Fernando Tatis Jr.’s Defensive Rebirth Paints Path to MVP Future

Fernando Tatis Jr
Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

If I have one criticism of Shohei Ohtani, it’s that he has singlehandedly ruined baseball’s great parlor discussions. Admittedly, this is the only valid criticism of Ohtani that I can think of. But questions like “Which player would you want to start a franchise with?” or “Who’s the most talented ballplayer you’ve ever seen?” are so much less fun now than they were a decade ago. First person to answer just says, “Ohtani,” and there’s a brief but grave silence until someone pipes up and asks if anyone is watching the new season of Billions.

Setting Ohtani aside, Fernando Tatis Jr. would be on my short list of most talented or dynamic baseball players I’ve had the good fortune to witness. In the past, I’d compared his physicality to that of a 3–4 outside linebacker, but watching him scramble around the diamond is like watching an alien who’s holding something in reserve so he doesn’t get outed by the humans. If that is his goal, Tatis is not doing a great job of blending in.

When Tatis returned from his injury- and suspension-enforced absence, he found Xander Bogaerts playing shortstop for a team that already had more shortstops than it could use. When it became clear that Tatis was bound for the outfield, likely permanently, I felt no small measure of sadness. That’s not to say that he was a good shortstop. As a rookie, he had the worst fielding percentage and second-worst defensive WAR of any of the 27 players who spent more than 700 innings at the position. He made some defensive strides in 2020, and if his ’21 season hadn’t been partially derailed by a shoulder injury that forced the move to the outfield, then the PED suspension, then Bogaerts, and so on, maybe experience would have molded him into a spectacular defensive shortstop.

But there is a silver lining to this: the physical gifts that made Tatis such a tantalizing shortstop have already turned him into an exceptional defensive outfielder. Obviously that was going to be the case; this is one of the fastest players in baseball with one of the strongest throwing arms and zero compunction about flinging himself around the field in pursuit of a batted ball. And a move to the outfield would give him more time to react to the ball off the bat and reduce the complexity of the plays he’d have to make. If it comes down to running, catching, and throwing, almost nobody does any of those things better than Tatis.

The Athletic’s Padres beat writer, Dennis Lin, posed this question two months ago, basically as soon as it became reasonable to wonder out loud: “Is Fernando Tatis Jr. already the best defensive right fielder in baseball?” Padres manager Bob Melvin compared Tatis, who at the time had about 70 career professional starts in right field, to Ichiro Suzuki and Mookie Betts.

Tatis has the spectacular pretty much under control. He has had nine opportunities to catch what Baseball Savant calls a four-star fly ball, or one that has a catch probability between 26% and 50%. He’s hauled in eight of them. Out of 93 outfielders on Baseball Savant’s catch probability leaderboard, the only one with a higher ratio on such catches is Cody Bellinger, who’s had only two four-star attempts playing most of his games in tiny Wrigley Field. But the routine, or the slightly-more-difficult-than-routine, is what dogged Tatis when he was on the dirt. That’s no longer the case. On fly balls with a catch probability between 26% and 95%, Tatis is 49-for-52. Only Bellinger, by a third of a percentage point, has a better catch ratio on those plays.

Exactly 100 players show up on all three of Baseball Savant’s leaderboards for sprint speed, outfield arm strength, and outfield jump. Tatis is one of just four outfielders in the top 20 in all three categories, plus OAA.

The Most Freakishly Toolsy Outfielders
Player Arm Rank Sprint Speed Rank Feet vs. Avg Rank OAA Rank
Blake Perkins 92.2 14 30 2 2.7 4 5 12
Fernando Tatis Jr. 96.3 1 29.3 10 1.7 15 10 2
Julio Rodríguez 91.9 17 29.6 6 1.4 20 11 1
Kevin Kiermaier 93.2 7 28.9 20 3.4 1 6 7
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Through 8/14

He’s keeping good company; Rodríguez leads all outfielders in OAA this season, and Kiermaier is one of the best defenders of his generation.

Here’s the fun part: Tatis has speed and arm strength the likes of which few other outfielders can match, but after a little rummage around in the numbers, it seems like he’s still a little raw. As good as he is now, he could get better.

Baseball Savant breaks outfield jump into two components: reaction, which is distance covered in the first 1.5 seconds after the ball is hit; and burst, which is distance covered in the 1.5 seconds after that. Tatis is top-10 in burst but merely average in both reaction distance and route efficiency. Even being average after playing less than a season of outfield in the pros is pretty impressive, but if Tatis wants to, he could probably squeeze another few feet of range out of his physical gifts by refining his outfield play.

There’s also the potential of an eventual move to center field. Tatis would probably be playing there already if the Padres didn’t already have a pretty good center fielder in Trent Grisham. (If Tatis is Betts, Grisham is Jackie Bradley Jr. in this metaphor.)

Tatis is already the only corner outfielder in the top 10 in OAA. The only corner outfielders ahead of him in sprint speed are Perkins and the Arizona duo of Jake McCarthy and Corbin Carroll, both of whom are in the bottom five in max arm strength. Tatis is 15th in outfield jump, behind 10 center fielders, Perkins, Isiah Kiner-Falefa, Seiya Suzuki, and Jake Fraley. There is no doubt in my mind that if Grisham ever leaves the Padres, Tatis would be a superb defensive center fielder.

