Going Deep: The Stars Were Bright, Fernando
Recently at Pitcher List, we’ve released a bunch of dynasty and prospect content. I ranked the top 150 fantasy baseball prospects in late October, and my colleague Brennen Gorman released a position-by-position look at the top players in dynasty leagues. In both rankings, San Diego Padres shortstop prospect Fernando Tatis Jr. was regarded pretty highly. I ranked him eighth overall and third among shortstops. Brennen put him 14th among all shortstops in dynasty formats and as the second-best shortstop prospect in the game.
We are both high on Tatis Jr.’s combination of raw power and above-average speed, along with his approach, which him to frequently show off that power. All that from a shortstop makes Tatis Jr. one of the more valuable prospects in baseball entering 2019, both in real life and fantasy.
Still, Brennen and I haven’t fully bought into him compared to others. MLB.com’s Prospect Watch has Tatis Jr. as the number two overall prospect behind only Vladimir Guerrero Jr. Fangraphs also put him second overall behind Toronto’s future third baseman. Some of the difference of opinion comes down to Tatis Jr.’s defensive and athleticism, which boosts his value in real-life baseball. But it doesn’t explain it all!
Tatis Jr. was signed in 2015 by the Chicago White Sox as an international amateur free agent for $700,000. He was MLB.com’s 30th ranked international prospect that year in a class that also included Guerrero Jr. and Washington Nationals outfielder Juan Soto. At the time of his signing, Tatis Jr. was a 6’1″, 175-pound shortstop known to have a strong arm and fluid defensive skills, along with pull-side raw power and a knack for barreling up baseballs at the plate. Tatis Jr. did not begin playing in the minor leagues until a year later as a 17-year-old, which is customary for 16-year-old international amateur signings. But before he could suit up as a member of the White Sox, he was shipped out as part of the now- infamous James Shields trade between the White Sox and Padres.
The Padres began his professional career by sending him to the rookie-level Arizona League, where he held his own with a slash line of .273/.312/.426, along with 4 home runs and 14 stolen bases over 188 plate appearances. That was good for a 108 wRC+. It came with a 5.3% walk rate, a 23.4% strikeout rate, and a notably very aggressive approach (1.72 pitches per plate appearance). The 4 homers may not stand out, but 18 extra-base hits hinted at future power. He was also able to produce a .152 ISO in spite of a fairly high 47.2% ground ball rate. The Padres rewarded him with 12 games in Low-A Tri-City, where he was a full four years younger than league average. Despite his youth, Tatis Jr. still managed to hit .273/.306/.455 with a 6.1% walk rate and 26.5% strikeout rate. The sample size is so small though, it doesn’t tell us much.
Tatis Jr.’s performance against older competition, along with growing two inches, led him to shoot up prospect rankings ahead of 2017. Keith Law put him at #47 on his top 100 prospect list, and Eric Longenhagen at Fangraphs had this to say about Tatis Jr. after his debut season:
Tatis has good bat speed and some natural leverage in his swing and could have plus raw power at maturity. He may never tap into it, though. The swing is noisy, with lots of independently moving parts and Tatis’ contact issues are exacerbated by the length of his limbs and his propensity to be way out in front of offspeed stuff. I have a future 50 on the bat, which is pretty aggressive considering where Tatis is at right now, but he’s still just 17 and has done nothing but exceed the expectations placed upon him as an amateur since arriving. If all the tools actualize, he’s a star. Of course, at just 17 and with hefty swing-and-miss issues, he’s also quite a risk.
