Fernando Tatis Jr. Enters the Stratosphereon August 11, 2020 at 3:30 pm

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 DiamondbacksMadison Bumgarner. Left fielder David Peralta couldn’t even be bothered to turn around to view the damage:

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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 YankeesAaron 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 Rondon 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):

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:

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):

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’ Cesar Hernandez (4.7 mph, from 86.0 to 90.7). Two other hitters with slightly fewer batted ball events are in the vicinity of Hernandez (the Braves’ Marcell Ozuna at 4.6 mph through 39 batted balls, the PiratesColin 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 Ronald Acuna Jr., Alonso, Bellinger, Mookie Betts, Alex Bregman, Matt Chapman, Francisco Lindor, Juan Soto — damn, there’s a hell of a lot of talent 27 or younger in today’s game — is closing fast.

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