Pan-damn-ic or no pan-damn-ic, spring training has arrived at last. The coronavirus is trying its best to butt into our fun and succeeding in several ways. But not even COVID could butt in when the Padres decided to make Fernando Tatis, Jr. wealthier than an island nation’s economy. Or, two thirds the value of the entire Marlins franchise.
It seems on the surface a little on the ridiculous side to give a young man who’s played only two partial seasons money usually reserved for the Mike Trouts of the game, right? Not to mention the longest contract (fourteen years) in baseball history?
Actually, in two major league seasons Tatis has played just about one full season. (2019: shortened by injury. 2020: COVID compelled a short, irregular season. But what a season. He’s made himself the most must-see baseball player this side of Mike Trout and Mookie Betts. Sometimes it seems as though he’d get a standing ovation in a full ballpark just by ambling up from the dugout and kneeling in the on-deck circle.
His work at shortstop is improving though still a bit in the negative column for run prevention. But at the plate he’s somewhere between a machine and a Jolly Green Almost-Giant. And, a .600+ batter while he’s at it.
Say this. I don’t truck in the traditional batting average, never mind that Tatis has hit .301 in his season-over-two. It’s misleading and incomplete. Counting all hits as equal, which is what the traditional batting average does, is deceptive right away. You can even call it fraud. You think all hits are equal? I’ll see you on line waiting to buy a pulled pork sandwich at a kosher delicatessen.
Now, look at Tatis by way of Real Batting Average (RBA):
Add total bases (which treats hits they way they deserve to be treated: unequally), walks, intentional walks (damn right you deserve extra credit if they’d rather you take your base than their heads off), sacrifice flies (you get an RBI for them, you damn well deserve credit for hitting them in the first place), and hit by pitches. (They plunk you, let it be to your credit and on their heads.)
Now, divide by total plate appearances. Tatis in 2019-20 had 629 of them. He also had 558 “official at-bats.” As if he just didn’t exist during 71 trips to the plate. Last I looked, he had a bat on his shoulders, and he wasn’t up there to be disappeared like the hapless audience volunteer in a magic act.
Here’s Tatis so far, according to RBA:
|Fernando Tatis, Jr.||629||325||57||2||4||10||.633|
The Padres probably don’t have a clue about RBA, but if they did they’d think to themselves, they’ve got a .633 batter on their hands and wouldn’t it be wonderful to make and keep him a Friar for life, or for fourteen years, whichever comes first. But for $340 million? The kid hasn’t poked his nose out of his hole during more than two Show seasons, and the Padres are handing him Trout Machado Harper money?
Well, it’s their money, and they can spend it any old way they choose it. The Padres these days aren’t exactly shy about opening the vault. They want to give the defending world champion/National League West behemoth Dodgers a run for it. Not necessarily for a single season, either.
But TMH money for a 22-year-old shortstop, even with Tatis’s likely higher ceiling and being a .600+ batter as it is so far? Maybe we ought to have a look at the all-time top Show hitters through age 21, based on 600+ plate appearances, men who played all or most of their careers in the post-World War II/post-integration/night ball era, and see where Tatis rests. He rests rather well in that company, in fact:
|Player Through Age 21||PA||OBP||SLG||OPS+|
|Fernando Tatis, Jr.||629||.374||.582||154|
|Ken Griffey, Jr.||1805||.367||.479||135|
Tatis through age 21 is fourth in a crowd of nine that includes six Hall of Famers, two more who will be, and one who’s on the track at bullet train speed so far. By the way, RBA says Tatis through 629 plate appearances so far is an intriguing match to Mike Trout’s 639-appearance Rookie of the Year campaign. (Tatis is a few points higher for one good reason: Trout hit nine fewer home runs.)
|Fernando Tatis, Jr.||629||325||57||2||4||10||.633|
|Mike Trout, 2012||639||315||67||4||7||6||.624|
Nobody’s saying Tatis is the second coming of Mike Trout just yet, and there are those people who still look at Trout’s career to date and can’t believe they’ve been watching a transdimensional talent the Show still can’t figure out how to elevate. In fairness, Trout himself doesn’t help: it’s great to let your work speak for itself, and Trout’s shouts. But he settles for being Mr. Nice Guy off the field and asks little enough more. Mr. LED he isn’t.
The Padres are laying a $340 million bet that Tatis will be as close a match to the astonishing Angel as you can get by the time he reaches his age 29 season. They’re also laying the same bet that Tatis is going to be one key piece in something the Angels—for whatever perverse reasons—have refused to allow their once-a-century man: championship teams.
You can’t win it all with just one player, but if you can put a solid team around and astride him the Promised Land isn’t as far across the river as it usually looks.
“Beyond the fact that he is very, very good, the projections remind us of several facts. First, that Tatis Jr. is still developing, a necessary reminder in a period when so many prospects seem to come to the majors fully formed . . . the shortstop is developing at the major league level,” writes Baseball Prospectus analyst Ginny Searle.
There’s no reason to think the 22-year-old won’t make further gains at the plate: While between seasons he made just a minor gain in swinging at off-the-plate offerings (31.8 to 29.6%), he made a huge leap in making contact on such swings (46.3 to 63%). Scary as pitchers might find it, he could tap into further ferocious power at the plate. One obvious way would be hitting the ball on the ground less than his 47.3 percent career rate—though it’s hard to imagine asking the major league scion to make any changes, given his production. If we’re due to get him at a typical aging rate, as PECOTA expects, Tatis Jr. may be better yet, and could keep it up into next decade.
You might take a moment to consider this, too: Tatis’s landing his fortune may have such other young titans as Juan Soto and Ronald Acuna, Jr. ringing their accountants and agents soon enough.
Just hope and pray that they didn’t make one error Tatis made: as a minor leaguer, he signed a deal with Big League Advance, an outfit that makes minor league life a lot more bearable financially in return for a portion of a player’s Show earnings. How much hook BLA has into Tatis isn’t known yet. But he won’t be getting every one of those 340 million dollars as a result, and that’s before the California tax man helps himself to part of Tatis’s dinner plate.
Beyond that, though, suppose the Padres’ maneuverings, investments, and developments don’t translate to the threshold of if not the taking of the Promised Land? Mookie Betts got his transdimensional payday from the Dodgers last year, and they opened spring training as the defending world champions. But Trout himself, the very essence of a team player and loyalist, has let himself speak softly but firmly about how little fun the Angels falling short or losing plainly has become.
If the Padres end up in the Angels’ mire by the time Tatis reaches age 29, they may hear similar whispers from him. They won’t sound like sweet nothings, either.
Like the Angels may with their franchise face, the Padres with theirs may discover in due course that there may have to be life without them, after all. The kind of life that makes the unthinkable now thinkable to come, seeing Trout and/or Tatis in alien fatigues. Love Tatis while you have him, Friarland.