The Return of Fernando Tatis Jr’s Slug (and His Narrative)

The bat's been there. But the power is still catching up.

Anecdote: I’ve been relatively obsessed with Christopher Nolan’s Oppenheimer since its release. There’s obviously a heavy, complex nature to the subject matter, but between the score, the performances, and the pacing, I find it to be a masterpiece. In the film’s first exchange between Cillian Murphy’s titular Oppenheimer & Matt Damon’s General Grove, the following exchange takes place:

Groves: You’re a dilettante, a womanizer, a suspected communist…
Oppenheimer: I’m a New Deal Democrat.
Groves: I said “suspected”. Unstable, theatrical, egotistical, neurotic…
Oppenheimer: Nothing good, no? Not even “He’s brilliant, but…”
Groves: Well, brilliance is taken for-granted in your circle, so no.

It’s that last line that gets me. The idea that one of the most impactful scientific minds of a certain time didn’t garner the respect among his peers because they were all on a certain level. I find myself wondering about the general public’s perception of Oppenheimer & his contemporaries (entirely prior to the construction of the atomic bomb). Living in an age of scientific brilliance and having an intense volume of names before the eyes of the general public. Did that make it lose its meaning and appreciation based on mere accessibility?

This is an idea I grapple with in the world of sports at large. Specifically in baseball, we’re living in a similar age of brilliance. There is more young, exciting, multi-tool talent than we’ve seen at any point in the game’s history. Do we get too caught up in the minutiae of the politics of the game in order to appreciate it? Are we losing a human element on top of it due to that volume?

I tend to think this is the case, especially with Fernando Tatis Jr.


The Rise & Fall of a Young Superstar

As much young talent as we see on the top end of the spectrum today, few have ascended in the way that Tatis Jr. did back in 2019. He posted massive offensive numbers in both 2019 and 2020, particularly on the power side. His ISO between the two (really 1.5) seasons averaged .284 as he hit 39 homers in 143 games. That went along with 27 steals.

The San Diego Padres thought so highly of Tatis at that point that they signed him to a 14-year contract ahead of the 2021 season. He parlayed the massive $340 million deal into even more offensive prowess. Across 130 games, he hit 42 homers, had an ISO of .328, and swiped 25 bags. And that’s with a shoulder injury that cost him 30. That went along with above-average defense in the eyes of most metrics. It was a stretch in which he and Manny Machado combined to electrify a franchise that had been middling, at best, for most of its history.

Of course, just as Tatis’ star was at its brightest, the collapse began.

The 2022 season started with a fractured wrist. It was later revealed that the fracture occurred during a motorcycle accident. As his rehab from the injury neared its end, it was announced that he was hit with an 80-game suspension for performance-enhancing drugs. That wiped out any chance of an appearance from the star that year. An additional shoulder surgery (from the 2021 injury) took place during the suspension.

A full season completely wiped out while at the peak of his powers apparently largely due to his own hubris.


Not Quite Back 

Fernando Tatis Jr. returned in late April of 2023. He had a new position to go along with his new (negative) perception. The results, at least, were largely fine. He posted a career-low K% (22.2%). He hit 25 homers and stole 29 bases. The defensive transition saw him win a Platinum Glove as the game’s single-best defender. But as Tatis worked his way back in the perception game, he was also trying to do so on the power side.

Tatis’ ISO sat at just .191, almost 140 points lower than his 2021 output. His HardHit% was well below his previous work. To boot, his ability to elevate had also dissolved somewhat. His GB% jumped up about seven points, while his flyball rate dropped six. Always the aggressive hitter, Tatis still maintained decent contact rates. But the impact contact was absent.

That trend continued into the start of 2024, perhaps to an even greater extent.

Tatis had an ISO of .200 in March/April and only .120 in May. The lackluster contact outputs continued, too. That coincided with a continuation of high groundball rates. He was still reaching base via walks and singles, but the “impact” was seen only sparingly.

This brings us to the month of June where the Fernando Tatis Jr. of old appears to be resurfacing.


June Power Jump

Tatis’ overall numbers in June look quite good. He’s hitting .338 and reaching base at a .400 clip. For our purposes, though, the most important development is in that power game.

His ISO for the month is .250. In 2023, he only exceeded that ISO for one month. He’s making more hard contact than any other month this season (37.7%) and is starting to elevate regularly. His 35.8% GB% for June would represent a lower figure than any individual month from all of last year. Those are the kind of trends that we didn’t see at any point in his ’23 return.

It’s difficult to pinpoint what he’s doing differently. One possible explanation is that he’s swinging at more fastballs. Hard stuff against has historically represented his highest source of barrel, elevation, and, subsequently, slug. As this season has progressed, he’s started to swing at fastballs more than the other two main categories. It’s been very gradual, and the lead for fastballs this month is only slight. But it’s there, nonetheless.

That coincides with a decrease in his swing rate against offspeed pitches. That pitch type has served the other end of the spectrum in Tatis’ short career. It’s generally been his lowest-impact contact and his highest groundball contact. Even as opposing pitchers have thrown him more of that pitch in June, he’s been able to lay off it, particularly in the chase game. It’s a command of the zone that Tatis has long demonstrated, even with an aggressive approach overall.

It’s that underlying trend that certainly represents reason for optimism. Considering the work he did with his father during the winter, perhaps this is actually The Return occurring in real-time.


The Return of the Power (and the Humanity)

I tend to wonder about the absence of power in relation to Tatis’ rehabilitation of his image. If he came right back and picked up where he left off, questions might be less likely to persist. The return might’ve featured a quicker transition to celebration rather than being met only with ire.

The 2024 San Diego Padres are experiencing much of the same woes as they did last year. Despite possessing one of the league’s most productive lineups and a top-half-of-the-league pitching staff, the two never seem to be in tandem. One wonders what this version of Fernando Tatis Jr. could do in pursuit of those two elements finally gelling.

Tatis’ story is one that really engages thoughts about the aforementioned humanity of athletes and our inability to recognize talent in the moment. He experienced the very real plight of a star in our society. Quick rise, quicker fall. However valid (or not) his “justification” for taking PEDs was, it’s clear that there was a misguided notion in there somewhere for an athlete who shot into the stratosphere at a very young age. There’s still work to be done in working his way back into a favorable light with the general public. And for some, he likely never will.

But the return of that electricity is one way in which you do it. Bring the power bat back into the fold. Doing things on a baseball field that very few are capable of doing is the way in which you work the narrative back in your favor.

Perhaps next time we won’t take it for granted.


Randy Holt

Randy Holt is a staff writer for Pitcher List & a depth charts analyst for Baseball Prospectus. He's a self-identified Cubs fan who has become more agnostic, instead obsessing about quality defensive baseball wherever he can find it. Randy has a sport management degree from the University of Florida, as well as degrees from Embry-Riddle & Arizona State. When not wasting away on the husk of Twitter/X, Randy is a high school English teacher & a baseball and golf coach.

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