Fernando Tatís Jr. stole all the headlines this previous weekend in the Padres/Dodgers series.
Last Friday, he hit two home runs in Dodger Stadium, exactly 22 years after his father Fernando Tatís Sr. did the same thing in the same stadium. Then on Saturday, Tatís Jr. hit two more home runs off Trevor Bauer and celebrated by covering one eye as he rounded first and doing a McGregor strut as he crossed home plate.
However, up until the Dodgers series, Tatís Jr. had a slash line of .154/.267/.333 in his first 11 games of the season. He had 15 strikeouts and only six hits and had also accumulated seven errors after only having three in last year’s 60 game season.
Now clearly this season is still young and we have yet to see how Tatís Jr.’s full season will go, but the gamer in me couldn’t help but ask the question: does MLB The Show have a cover curse?
NOTE: MLB the Show makes multiple covers every season, but this article only deals with the American cover athletes.
How is the Cover Athlete Determined?
If you don’t know what “MLB The Show” is, it’s just a baseball video game, and just like most other sports video games, it chooses an athlete every year to be the face of the cover. Considering there’s only one athlete that’s chosen to be the face of the video game every season, you might be inclined to think that the cover athlete is the best player from the previous year, but that’s not usually the case.
Look at this chart of all the previous cover athletes and how their WAR ranked among all other position players (Why not pitchers? More on this soon.) from the season before they became the cover athlete:
|Year||Cover Athlete||WAR from Season Prior (Rank)|
|2006||David Ortiz||5.3 (16th)|
|2007||David Wright||4.7 (25th)|
|2008||Ryan Howard||3.1 (63rd)|
|2009||Dustin Pedroia||6.4 (12th)|
|2010||Joe Mauer||8.4 (2nd)|
|2011||Joe Mauer||5.7 (19th)|
|2012||Adrián González||6.2 (15th)|
|2013||Andrew McCutchen||7.3 (5th)|
|2014||Miguel Cabrera||8.6 (2nd)|
|2015||Yasiel Puig||5.5 (13th)|
|2016||Josh Donaldson||8.7 (3rd)|
|2017||Ken Griffey Jr.||–|
|2018||Aaron Judge||8.3 (1st)|
|2019||Bryce Harper||3.5 (49th)|
|2020||Javier Báez||4.4 (31st)|
|2021||Fernando Tatís Jr.||2.9 (4th)|
Ok, there are some things to notice here. First of all, 2017 was a weird year. Ken Griffey Jr. was the cover athlete despite not having played a game in years.
More importantly, though, Aaron Judge was the only cover athlete who put up the highest WAR among position players in the season leading up to their cover year. So, just based on WAR, the cover athlete is rarely the best player from the prior season.
Another clear example of this is the fact that there has never been a pitcher to embrace the cover of the game. Now, why might this be? Well, think about the most recent couple cover athletes: Tatís Jr., Báez, Harper. These are all dynamic players with high levels of showmanship.
But let’s get one thing straight, by no means am I saying that pitchers aren’t dynamic. This site is literally called, Pitcher List. I’d get crucified for saying such a statement. However, there’s something about a bat flip or an acrobatic swipe tag that is a little more memorable than a three-pitch strikeout. And this says something about the nature of how The Show chooses its cover athletes.
It’s more than just being the best player. The athlete has to be memorable or special in some way to the given season he is representing, and there’s probably also some politicking involved as well (i.e. it probably doesn’t make sense to put the same athlete on the cover every single season).
Now that we got that out of the way, let’s actually try to answer the question.
A Simple Test
If we return to the original question, there’s a simple test we can do to see if cover athletes are actually cursed. We can compare their WAR in the season after they make the cover to the season leading up to their cover year. If we do so, this is the chart we get (I’ve taken out Ken Griffey Jr. because again he wasn’t in the league at the time, and also Tatís Jr. because he hasn’t finished his cover year yet):
|Year||Cover Athlete||WAR from Season Prior (Rank)||WAR During Cover Season|
As you can see, only four out of 14 players put up the same WAR or better in their cover season as they did in the season prior. According to this simple test, there is a pretty good case for a cover curse, but clearly, it’s not that simple.
For example, Josh Donaldson in 2016 had a worse season than in 2015, but a 7.6 WAR is still really, really good. Calling a 7.6 WAR, “cursed,” just doesn’t seem right, so let’s try to define “cursed.” I’ll admit, this part is a little subjective. I’m going to define “cursed” in a very specific way that you might not agree with, but it’ll help simplify things.