Tatis Jr. began 2017 as an 18-year-old in Single-A ball. Over 518 plate appearances, Tatis hit .281/.390/.520 with 21 home runs and 29 stolen bases, while walking 14.5% of the time and striking out at a 23.9% rate. He clearly worked on his patience, with his pitches per plate appearance jumping to 3.92 (the same mark Francisco Lindor put up this past year in the majors). His improved approach was impressive, but his swinging-strike rate still finished at a below-average 13.2% mark. He hit a healthy number of flyballs at 43% and was pretty pull conscience. It’s an approach that should lead to home run power and it did. All told, his time in the Midwest League was worth a dominant 154 wRC+, which led the league. In fact, the 154 wRC+ ranks as the 2nd best mark among 18-year-olds at the Single-A level since 2006, the year Fangraph’s data begins:
|Giancarlo Stanton (2008)||540||.293||.381||.611||.318||10.7||28.3||.431||169|
|Fernando Tatis Jr. (2017)||518||.281||.390||.520||.239||14.5||23.9||.405||154|
|Freddie Freeman (2008)||540||.316||.378||.521||.206||8.5||15.6||.402||150|
|Carlos Correa (2013)||519||.320||.405||.467||.147||11.2||16||.400||147|
|Jon Singleton (2010)||450||.290||.393||.479||.189||13.8||16.4||.393||146|
That’s an impressive list of players. All have reached the majors, and aside from former Houston Astros first baseman Jon Singleton, all have gone on to do incredible things at the major league level. Tatis Jr.’s 13.2% swinging-strike rates mark is the best of the group, and his .239 ISO is second best. That’s what had me optimistic about Tatis Jr.’s ability to translate his skills to higher levels. Combined with a truly dominant second half at the Single-A level, in which he slashed .311/.458/.650 with 12 home runs and 17 stolen bases while posting a much-improved 47:48 K:BB ratio, Tatis Jr’s looked to be making positive adjustments and growing.
Similar to the year before, the Padres rewarded Tatis Jr. with a promotion, this time to AA to help the San Antonio Missions playoff push. Over 14 games, he hit .255/.281/.355 with 1 home run and 3 stolen bases, while walking at a 3.5% clip and striking out at a 29.8% of the time. It was all worth just a 63 wRC+, but he was a full 6 years younger than league average and the sample size is too small to be meaningful. If you add up his entire 2017 season between both A and AA, he posted a .278/.379/.499 line with 22 homers (56 extra-base hits) and 32 stolen bases. Add in a 14% walk rate and 24.3% strikeout rate and it’s clear that he had a truly impressive year in 2017, especially for an 18-year-old in his first year of full-season ball. The power-speed combo was very evident as he was just one of 10 players in the minor leagues to post a 20-20 season. Notably, he was the youngest, and one of just 2 non-outfielders, along with Philadelphia Phillies prospect Scott Kingery.
Tatis Jr.’s success in 2017 catapulted him up prospect rankings ahead of the 2018 season, making him a consensus top-10 prospect. Baseball America ranked him ninth, MLB.com’s Prospect Watch had him eighth, and Fangraphs ranked him fifth. The Padres rewarded him with an invite to spring training, where he impressed over 12 games by slashing .281/.343/.469 with 1 homer and 3 stolen bases. The one home run was an opposite-field shot on an outside pitch:
Entering 2018, Tatis Jr. was assigned to AA San Antonio in the Texas League, where he was 4.9 years younger than league-average. He struggled during the first month of the season, hitting just .177/.231/.333 and striking out 34 times (32.7%) against 6 walks (5.8%). Similar to the year before though, Tatis Jr. made mid-season adjustments and found success. He ended up hitting .327/.400/.572 with a walk rate of 9.3% and a strikeout rate of 25.9% in 290 plate appearances the rest of the way. A fractured thumb ended his season in July. This success contributed to Tatis Jr. being named to the Futures Game where he had two hits plus a stolen base. His season line in 2018 at AA finished at .286/.355/.507 with 16 homers and 16 stolen bases over 394 plate appearances. It’s clear those first 104 plate appearances dragged Tatis Jr.’s line down.
When looking at his season-long peripherals, Tatis Jr.’s walk rate fell to 8.4%, which is supported by a decline in pitches seen per plate appearance to 3.63, and he notably also saw a decline in his contact figures. Year over year, his strikeout rate rose 3.4% to 27.7%, and his swinging-strike rate rose to an alarming 16.5%. For reference, his 27.7% strikeout rate finished as the fifth worst in the Texas League, and his below-average 16.5% swinging-strike rate finished tied for second worst. His BABIP finished at a high .370 mark, which helped maintain the overall batting line. He has some traits of a higher BABIP hitter, including a 24.8% line-drive rate, a slightly more all-fields approach than the year before (46.6% pull, 26.7% Cent, 26.7% Oppo), and the speed to beat out ground balls. Still, I doubt he can maintain such a high BABIP when he reaches the Majors. The Major League average for BABIP last year was .296, so it’s easy to project Tatis Jr.’s .370 mark to fall as he faces more advanced pitching.
