Fernando Tatis Jr. Has a Clear Shot at Cooperstown

Fernando Tatis Jr. has agreed to the longest contract in baseball history, and one of the most lucrative — and yet looking at the jaw-dropping ZiPS projection for his career, his 14-year, $340 million deal might be underselling him. At the very least, Tatis’ contract and his production to date cast him as a generational talent, and his forecast suggests he’ll wind up ranking among history’s great shortstops. While it’s hard to believe that a player with only two partial years in the majors has a leg up on a berth in the Hall of Fame, the statistical history of players who’ve done what he’s done at such a young age suggests that it’s true: Tatis is already soaring towards Cooperstown.

Or if you prefer, stylishly shimmying there:

The skeptic in all of us may be saying, “Whoa, let’s pump the brakes on this kind of talk,” but it’s the Padres who have placed the bet on a Mookie Betts-like impact over the course of well over a decade, and looking at the comparisons and the company he’s keeping once we crunch the numbers, it’s tough to disagree. Nothing is guaranteed, least of all a player’s spot in the Hall of Fame a quarter-century from now, but the odds of him fulfilling that promise are substantial.

Regarding the Hall, consider first the baselines set by a player arriving in the majors at an early age. Repeating a study I did in relation to Ronald Acuña Jr. in 2018 (only this time catching a glitch in my accounting relating to 19th century players), I used Baseball-Reference’s Stathead to track the rates at which position players who made at least one plate appearance in their age-18 through 21 seasons reached the Hall:

HOF Rates, Position Players, Ages 18-21
Age 1 PA Active Not Yet Elig. Hall of Fame %
18 125 0 1 10 8.1%
19 338 6 3 30 9.1%
20 775 33 8 64 8.7%
21 1601 98 32 107 7.3%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

After removing the active and not-yet-eligible players from the total, we find that nearly one out of every 12 players who made at least one PA in their age-18 seasons are enshrined; the total has increased since I last ran this study thanks to the election of Ted Simmons via the 2020 Modern Baseball Era Committee ballot. Nearly one out of every 11 has made it from the age-19 group, and so on. The majority of the position players elected in the past decade debuted during this age window: Ken Griffey Jr., Tim Raines, Ivan Rodriguez, and Modern Baseball pick Alan Trammell in their age-19 seasons (though Raines didn’t get his first PA until age 20); Ron Santo and Jim Thome in their age-20 seasons; and Vladimir Guerrero, Derek Jeter, and Chipper Jones in their age-21 seasons. Meanwhile, Craig Biggio, Barry Larkin, Frank Thomas, and Larry Walker all debuted in their age-22 seasons, with Jeff Bagwell (age-23) and Edgar Martinez (age-24) the stragglers.

By raising the bar for those seasons from one PA to 100, the rates of enshrinement roughly double, and by going from one PA to 250 PA, they roughly triple:

HOF Rates, Qualified Position Players, Ages 18-21
Age 100 PA Active Not Yet Elig. Hall of Fame %
18 17 0 0 3 18.8%
19 87 5 3 16 20.3%
20 274 20 4 42 16.8%
21 699 59 18 88 14.1%
Age 250 PA Active Not Yet HOF %
18 5 0 0 1 20.0%
19 37 2 0 11 31.4%
20 151 17 4 33 25.4%
21 410 30 8 71 19.1%
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

I used 250 PA as my top cutoff because that’s the bar that Tatis has cleared in his two abbreviated seasons. Even without knowing anything of his performance other than his level of major league playing time at age 20, we can estimate that he’s got about a 25% chance of enshrinement.