In order to fulfill my definition of cursed, a player will have to meet two requirements:
1). The player must either have a WAR of three or below in his cover season AND have a decrease in WAR of three or more between his cover season and the season before.
2). The player must not be a “fluke” (we will define “fluke” in a little bit).
Let me explain the reasoning for my definition of “cursed.” In a 2010 FanGraphs article, Piper Slowinski posted a chart explaining WAR that looked like this:
Albeit perhaps a little outdated, I think it would still make the most sense to use this chart to help define “cursed” since I got my WAR statistics from FanGraphs. That being said, a WAR of three or less means the player was a “solid starter” or worse which, in my view, is pretty mediocre and thus unworthy of cover athlete status. As for a drop in WAR of three or more, this means a drop of at least three tiers which is a decline from “superstar” to “solid starter” which seems pretty significant enough for me. This second part is important because take a guy like Ryan Howard: he had a cover season WAR less than three, but his WAR the season prior was barely above three to begin with, so he didn’t really see a huge decline.
Hopefully, that helps you understand my reasoning for the first requirement in my definition of “cursed.”
Now, if we use the first requirement, our list of possibly cursed players already cuts down to just four possibilities:
Four players remain to be tested for the second qualifier. Four players could still possibly be “cursed.” Let’s see any of these players were “flukes.”
This is what I meant when I said, “The player must not be a ‘fluke'”: the player can’t just have a single really good/lucky season that leads to him becoming the cover athlete. A true curse must mean a true decline from a player’s average performance. So, if a player’s performance in the season that led to him becoming the cover athlete isn’t actually reflective of his average ability as a player, then a sharp decrease in WAR isn’t indicative of a curse but rather a regression to the player’s mean performance capabilities. Simply put, maybe a player just had a single really crazy season that led to him becoming a cover athlete.
To test for this let’s look at this chart:
This chart is an extension of the previous chart that includes a player’s three-year WAR average leading up to the season before his cover season (there is one exception we will get to later on).
Let’s go through this chart.
Joe Mauer is the only MLB player so far to be on the cover of MLB the Show twice. in his second season on the cover, he saw a sharp decline from 5.7 WAR to 2.1 WAR. In the three seasons leading up to this second season though, he still had an extremely high WAR of 6.8 suggesting that he didn’t just have a flukey year right before his second appearance as a cover athlete. That being said, the biggest reason his WAR was so low in 2011 was that he only played 82 games, but hey, curses include injury curses too. That being said, Mauer’s second cover year fulfills our definition of “cursed.”
Adrián González also had a 3YR WAR Before similar to the WAR he put up right before his cover season (5.5 compared to 6.2), so he also was not a flukey player. Cursed.
Now here comes the part that’s a little tricky: Yasiel Puig. Puig only played a single season before the season leading up to his cover season. So the 3.9 WAR in the chart is just his WAR from that single season, and in that season, he only played 104 games because he was called up from the minors midway through the season. Had he played the entire season, he could’ve very well put up a WAR more similar to the 5.5 mark he put up the following season. That being said, could Puig be a fluke? Maybe. Ever since his cover season he hasn’t put up WAR numbers anywhere close to 5.5 (2.9 was his highest in 2017). Maybe his 5.5 WAR in 2015 was a fluke. Or maybe he actually is cursed and that’s why his WAR numbers have been down so much since he made the cover…
Now Báez. This one’s a little unfair because his cover season was only 60 games and it was very different from any season ever before seen in MLB history. But if we stick to our definition, Baez was by no means a fluke in the season prior to his cover season. A 4.1 three-year WAR average compared to 4.4 in the season prior? That’s about as close as you could hope for. Unfortunately for Baez, he fits our definition of cursed.
It’s Just a Game
3.5/14. That’s the count.
If Puig counts as a 0.5, 3.5/14 cover athletes fit our definition of cursed.
I’m pretty sure I don’t have to say this, but that’s nowhere near enough proof to say that there’s a cover curse.
Yes, it’s fun and it creates cool stories and headlines to talk about a supposed curse, but ultimately, MLB the Show is just a game. There’s no wizard or sorcerer or devil behind the game that has power over how its cover athletes perform.
At least, not that I know of…
(Photos by Kyle Ross & Mark Alberti/Icon Sportswire | Design by Michael Packard (@designsbypack on Twitter @ IG)