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Fernando Tatis Jr. - 2019 Season in Review


A year ago, though he was highly valued in dynasty leagues, Fernando Tatis Jr. was viewed merely as a late-round flier in redraft formats. At just 20 years old and with only 450 plate appearances above Single-A, there was a large degree of uncertainty around his 2019 outlook. Would San Diego's front office manipulate his service time? Whether or not they did so, was he ready to make an impact at the major-league level? He had posted some impressive numbers in 2018 at Double-A San Antonio (.867 OPS, 16 HR, and 16 SB in just 88 games), but he had also struck out in nearly 30% of his trips to the plate, thanks to a 16.5% swinging strike rate that ranked among the highest in the minor leagues. With fellow prospect Luis Urias and newly acquired veteran Ian Kinsler both in the mix, where Tatis Jr fit into the picture was an open question.

There was no doubt of his talent, of course. Tatis Jr. had appeared near the top of prospect rankings ever since joining the Padres in 2016 as a 17-year-old. In rookie ball that year, he swung and missed at a staggering 36.6% of the pitches he faced, but still managed an above-average season at the plate relative to his contemporaries, and swiped 14 bases in just 43 games. The following year, he hit .281/.390/.520 with 21 home runs and 29 stolen bases in 117 games with Class-A Fort Wayne. His raw physical ability and tools made it quite easy to dream big on his future, especially since he appeared likely to stick at shortstop for several seasons rather than fill out beyond viability at the diamond's toughest position.

Tatis Jr., in a mild surprise, wound up impressing enough in spring training to be installed as the Padres' Opening Day shortstop. In his first MLB contest, he went 2-for-3, though he also struck out and was caught stealing after one of those two singles. Four days later, he hit his first home run in the big leagues. By the time Easter rolled around, he had been moved from the sixth spot in the batting order up to the leadoff spot.

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An Incredible Debut

In a season full of fantastic rookie performances - from Pete Alonso's 53 homers to Yordan Alvarez's 1.067 OPS to Mike Soroka's 2.68 ERA - Tatis Jr. still managed to stand out, despite two separate stints on the injured list that cost him about half of the 2019 season. In only 84 games, the Padres' shortstop hit .317/.379/.590 with 22 homers, 16 steals, and 114 R+BI. Per FanGraphs, his 3.6 WAR ranked fourth among all rookies, trailing the other three mentioned earlier in this paragraph. He finished third in National League Rookie of the Year voting behind Alonso and Soroka, placing on 26 of the 30 ballots issued. Had he managed to avoid injury, he would have had an excellent chance to become the first rookie and youngest player in MLB history to produce a 30/30 season.

As might be expected for a player who produced this kind of output and possesses rare physical gifts, Tatis Jr. was one of the most electrifying players to watch in all of baseball last season. In addition to his long drives and aggressive plays on the base paths, he routinely made highlight-reel plays in the field as well. He did rate poorly by publicly available defensive metrics though, thanks largely to an overabundance of throwing errors. Tatis Jr. has an absolute cannon, and is obviously still learning how to effectively harness it consistently. It's really the only area in which he even remotely looked like a rookie last season, and doesn't really matter for fantasy purposes. (Unless you are playing in a league that counts fielding percentage or errors, in which case you are advised to immediately stop reading this article and seek professional help.)

Fans of all stripes are no doubt excited to see what Tatis Jr. has in store for a follow-up. Does he have any hope of living up to the feverish hype?

 

Questions Remain

Tatis Jr. is naturally attracting a ton of love from fantasy owners in early 2020 drafts. With an NFBC ADP of 17.8 at the time of this writing, he is the only player with less than two MLB seasons of experience being drafted in the first two rounds. Considering his barnstorming rookie performance and the scarcity of stolen bases around the league, it's certainly understandable that his acquisition cost would be steep. But at this price, he presents arguably more downside risk than any other player.

For starters, by virtually any metric, Tatis Jr. overachieved last season. While he ranked among the elite in barrel rate and sprint speed, Statcast still pegged him for an expected line of .259/.321/.490, well below his actual results. Only four players with at least 100 plate appearances had a higher gap between their actual and expected wOBA than Tatis Jr.'s 53 points. His 89.6 MPH exit velocity was more good than great, ranking behind the likes of David Bote, Cheslor Cuthbert, and Maikel Franco. His .410 BABIP led MLB (minimum 350 PA), and despite his contact quality and speed, it's unreasonable to expect anything close to a repeat on that front. Likely regression in his batted ball fortune, combined with high strikeout and whiff rates, will drag down Tatis Jr.'s batting average.

Whether he can sustain the power he showed as a rookie is also up for debate. Tatis Jr.'s batted ball profile leaned heavily toward ground balls last year (30.9 FB%/46.6 GB%/22.4% LD), and he needed a 31.9 HR/FB% to accomplish his 22 bombs. The juiced ball likely helped, and we still don't know whether that will remain a constant in 2020. But Tatis Jr.'s career-best HR/FB% in the minor leagues was just 18.8%, and while at his age rapid development can and does occur, it's not easy to bet on a repeat. Only seven other hitters with at least 350 plate appearances also posted a HR/FB% of 30% or higher last season, and just 28 players have done so in the last 20 years. The list of repeat offenders is short: Aaron Judge, Ryan Howard, and Jim Thome.

Tatis Jr. almost certainly has a long and storied career ahead of him, and even factoring in regression is widely projected for a 30/20 season with solid run production and a decent batting average. But in 2020, fantasy owners may be taking a significant risk in paying the sticker price.

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