Ah, but that performance is something special, with numbers that jump off the page the way the ball jumps off his bat. While Tatis was limited to 84 games in 2019 due to a stress reaction in his back, and 59 last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic, his total playing time is close enough to a season’s worth that we can treat it as such for the purposes of fun and games. To date, he’s played 143 games, taken 629 PA, and hit .301/.374/.582 with 39 homers, a 154 OPS+ and 7.0 bWAR (6.5 fWAR and 150 wRC+, but as I’m heading into JAWS territory, I’ll stick with B-Ref stats except where noted). First, to reiterate a point that Ben Clemens made in his initial evaluation of Tatis’ contract, just consider the company he’s keeping with that offense through age 21:

Top Hitters Through Age 21 Since 1901
Rk Player Years PA BA OBP SLG OPS+
1 Mike Trout* 2011-2013 1490 .314 .404 .544 166
2 Ted Williams+ 1939-1940 1338 .336 .439 .601 161
3 Albert Pujols* 2001 676 .329 .403 .610 157
4 Jimmie Foxx+ 1925-1929 1302 .342 .436 .579 157
5 Rogers Hornsby+ 1915-1917 1200 .316 .372 .455 155
6 Fernando Tatis Jr.* 2019-2020 629 .301 .374 .582 154
7 Ty Cobb+ 1905-1908 1836 .324 .362 .440 153
8 Juan Soto* 2018-2020 1349 .295 .415 .557 151
9 Hal Trosky 1933-1934 732 .327 .385 .590 148
10 Mel Ott+ 1926-1930 2064 .331 .428 .558 146
11 Mickey Mantle+ 1951-1953 1552 .295 .384 .497 145
12 Eddie Mathews+ 1952-1953 1274 .274 .366 .541 145
13 Frank Robinson+ 1956-1957 1345 .307 .378 .543 139
14 Ken Griffey Jr.+ 1989-1991 1805 .299 .367 .479 135
15 Tris Speaker+ 1907-1909 755 .290 .341 .406 134
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
Minimum 600 plate appearances. + = Hall of Famer. * = Active.

Mercy. Those are some of the greatest hitters in history. Ten are already in the Hall of Fame and at least two more (Trout and Pujols) will be someday, leaving Tatis, Soto, and the one clear obscurity, Trosky, a slugging first baseman who still wound up with a 130 OPS+ in a substantial career (5,750 PA) that was shortened by persistent migraines.

And now, let’s bring position and defense into the equation with a look at the top 21-and-under seasons from shortstops via bWAR:

Top 21 and Under Seasons by Shortstops
Rk Player Tm Year Age G PA BA OBP SLG OPS+ WAR
1 Rogers Hornsby+ STL 1917 21 145 589 .327 .385 .484 169 9.9
2 Alex Rodriguez SEA 1996 20 146 677 .358 .414 .631 161 9.4
3 Carlos Correa* HOU 2016 21 153 660 .274 .361 .451 124 7.0
NR Fernando Tatis Jr.* SDP TOT 21 143 699 .301 .374 .582 153 7.0
4 Arky Vaughan+ PIT 1933 21 152 655 .314 .388 .478 146 6.8
5 Donie Bush DET 1909 21 157 678 .273 .380 .314 115 6.5
6 Alex Rodriguez SEA 1997 21 141 638 .300 .350 .496 120 5.7
7 Carlos Correa* HOU 2015 20 99 432 .279 .345 .512 135 4.8
8 Cal Ripken Jr.+ BAL 1982 21 160 655 .264 .317 .475 115 4.7
9T Jim Fregosi LAA 1963 21 154 642 .287 .325 .422 114 4.3
John McGraw BLN 1893 20 127 597 .321 .454 .413 130 4.3
11 Fernando Tatis Jr.* SDP 2019 20 84 372 .317 .379 .590 154 4.1
12T Francisco Lindor* CLE 2015 21 99 438 .313 .353 .482 121 4.0
Travis Jackson+ NYG 1924 20 151 633 .302 .326 .428 102 4.0
14 Arky Vaughan+ PIT 1932 20 129 555 .318 .375 .412 114 3.8
15 Garry Templeton STL 1977 21 153 644 .322 .336 .449 110 3.7
16 Elvis Andrus* TEX 2009 20 145 541 .267 .329 .373 82 3.6
17 Joe Tinker+ CHC 1902 21 133 545 .263 .300 .333 99 3.5
18 Robin Yount+ MIL 1977 21 154 663 .288 .333 .377 94 3.4
19 Buddy Kerr NYG 1944 21 150 598 .266 .316 .387 98 3.3
20T Starlin Castro* CHC 2011 21 158 715 .307 .341 .432 111 3.2
Edgar Renteria FLA 1996 19 106 471 .309 .358 .399 103 3.2
22T Fernando Tatis Jr.* SDP 2020 21 59 257 .277 .366 .571 155 2.8
Alan Trammell+ DET 1978 20 139 504 .268 .335 .339 89 2.8
24T Mike Caruso CHW 1998 21 133 555 .306 .331 .390 90 2.7
Rance Mulliniks CAL 1977 21 78 303 .269 .329 .365 93 2.7
Chris Speier SFG 1971 21 157 670 .235 .307 .323 80 2.7
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer. * = active