With contact issues, there often comes power though. Tatis Jr.’s stats last year demonstrate his power. He slugged .507, leading the Texas League, and his .221 ISO ranked 4th. He improved his efficiency on the base paths too, going from 68% in 2017 to 76% in 2018. Overall, the advanced metrics really like what Tatis Jr. has accomplished, highlighted by a 133 wRC+ which ranked second-best in the Texas League, which is even more impressive when you consider that Tatis Jr. was the youngest qualified hitter in the league. In fact, if you go back through Texas League history as far back as Fangraphs has data (2006), only five teenage hitters have played qualified seasons. The names include Mike Trout, Jurickson Profar, Elvis Andrus and Dodgers prospect Keibert Ruiz. Tatis Jr.’s 133 wRC+ mark ranks second among that group behind Trout’s 156 back in 2011. If you extend out to all AA leagues since Fangraphs has data, and then focus just on teenage players that played the shortstop, his 133 wRC+ really stands out:
|Fernando Tatis Jr. (2018)||518||.286||.355||.507||.221||8.4||27.7||.379||133|
|Jurickson Profar (2012)||562||.281||.368||.452||.171||11.7||14.1||.364||127|
|Manny Machado (2012)||459||.266||.352||.438||.172||10.5||15.2||.358||120|
|Ruben Tejada (2009)||553||.289||.351||.389||.092||6.7||10.7||.339||106|
|Elvis Andrus (2008)||535||.295||.350||.367||.073||7.1||17||.330||93|
As you can see, Tatis Jr. is tops in terms of advanced metrics like wOBA and wRC+, largely on the back of unprecedented power at the position for his age. It should be noted that all players on this list have reached the major leagues, and Manny Machado, as well as Elvis Andrus, have become All-Stars. Now, wRC+ is not predictive, but this does show how far ahead of the curve Tatis Jr. is.
Now I mentioned above that Tatis Jr. employed a slightly more all-fields approach last year compared to 2017, here is the visual evidence in the form of his 2018 spray chart:
The first thing that stands out is his power orientation. Fifteen of his 16 home runs were hit to the pull side or centerfield. Additionally, only two of 22 doubles went to right field. He’s clearly got an approach that focuses on hitting for power to the pull side. He does look to have a fair number of flyball outs to right field, so maybe some of his opposite-field home run power is still developing. There looks to be a large concentration of infield contact to the pull side as well, with not much going to the first base area. If this continues, he could be a guy that is shifted against in the Majors. To me, his batted ball distribution shouldn’t support as high of a BABIP as last year, but he’s consistently produced strong ones and I’m curious how it will normalize at the highest level.
Now that we’ve seen the numbers, let’s break down Tatis Jr.’s swing:
This first GIF shows a nice leveraged swing from on a fat 86 MPH changeup up in the zone from Fernando Rodney in the Dominican Winter League this winter. He unloads on this mistake and drives it way out over the left field fence. The quick-twitch traits of explosive hip rotation and dynamic bat speed really stand out when watching this swing.
Mechanically, you can see that Tatis Jr. starts out from a slightly open position footwork-wise, but his upper body remains fairly neutral and his hands sit just above his back shoulder and behind his head. Tatis Jr. uses a smaller leg-kick that he can occasionally increase when selling out for power. This leg kick serves as both a timing mechanism and a weight transfer. As the pitcher begins his windup, Tatis Jr. begins to shift his weight back and works his way into more of a crouched position while also coiling his upper body. As the pitch nears the plate, Tatis Jr. gets his front foot down in a great position (3/4 open), while keeping his front knee bent, which allows him to be adjustable to the pitch at hand. If you stop the GIF at the moment that he gets his foot fully down, you’ll notice that his hips have started to turn but his upper body is still fully sitting back. This ability to separate his hips from his upper body is special and is what gives Tatis Jr. so much raw power (often receives 70 grade). He’s creating a stretched rubber band effect that allows him to achieve a violent action toward the ball and therefore dynamic bat speed. He then simply uncoils, meets the barrel of the bat with the ball, and watches the ball fly over the fence for a homer. It really is a powerful swing despite it looking so easy.