When the Padres tried to corner the market on shortstops, my big question regarding Tatis was whether his defensive ability would be wasted in an outfield corner; it’s possible to generate real defensive value there, but exceedingly difficult. It seems he is one of the few players with that ability.

The only question now is whether his bat returns to pre-suspension form. (The best compliment I can give Tatis is that he’s such a good all-around player that I’m going to rag on him a little for his offensive production when he has a 115 wRC+ and an outside shot at going 30–30.) From 2019 to ’21, he was one of the best hitters in baseball at any position. This year, he’s been merely above-average. He’s still giving the Padres better offensive production than your garden variety right fielder, but in the first three seasons of his career, he was the best offensive shortstop in baseball by a gigantic margin. That isn’t the case this season.

Tatis wRC+ vs. Positional Averages
Position SS CF RF
Year Tatis League Avg. Rank League Avg. Rank League Avg. Rank
2021 157 97 1st of 26 94 1st of 13 104 3rd of 23
2023 115 93 T-6 of 20 102 7 of 16 104 9 of 18

There are plenty of reasons to hope for an offensive rebound to that 150 wRC+ level. Tatis is coming off a season that featured a motorcycle crash, multiple surgeries, and no meaningful games played. His xwOBA is 45 points lower than his wOBA, which is the fifth-biggest negative discrepancy among 269 hitters with at least 2.1 plate appearances per team game. So a lot of this could be rust and/or bad batted ball luck. It’s also worth bearing in mind that Tatis is still only 24, or in other words, six weeks older than Heston Kjerstad.

Even after everything he’s been through, self-inflicted and otherwise, Tatis is one of the few players with the potential to be among the best in the game on both sides of the ball. And when that potential comes through, just ask Betts or Mike Trout; an MVP award usually follows.

Michael is a writer at FanGraphs. Previously, he was a staff writer at The Ringer and D1Baseball, and his work has appeared at Grantland, Baseball Prospectus, The Atlantic, ESPN.com, and various ill-remembered Phillies blogs. Follow him on Twitter, if you must, @MichaelBaumann.

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9 months ago

Looks like his power is down across the board (ISO, EV, hard-hit%). I would guess that’s not coincidental, coming after he was busted for PEDs.

Raphie Cantormember
9 months ago
Reply to  snapper

He had two major surgeries on his shoulder and wrist, known for zapping power in comeback seasons (see Semien, Bellinger) and never used PEDs while playing. His .536 xSLG is 15th in baseball. If you read the article, he’s had bad batted ball luck. So, no, that’s not why.

9 months ago
Reply to  Raphie Cantor

So, PEDs don’t work, but players keep using them despite harsh penalties? That doesn’t pass the smell test.

9 months ago
Reply to  snapper

Logically speaking he likely used it to try to hide his embarrassing injury from the padres/come back quicker from injury. It obviously wasn’t the first time he was tested. It is true the quality of contact isn’t fully back, it’s been reported he’s been seen icing his shoulder. I wouldn’t at all be surprised if he had the acuna 2023 year next year

9 months ago
Reply to  snapper

Most PEDs that players are caught with nowadays help speed recovery from injuries. And that’s important, since most players are injured in some fashion most of the time.

9 months ago
Reply to  Raphie Cantor

Pretty naive to categorically state a guy that got caught must have never used before getting caught. It’s probably impossible to tell what effect the use (and I guess presumed non-use now) of PED have had. Pretending to know, and pretending that it must have been zero is just a wild thing to believe.

9 months ago
Reply to  Raphie Cantor

What do you mean, never used them while playing? Do you mean, was never caught using them while playing?

9 months ago
Reply to  Raphie Cantor

There’s also the theory that his old swing is what was causing his injuries. I don’t think you can safely just assume he’ll return to his previous level of offensive production, like this article does. This may be what Tatis Jr. is now.

9 months ago
Reply to  snapper

The ISO can be explained via GB%. He’s added ~6% of GB rate while also decreasing his pull rate by ~3%. That will drag on your ISO pretty hard regardless of who you are. His “Best Speed” (average EV of top 50% of BBE) is still 15th in the league this year, but about 2.5 MPH off of 2021.

It is very hard to separate his severe injuries — that, as noted elsewhere, have a very direct correlation to power decreases — from any potential benefits of his PED usage.

Baseball players are (almost) all 1) not chemists, biologists, biomechanical experts or data analysts 2) somewhat superstitious and 3) not risk averse when it comes to taking chances to improve their outcomes. The rate of PED usage amongst that group isn’t going to tell me a lot about the actual effectiveness of PEDs versus perceived effectiveness of PEDs.

While PEDs have known physiological effects on the human body, what’s less clear is the effect those effects have on the ability for said human body to play baseball well. I am not saying that there is none, or that the effects are smaller or larger than anyone’s specific estimates. What am I saying is when known conditions serve as a likely explanation for what we are seeing, it becomes close to impossible to realistically quantify an effect from PED usage -> no PED usage (assuming he still isn’t using PEDs, but doing a better job of masking).