Even without accounting for the fact that his two seasons were significantly truncated, Tatis cracks the leaderboard twice, and with two of the shortest seasons on here; I extended down to number 25 in part to capture Mulliniks, both because his rookie season was shorter than that of Tatis and because I saw the guy play at Salt Lake City with some frequency in 1978 and ’79; Angels general manager Buzzie Bavasi didn’t trust anyone under 30 and was intent on trading away a boatload of talent and/or blocking it with over-the-hill veterans to avoid it (a story for another day lest I go off on a 3,000 word tangent).

Anyway, that’s eight seasons by Hall of Famers from among the top 25, which may not sound impressive at first, but consider that nine of the other seasons — two apiece by Correa, Lindor, Rodriguez, and Tatis plus one by Andrus — are from players who are either active or not yet eligible for Hall consideration; A-Rod will be on the 2022 ballot. McGraw is in the Hall of Fame too, but as a manager, though given what he’d done as a player (44.0 WAR through age 28 despite missing about a season’s worth of time at 24 and 25 due to malaria and typhoid fever), he was good enough to wind up there on his merits had he not stopped playing regularly upon jumping to the Giants in 1902, his age-29 season. So that’s eight out of 15 qualifying seasons from Hall of Famers, seven out of 14 if we don’t count Vaughan twice, and seven of the top 11 if we draw the line before Rance and pals. More to the point, if we quite reasonably scotch-tape Tatis’ two partial seasons together and consider only the upper echelons of that list, we find that only Hornsby, Rodriguez, Correa, Vaughan, Bush, and Ripken — three Hall of Famers plus a Hall-caliber player with the common sense that God gave a sack of doorknobs among them — are in the same ballpark.

That’s a pretty small sample of players, though, so it’s helpful to approach the matter from another angle. Instead, we’ll consider the production of all position players through their age-21 seasons. Tatis’s 7.0 WAR is merely tied with Bush for 39th, but that’s a product of playing time. Using FanGraphs WAR and limiting the group to post-1960 expansion era players, Alex Chamberlain illustrated this well on Wednesday night, shortly after news of Tatis’ extension broke:

Tatis is in the picture despite having less than half the playing time of the majority of the players above him. Yet even before accounting for that impediment, he’s in impressive company.

Turning back to bWAR, of the 40 players with at least 7.0 through age 21, 17 are enshrined, but since Tatis barely makes that cutoff, and since several of those players aren’t yet eligible, that’s not the clearest picture. Rejiggering and expanding the list, 31 out of 61 eligible players with at least 5.0 WAR through age 21 are enshrined, just over half. But since the top nine guys, all with 13.3 WAR or greater, aren’t really that similar to Tatis given their advantages in playing time — list-topper Mel Ott had 2,064 PA by that point, nearly three times as many as our bat-flipping prodigy – it would be more accurate to say that 22 out of 52 (42%) with 5.0 to 12.5 WAR through age 21 are enshrined. That group, incidentally, averaged 7.2 WAR to that point, placing Tatis closer to the center.

