleans up his act and grows up a bit. If he never changes I would agree with and support his election to the HOF.. And I would still say that he was a selfish me-first player.

Improving his physical game does require hard work but it’s obviously easier for him to do that than the really hard work of changing his attitude.

I love Tatis, Jr. Haven’t seen much of him but I do root for this youngster. He has amazing potential and while I will never like bat flips, I haven’t seen him stop and pose or, more importantly, cost his team. Exuberance is fine. It can be wonderful. Who played with more exuberance than Junior Griffey? Even though he sent daggers into my heart as a Yankees fan (especially in 1995) it was impossible not to love the guy (Ok… love/hate.) I even got over his wearing his cap backwards pretty quick.

Ralph Rowdie
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Ralph Rowdie

My apologies, racist was not the correct term for me to initially use. Nationalistic would have been a better one. Though my use of the term had nothing with taking Acuña to task for a couple mistakes and had everything to do with the way players are often described. See below:

https://www.theatlantic.com/entertainment/archive/2012/08/how-mlb-announcers-favor-american-players-over-foreign-ones/261265/

Antonio Bananas
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Antonio Bananas

Acuna is more dynamic than Soto. Acuna’s top speed is elite. Soto’s bat has to be a lot better than Acuna’s to make up that difference.

carter
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carter

I would say that it is.

sbf21
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sbf21

I would take Soto over Acuna 100 times out of 100 chances.