Let’s take a look at this side view GIF of an opposite-field triple from May of this past season for a more detailed look:
The first thing that jumps out is how strong of an example this is of Tatis Jr.’s ability to separate his hips from his upper body, which allows him to create such dynamic bat speed. I talked about that above so I want to focus more on other things. One of the things you’ll often see on scouting reports for Tatis Jr. is concerns about his pitch recognition and that he struggles to handle breaking and off-speed stuff. When watching this GIF, do you notice how short of a time the bat is on the plane of the pitch and in good hitting position? He gets the barrel to the ball and that’s what counts, but generally, the best and most consistent hitters are able to get their bat on the plane of the pitch and have the bat in the hitting zone for long stretches. Here is an example of that from Colorado Rockies 3B Nolan Arenado on a similar outside pitch just above the knee:
Tatis Jr. just doesn’t do that with any sort of consistency. He seems to focus more on getting the barrel to the ball, rather than focusing on getting his bat in the hitting zone and on the plane of the pitch. Essentially, he’s trying to hit the ball at a certain point rather than getting his bat in the way of the ball. To me, this is a big part of his swing-and-miss issues as he has less room for error with his short time in the hitting zone than someone like Arenado. Tatis Jr.’s breaking ball issues are likely related to this too, as the difficulty of anticipating a single spot to hit a pitch with lots of movement correctly is high. Now if you go back and watch some film from previous years, you’ll see that Tatis Jr. has improved already and is turning his barrel deeper and extending his window of time with the bat in the hitting zone during his swing. Given his youth and ability to adjust effectively, I think it’s fair to project him further improving in this regard going forward.
The other thing I want to talk about quickly is that sometimes Tatis Jr. can reach with his hands as he works to get his bat to the ball. When he does this, it causes his bat head to drag behind a little and this side-angle view is a pretty decent example of it. If you scroll and stop at 1.83 seconds of the side angle-view, you’ll see that his hands are entering the hitting zone and yet his bat is dragging behind and is in line with the top of the catchers mask. The good news is that his bat speed is so good that it really doesn’t matter and if you scroll to the next frame (1.86 seconds) you’ll see he’s gotten the bat to the ball effectively.
Overall, I see a player that is still a project at the plate, but one with the dynamic qualities necessary to be an upper-tier hitting shortstop when he settles in at the major league level, both for real life and for fantasy baseball! He’s pretty close to being ready for the majors too as he will likely be starting his 2019 season at the AAA level and the Padres seemingly have an opportunity in the middle infield. RosterResource suggests that 2B/SS Luis Urias will handle the shortstop position for San Diego in 2019, but he’s long been projected as more of a second base fit. The signing of Ian Kinsler pushes Urias over at least for now. There’s also the third base position. Currently, the Padres have Ty France slated as the favorite for the opening day third base job. Notably, Fangraphs Steamer projections have Tatis Jr. projected to produce a below-average .233/.293/.387 batting line good for an 85 wRC+ in the 2019 season. That is ever so slightly behind the 93 wRC+ mark for new Padres second baseman Ian Kinsler, the 90 for Urias, and the 86 for France. None of these other options should be considered a sure thing. Kinsler is coming off of an 87 wRC+ season in 2018, Urias has just 12 games of MLB experience, and France has no MLB experience. Despite Tatis Jr.’s contact issues, there’s a case to be made that Tatis Jr. could outperform them all at the plate, which along with his defensive acumen, could make him the most valuable player and best option for the Padres.
If he gets an opportunity this year, it likely either comes in June, given Super 2 considerations, or late in the season. The Padres have no real reason to rush him to the big leagues and he can continue refining his contact skills in the minors. That likely means he’s not a prospect worth investing in for re-draft right away, but he’s one to watch on your waiver wire. Long-term, I view Tatis Jr. as one of the top fantasy baseball prospects in the game, and I have a rough prime projection of .269/.340, 27 home runs, 12 stolen bases for him, with upside for more. For reference, Didi Gregorius hit .268/.335 with 27 homers and 10 swipes a year ago and finished as the 41st ranked player in standard 5×5 leagues. Given Tatis Jr.’s youth and upside, along with the potential of hitting alongside a developing Padres lineup, those in dynasty leagues should value him very highly.