Trimming the list further still, among the players from that group with 1,000 PA or fewer through age 21, we get this:

Highest WAR Through Age-21 Season, Fewer Than 1,000 PA
Rk Player Years G PA WAR
1T Donie Bush 1908-1909 177 759 7.0
Fernando Tatis Jr. 1912-1914 143 629 7.0
3 Ray Schalk+ 1912-1914 288 981 6.7
4 Mike Tiernan 1887-1888 216 934 6.5
5T Jake Beckley+ 1888-1889 194 849 6.5
Tris Speaker+ 1907-1909 181 755 6.3
7 Tom Brunansky 1981-1982 138 586 6.1
8T Whitey Lockman 1945-1948 180 809 6.0
Stan Musial+ 1941-1942 152 585 6.0
10 Hal Trosky 1933-1934 165 732 5.7
11T Lew Brown 1876-1879 220 930 5.5
Joe Morgan+ 1963-1965 175 781 5.5
13 King Kelly+ 1878-1879 137 597 5.4
14T Frank Snyder 1912-1915 262 919 5.2
Joe Torre 1960-1962 195 691 5.2
Cap Anson+ 1871-1873 123 614 5.2
17 Willie Mays+ 1951-1952 155 668 5.1
18 Ned Williamson 1878-1879 143 599 5.0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer.

That’s eight out of 17 players who wound up in the Hall, plus a ninth if you count Torre, who quite reasonably could have been elected as a player before he was feted as a manager. This time, we’re probably understating Tatis’ case, as he’s tied with Bush for the highest WAR of the group, which averages 5.8 WAR. We’re also talking about a lot of ancient guys including Anson, which is to say that we’re reaching back to the very dawn of major league history, but let’s leave that issue aside for the moment and try a different approach, prorating each player’s WAR to 650 PA:

Highest WAR Per 650 PA Through Age 21
Rk Player Years G PA WAR WAR/650
1 Mike Trout* 2011-2013 336 1490 19.9 8.7
2 Rogers Hornsby+ 1915-1917 302 1200 14.4 7.8
3 Fernando Tatis Jr.* 2019-2020 143 629 7.0 7.2
4 Carlos Correa* 2015-2016 252 1092 11.8 7.0
5 Jimmie Foxx+ 1925-1929 364 1302 13.9 6.9
6 Tom Brunansky 1981-1982 138 586 6.1 6.8
7 Stan Musial+ 1941-1942 152 585 6.0 6.7
8 Frank Robinson+ 1956-1957 302 1345 13.4 6.5
9 Ted Williams+ 1939-1940 293 1338 13.3 6.5
10 Albert Pujols* 2001-2001 161 676 6.6 6.3
11 Alex Rodriguez* 1994-1997 352 1523 14.4 6.1
12 Donie Bush 1908-1909 177 759 7.0 6.0
13 King Kelly+ 1878-1879 137 597 5.4 5.9
14 Andruw Jones 1996-1998 343 1211 10.9 5.9
15 Mickey Mantle+ 1951-1953 365 1552 13.6 5.7
16 Arky Vaughan+ 1932-1933 281 1210 10.6 5.7
17 Ken Griffey Jr.+ 1989-1991 436 1805 15.6 5.6
18 Ty Cobb+ 1905-1908 439 1836 15.7 5.6
19 Mel Ott+ 1926-1930 539 2064 17.5 5.5
20 Cap Anson+ 1871-1873 123 614 5.2 5.5
21 Ned Williamson 1878-1879 143 599 5.0 5.4
22 Tris Speaker+ 1907-1909 181 755 6.3 5.4
23 Johnny Bench+ 1967-1969 328 1292 10.7 5.4
24 Eddie Mathews+ 1952-1953 302 1274 10.5 5.4
25 Ronald Acuna Jr.* 2018-2019 267 1202 9.9 5.4
26 Al Kaline+ 1953-1956 473 1939 15.7 5.3
27 Vada Pinson 1958-1960 335 1523 12.3 5.2
28 Hal Trosky 1933-1934 165 732 5.7 5.1
29 Jason Heyward* 2010-2011 270 1079 8.4 5.1
30 Manny Machado* 2012-2014 289 1266 9.7 5.0
31 Jake Beckley+ 1888-1889 194 849 6.5 5.0
32 Willie Mays+ 1951-1952 155 668 5.1 5.0
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
+ = Hall of Famer. * = active

