No one is bringing more joy to Major League Baseball in 2020 than the Padres’ 21-year-old star.
This has not been a particularly fun baseball season.
Start at the macro level: playing through a pandemic in a nation engaged in a social reckoning. Zoom into MLB, specifically, and see a return to play stretched out by a sour financial battle between players and owners while the sport tries to hash out its future. And if you consider just the action on the field, much of that has been a drag, too. An ultra-shortened season with outbreak-scrambled schedules has called for a completely different model of play. It’s meant seven-inning doubleheaders, designated hitters in the National League, a free runner on second base in extra innings and piped-in crowd noise to complement a sea of cardboard “fans”—a novel environment, to be sure, but not a particularly fun one.
And then there’s Fernando Tatis Jr.
It is rare for a player so young to be so talented, or a player so talented to be such a source of joy, and especially rare for one to be all three. But that is Tatis—who has transformed into a superstar and shown that, while his name may be familiar, there is no one like him.
At 21, he has a chance to be the youngest MVP in the history of MLB. He plays shortstop with an audacious energy and runs the bases with the same abandon. To watch him regularly is to get an experience akin to a highlight playlist set on shuffle—on any given night, Tatis might offer a monster home run, or a gutsy steal, or a leaping catch, but there’s always something. He redefines the term “fantasy baseball player.” And, again, he’s just 21. (The only player ever to accumulate more WAR at his age is Mike Trout.) It seems pointless to argue that he’s the most exciting player in baseball, because, really, who needs to be convinced of anything so obvious?
“He just has the spirit of a 10- or 12-year-old, playing the best sport in the world,” says Padres manager Jayce Tingler. “And he does it with a swag, a confidence, and he has a blast.”
There are plenty of statistics to paint the picture of his explosive season. He has hit the ball harder than quite literally everyone else. (Per Statcast, he’s in the 100th percentile for both exit velocity and hard-hit percentage.) He has been faster than almost everyone else (98th percentile in sprint speed). The few troubles from his debut season last year—plate discipline and routine defense, namely—have been fixed. His strikeout rate has dropped from 29.6% to 23.8%, and in his first 52 games, he made just two errors. Add it all up and it represents a terrifying future for opponents.
Yet Tatis’s game is defined just as much by the sort of player he is aesthetically. He plays with a joy that is palpable. He’s fun to watch partly because he’s so openly and unambiguously interested in fun himself. He flips bats, he dances in the dugout after home runs, he accessorizes his uniform with neon shoelaces and headbands. “Fun” is not a side effect of his baseball—it is his baseball.
This is, Tatis says, the way he’s always played. He loves baseball too much to approach it any differently—a fondness that started with his father, Fernando Tatis Sr., who played 11 seasons in MLB.
“He showed me the passion for the game,” the younger Tatis says of his father. “He showed me the love for the game. He showed me how to respect the game.”
But his talent is distinct from his father’s. Asked whether he sees any similarities in their play, Tatis Sr. can only laugh: “It’s not even close. Junior is way, way, way better.” (Though Tatis Sr. has appeared in more than 800 games than his son has so far, Tatis Jr. has already surpassed him in WAR.) And Tatis Sr. notes that his son’s style is all his own, too.
“I’m a calm guy. I like to watch the game, I like to be quiet, you know?” says the elder Tatis. “And Junior is—he likes to have fun. He likes to talk. He likes to feel free. That’s his personality, on the field, off the field.”
MLB, of course, has a record of grousing about displays of personality—an institutional fussiness about who is allowed to have fun, and when, and how. (This is a sport that’s had no fewer than five different books written about its unwritten rules.) But Tatis has come on the scene at a time when those norms have started to shift, and with his style of play, he’s helping to shift them even further.
In August, he made a splash for the crime of—gasp—swinging at a 3–0 pitch with the bases loaded and a sizable lead for the Padres. (He hit a home run.) It briefly seemed to strike up a rendition of the same unwritten rules conversation that baseball has been engaging in for decades. Ian Gibaut threw the next pitch behind Manny Machado. Teammate Eric Hosmer scolded Tatis in the dugout. Rangers manager Chris Woodward huffed (“I didn’t like it”), and Tatis’s own manager, Tingler, wavered (“We don’t want to run up the score”). But then it took a twist. Woodward walked back his frustration (“I can’t really blame Tatis”), as did Tingler (“He plays the game right”). Hall of Famers took Tatis’s side (“We need players like you,” Reggie Jackson tweeted). No one seemed to have the capacity for any performative handwringing about sportsmanship or declarations that this had been anything other than a sweet home run.
The conversation seemed almost entirely one-sided: Everyone seemed to recognize the rising star of Tatis.
It may not have completely broken the model for unwritten-rule griping, but at the least, it made a dent. What happens when baseball decides that a player is just too much fun for anyone to argue over? You throw out the unwritten rules. Tatis, for his part, just kept going.
“I’m just trying to play my game,” he says. “I don’t know, people were talking, but I still came the next day and played the game that I love and played the same way that I played the night before.”
That last line is not an understatement. The next day, Tatis stole third off Gibaut with a six-run lead. The discourse did not dwell on whether this might be considered an affront. Instead, it bore witness: This was cool as hell.
“It brought up a lot of conversation [around] the game that is maybe challenging some norms,” Tingler says. “And you’ve got to be a special player—a special talent—to do that.”’
If there’s one particularly instructive note here, it’s that it’s not just what the young shortstop does, but how he does it. And that dynamic has been clear from the start.
A few weeks after acquiring him from the White Sox in 2016—a trade that has now begun to take on the mythology of an all-time great fleecing—Padres general manager A.J. Preller went to see Tatis in rookie ball. He watched the 17-year-old take batting practice on a backfield in Arizona. And he still remembers the first swing.
The first swing of the day is supposed to be for getting loose. It is a means to an end; it is not meant to be watched. But from Tatis? Preller recalls that it was not just worth watching but worth committing to memory. The teen unleashed a gorgeously fluid stroke that sent the ball soaring to the opposite field, and, for a moment, the general manager saw his potential crystallize into a promise.
Over the last few seasons, Preller says, “there have been a lot of moments like that.”
Tatis has made a habit of them. He’ll show a flash of talent, and soon, it’ll just be standard operating practice for him. That’s partially sheer ability. But it’s also the fact that he takes baseball seriously.
“There’s no accident,” Preller says. “It’s not up to chance that he’s realizing his ability and getting better and better.”
This work ethic was a crucial ingredient in his development between his first and second seasons. So was the fact that, despite his childlike sense of joy on the field, he can be strikingly mature off of it.
Tingler, who was named manager of the club this winter, recalls one of his earliest hang-out sessions with Tatis. Before spring training, the two went to see the Los Angeles Clippers, and Tingler brought along his 8-year-old son, Gabe. When Tingler left the pair alone for a bit, it took him a moment to realize: Perhaps it wasn’t the best course of action to leave his kid with a ballplayer he barely knew who’d only just turned 21. (“Don’t tell my wife.”) But Tatis made him felt completely at ease. “He’s just a caring, trustworthy guy,” says Tingler. “His teammates love him. People gravitate to him.”
Tatis recognizes that baseball is work—hard work. But that doesn’t run counter to his guiding principle of fun. In fact, it’s precisely the reason that he believes in it so much.
“This game is hard,” says Tatis. “This game is tough. This game, it’s going to come after you every single day. So why not try to have fun?”