Just over a year ago, MLB announced that Padres superstar Fernando Tatis Jr. had been suspended for 80 games after testing positive for Clostebol, a banned performance-enhancing substance. The announcement came as Tatis was on the cusp of making his 2022 season debut after undergoing wrist surgery in March of that year due to a fractured wrist sustained during an offseason motorcycle accident.
The news shook the baseball world, as it was the first time a star player in his prime had been suspended for PED usage since Ryan Braun nearly a decade earlier. A whirlwind of controversy surrounded Tatis throughout the 2022 campaign and in the lead up to his return to the field back in April. Since then, however, Tatis has fallen into the background as discourse surrounding the Padres quickly began to focus on their disappointing season. Down years from Xander Bogaerts, Manny Machado, and Yu Darvish captured most of the focus around the baseball world, as well as the strong performances the club has received from Blake Snell, Juan Soto, and Ha-Seong Kim.
Though Tatis hasn’t been at the forefront of most fans’ minds this season, we’re getting a glimpse of what the now-24 year old looks like as a player in the wake of his lost season last year. While he hasn’t been the perennial-MVP candidate he looked to be in his first three seasons as a big leaguer, Tatis has put together a radically different profile this year that nonetheless should keep him in the conversation as one of the best everyday regulars in the sport.
From his debut in 2019 until the 2021 campaign that saw him appear in his first career All Star game and finish third in NL MVP voting, Tatis was the prototypical young superstar. A shortstop with speed and power, Tatis featured the best ISO, the second best wRC+, and the third best fWAR total among MLB regulars during his first three seasons as a big leaguer. Meanwhile, Statcast indicates the youngster boasted sprint speeds and barrel rates in the 95th percentile or better in each of those seasons, clearly indicating he was elite in both respects. On the other side of things, Tatis had a significant problem with strikeouts. His 27.6% strikeout rate in the first three seasons of his career was the 19th-highest among MLB regulars, higher than the likes of Kyle Schwarber and Jorge Soler.
Flash forward to 2023, and almost all of these things have changed. Most obviously, Tatis is no longer a shortstop; both Bogaerts and Kim have supplanted San Diego’s $340MM man on the infield depth chart, prompting Tatis to move into a regular role in the outfield. He’s played right field almost exclusively this year, with four games in center and a one-inning cameo at second base representing his only appearances elsewhere on the diamond. While Tatis’s glove may have slid down the defensive hierarchy in 2023, his value on defense has soared. Tatis was worth -10 Outs Above Average and -9 Defensive Runs Saved as a shortstop in his first three seasons in the majors, leaving him well below average at the position.
By contrast, Tatis’s aforementioned move to the outfield has seen him not only provide positive value with his glove, but become one of the best defensive players in the sport this year. Tatis ranks in the 96th percentile with a +12 OAA in 2023, a figure bested by zero outfielders and only eight players at any position this season. Meanwhile, his +23 DRS makes him the second most valuable fielder in all of baseball this year by that metric, outclassed by only Daulton Varsho’s +26 figure.
While Tatis’s defense has shown this season, his offense has taken a considerable hit. Overall on the season, he’s slashed just .257/.321/.455 in 558 trips to the plate. While that’s still good for a well above average wRC+ of 115, it pales in comparison to the 154 figure he entered the 2023 campaign with for his career. That drop in offensive production comes almost exclusively from a relative power outage. Tatis has hit just 23 homers this season, a far cry from his 2021 season where he slammed 42 dingers in less trips to the plate than he’s taken this year. His once-lofty ISO that was second to only Shohei Ohtani in 2021 has dropped to just .198 this year. That figure is barely enough to crack the top 50, putting him alongside the likes of Justin Turner and Willson Contreras rather than Ohtani and Matt Olson.
That being said, it hasn’t been all bad for Tatis on the offensive side of things. His speed is as elite as ever, clocking in with a 95th percentile sprint speed per Statcast. Meanwhile, he’s 25-for-29 on the bases, and figure identical to his 2021 total. What’s more, he’s seen considerable improvements in his strikeout rate. He’s punching out in just 21.7% of his plate appearances this year, a figure that puts him in line with hitters like Francisco Lindor, Jeimer Candelario and Josh Bell and pushes him to better than league average in terms of strikeouts for the first time in his career.
That improvement in strikeouts is thanks to Tatis posting the highest full-season contact rate of his career, as he’s made contact on 71.4% of his swings compared to 68.4% for his career entering his season. Unfortunately, he’s also swinging more than he did in his first three seasons. While he entered 2023 swinging at less than half of the pitches he’s seen in his career (49.1%), that figure has jumped to 54.3% in 2023. While that isn’t necessarily a problem, those additional swings are primarily occurring outside the strike zone: after swinging at 32% of pitches seen outside of the zone from 2019-21, he’s swinging at 36.1% of those same pitches this year. Given that, it’s hardly a surprise he’s posting the lowest barrel rate of his career (11.9%) despite a Hard-Hit rate that’s largely in line with his career norms.
Only time will tell if Tatis will be able to recapture his elite power stroke in the future by swinging less often outside of the strike zone. Fortunately for the Padres, though, Tatis remains an immensely valuable player even if his 2023 performance with the bat is his new normal. Tatis has been worth 4.0 fWAR and 5.0 rWAR this season. That fWAR figure puts him in the same ballpark as quality players like Soto, Dansby Swanson and Cody Bellinger this year, while his rWAR is the eighth-highest total in the NL this season. With 11 more years left on Tatis’s megadeal with the Padres, it’s surely a relief to A.J. Preller’s front office that the player they’ll be paying through his age-35 season can still play at an All Star-caliber level, even if he’s no longer be the 40-homer shortstop he was in 2021.