Yowzah. Of those 32 players, 18 are enshrined, six are eligible but not enshrined, and eight, including Tatis, Trout, and Correa from among the top five, are not yet eligible. It’s true that the six outsiders tended towards the lower end of the playing time spectrum to that point, with four having 759 PA or fewer; that subgroup averaged 902 PA to the Hall of Famers’ 1,235 PA through age 21. The problem comes out in the wash to some degree if we limit the group to integration era players (1947 onward), as two of the three remaining outsiders (compared to seven enshrinees) are Jones, who may yet be elected, and Pinson, both of whom had over 1,200 PA, leaving Brunansky — another ex-Angel whom I saw at Salt Lake City before he was traded away by Bavasi — as the cautionary tale.

So, at the very least 18 of the top 24 eligible players in prorated WAR through age 21 have made the Hall of Fame. If we consider Pujols and Trout as automatic given their current JAWS standings (second among first basemen in the case of the former, fifth among center fielders in that of the latter), A-Rod as a definite no (which may be overstating the case, because never is a long time) due to his PED usage, and Heyward as a no because of his fade to league average performance over the past five seasons (8.6 WAR), that would be 20 of 28 (71%), with the jury still out on Acuña, Correa, and Machado as well as Tatis. If we instead consider only the post-integration players, that’s seven out of 10 plus Trout and Pujols on one side, and A-Rod and Heyward on the other, or nine out of 14 (64%). On this basis, it’s not unreasonable to suggest that about two-thirds of the players who have done what Tatis has done through age 21 wind up enshrined.

As noted, Tatis’ ZiPS projection separately makes the case for the player being on the path to Cooperstown. Even without reaching 600 PA in any season, and with subpar (but hardly Jeter-esque) defense, he forecasts to produce a string of half a dozen six-win seasons from ages 24 to 29, bookended by some five-win ones. If he were to live up to that projection, then through his age-35 season he’d have 73.9 career WAR, 42.5 peak WAR, and 58.2 JAWS, the last of which would place him 10th all-time among shortstops, between Ozzie Smith and Trammell. By then it’s entirely possible that some of his contemporaries — Lindor, Correa, Corey Seager, Trevor Story — will be in the picture as well, and that Tatis will still have something left in the tank to climb even higher. I hope we get to see that.

On the face of it, evaluating the Hall of Fame prospects of a player who’s not going to wind up on the dais for 20 or 25 years is a ridiculous enterprise. I can’t say that I like doing the math on how old I’ll be if and when this comes to pass; this is looking down the barrel of my own mortality, a heavy thought for any gray mid-February day, let alone one in the midst of a pandemic. The fun of it is that we actually get to watch and enjoy Tatis, as exciting a player as the game currently has, and one with an incredibly bright future ahead of him. Let’s marvel at his trajectory as he soars.





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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tomerafan
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tomerafan

I’m sorry, but the hyperbole is now out of control.

He has 143 games under his belt, 59 of which were largely against teams in their own division, under playing conditions that have literally never existed before in baseball history.

He also posted a .200/.300/.400 triple slash over his last 100 PA and gave away the MVP award. I’m not too concerned about those 100 PA… it’s a small sample… but it’s 15% of his career.

He’s never had to sustain over 162 games. He’s never had to compete through the dog days of summer after starting spring training in February. And so forth and so on.

I think he is a true generational talent, and I think the odds are high that he is one of the best for a long time if he stays healthy. But the conditions under which he has done this are unprecedented in baseball history, and comparing him to other age 21 phenoms is a small enough sample size to begin with. Let’s pump the breaks if only for the fact that I don’t want his 130 or 140 wRC+ season someday to feel like a massive disappointment.

Sorry to be a dampener but this has been building inside me for the last 24 hours…

Glevin
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Glevin

The article doesn’t say he’s going to be one of the few best players ever, just that his numbers so far put him among elite company and I find that interesting. Also, is there any evidence that hitters do worse over a full season than they do for 3 month periods? I can see it for pitchers. Being able to go more innings is a challenge but for position players? I don’t think a “long season” would make a difference. A 21 year old with a career 154 WRC+ and 7+ WAR is absolutely incredible and should be celebrated IMO.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

Celebrated? Absolutely.

Among elite company? Absolutely?

But come on, the post builds towards a suggestion that 2/3 of his “peers” by age are Hall of Famers. On an analytics website, there’s a whole lot of reason to note what a small sample size he’s in and the unique playing conditions of a giant chunk of his first 150 games. He’s basically had a full rookie season, spread over two years, one of which was under pandemic playing conditions where we’re not sure how predictive it is.

I guess I thought Fangraphs was above hyperbole like this. I expect it from plenty of other places, but not here. There was a time when Fangraphs lead story today would have been “Hold on Internet, Tatis is AMAZING and what he’s done this far is rarified, but there’s a whole lot of data points to consider before we crown him.” There was a time when Fangraphs would have been the break-pumper instead of adding more helium. I guess I miss those days, not because I’m trying to be negative, but because the pursuit of deeper analytics is all about break-pumping when required.

I’m not criticizing Tatis; I’m stating an opinion.

jcutiger
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jcutiger

How is this hyperbole? He’s started on the path to the HoF. Might not make, but he’s got a solid start towards.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

“Clear shot at Cooperstown”
“Soaring towards Cooperstown”

Maybe you and I have different opinions on what those words mean, and that’s fine. I’m fine calling it hyperbole.

The article notes:
Even without knowing anything of his performance other than his level of major league playing time at age 20, we can estimate that he’s got about a 25% chance of enshrinement.

Over 15,000 players have worn a major league uniform. We’re looking at a 25% HOF rate on 150 batters who’ve started their career early and using that sample size on an analytics based website to “estimate that he’s got about a 25% chance of enshrinement”?

Bryz
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How is that wrong? Teams generally don’t give that much playing time to a player that young unless they’re already incredibly good or expected to be incredibly good.

Also, the small sample size argument is more valid when we can actually achieve a sufficiently large sample. Whether it’s UZR, BABIP, etc., we know to be wary of small sample sizes because we already have the information of what happens when the sample size gets larger, and it typically takes a couple years at most to know the true level. When it comes to 20-year olds making it to Cooperstown, we don’t know what’s a sufficiently large sample and we may never will. We currently have a sample from over 100 years of baseball, so we’re all going to be long dead before we find out the true probability that a 20-year old with 250 career plate appearances will make the HoF.

I’d also like to point out that since Jay said “we can estimate,” he’s already showing that the 25% isn’t gospel, but it’s the information we currently have. Besides, a 75% chance of not being a Hall of Famer just based on playing time is a lot! We all know that he could suffer a career-ending injury or might experience a steeper talent decline than expected. Does that need to be pointed out literally every time we discuss a generational talent, or can we admit that it’s okay for it to be implied?

Frankly, I think you’re getting way too bent out of shape over what was meant to be a fun thought exercise.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

Not bent out of shape at all. Just have a different opinion than you.

Bryz
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You’ve commented 8 times out of (after I post) 36 total comments, all basically saying the exact same message, and have tallied a net of 0 likes.

I rest my case.

tomerafan
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tomerafan

Your comments imply that my only reasons for commenting would be to vent or to search for “likes.” I find no value in either on the Internet, though like most humans I slip and vent from time to time and regret it.

I post to express my opinions, usually to challenge my own assumptions and thoughts (which inevitably makes them better) and/or to express a point of view that others may not have considered.

Sabometrics
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Sabometrics

Its more like a feeling

jacob2
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jacob2

There’s no inherent advantage or disadvantage to the short season, it’s just that statistically you’re going to have a higher likelihood that he performs above or below his “true” talent. So we can’t say the short season definitely helped him, but the small sample made it more likely that he’d have a deviation from his true talent, whatever it is. For all we know, he would have done better if he had a couple more months to play. Or maybe he would have kept fading down the stretch. We don’t get to know.