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How Fernando Tatis Jr. Has Sailed Past Mike Trout to Become the Face of MLB

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterApril 27, 2021

San Diego Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. celebrates his solo home run during a baseball game against the Los Angeles Dodgers in Los Angeles, Saturday, April 24, 2021. (AP Photo/Kyusung Gong)
Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

If there was any doubt that Fernando Tatis Jr. is the new Face of Major League Baseball, there ought to be less now after the San Diego Padres shortstop boldly resubmitted his application over the weekend.

After a 1-for-4 night in San Diego's 3-2 win over the Los Angeles Dodgers at Dodger Stadium on Thursday, Tatis came alive and went 7-for-15 with five home runs as the Padres won two of the next three games to take the series.

That quintet of long balls featured two each off Cy Young Award winners Clayton Kershaw and Trevor Bauer—and averaged a sturdy 411 feet. And inasmuch as anything relating to a 22-year-old with only 158 major league games under his belt can be "customary," Tatis indeed celebrated each dinger with his customary aplomb.

Because of accusations he tried to sneak a peek at Dodgers catcher Will Smith's signs before his second home run off Bauer on Saturday, Tatis' weekend showcase wasn't entirely without controversy.

But if Tatis is sweating it, it didn't show in his tweeted reply to Bauer:

Fernando Tatis Jr. @tatis_jr

@BauerOutage Tranquilo hijo . https://t.co/lRe2hBLmR8

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Or in English: "Take it easy, my son."

That's Tatis for you, a player who's keenly aware of just how talented he is. There might have been fierce resistance to such a player not too long ago, but there are good reasons why he's different.

   

The Game Has Changed

Now then, let's talk about Shane Victorino.

The "Flyin' Hawaiian" had a darn good career from 2003 to 2015, yet his high point was surely when he punched the Boston Red Sox's ticket to the 2013 World Series with a grand slam against the Detroit Tigers in Game 6 of the American League Championship Series.

As any normal person would, Victorino let his emotions out as he jumped for joy and pounded his chest.

In the aftermath, however, Victorino was actually apologetic to the Tigers. As he later explained:

"I've always been on that other side. I've never liked players who like to [show off]. That's just my upbringing; my parents taught me never to be cocky, never to be arrogant because just as fast as you go that way, when you strike out are you going to do the same things? That's the fine line. Go out there and play the game correctly. People understand that in moments like that you can show a little more emotion."

As baffling as it was, Victorino's apology wasn't necessarily surprising.

That was, after all, a time when to "play the game correctly" required players to go about their business like so many planks of plywood: stiff and flat, with nary a distinguishing feature. And whether it was Jose Fernandez (RIP), Carlos Gomez, Jose Bautista or whomever, non-conformers weren't exactly welcome.

Now in 2021, baseball's cultural revolution is ongoing.

john bazemore/Associated Press

Once a deadly sin, bat flips and home run celebrations are now an MLB-approved cardinal virtue. Particularly during Players' Weekend, individuality is not only allowed but encouraged. Further evidence of MLB's embrace of its new era can be seen in its television promotions, such as "Rewrite the Rules" from 2018 and "Let the Kids Play" from 2018 and 2019.

Ostensibly starting with Mike Trout and Bryce Harper in 2012, the league's star power has gone from the old to the young in recent years. And before Tatis, luminaries Manny Machado, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Ronald Acuna Jr. and Juan Soto arose as defining stars for the sport's growing Latino population.

As he fits under both umbrellas, Tatis perhaps should have become just another face in the crowd upon his arrival in 2019. Yet it only took until his 108th game for his destiny as the face to come into focus.

       

Tatis Has Obliterated Everything, Including the Unwritten Rules

When the Padres acquired Tatis from the Chicago White Sox in June 2016, he was more noteworthy for being the son of a former big leaguer than for being any kind of blue-chip talent.

Next thing anyone knew, he was a top-10 prospect at the outset of 2018 and arguably baseball's No. 1 prospect a year later. Courtesy of his spring training performance, his next trick was to force the Padres to throw service-time considerations to the wind and put him on their Opening Day roster for 2019.

Tatis' tone-setting tour through his rookie season continued with a pronounced bat drop—not his best work, but nonetheless a solid proof of concept for his brand of on-field swagger—on his first career home run and finished with a .317/.379/.590 batting line with 22 home runs, 16 stolen bases and 4.2 rWAR.

Not bad considering that hamstring and back injuries limited him to 84 games.

Tatis' hot hitting carried over into 2020, wherein he had a pair of two-homer games within a 10-day span in August. Notably, the capper of the latter was an emphatic grand slam on a 3-0 pitch opposite the Texas Rangers.

San Diego Padres @Padres

Fernando Tatis Jr. El Niño. The face of baseball. https://t.co/Y5VF5EIBKt

Swinging for the fences on a 3-0 pitch with a 10-3 lead? That would have been a faux pas back in the day, and at least one person—namely Rangers manager Chris Woodward—still considered it as such in 2020.

Yet even though Tatis initially issued a mea culpa, he curiously didn't end up at the bottom of a dog pile of "play the game correctly" critics. On the contrary, coming to his defense were legends such as Johnny Bench and Reggie Jackson and contemporaries including Tim Anderson, Eduardo Rodriguez and even Bauer.

If it all had the feel of something big, that's because it was. Though it had been clear for years that the old-school way of doing things was dying at the hands of the next generation of stars, Tatis' grand slam was the killing blow.

        

Tatis Has What It Takes to Stick as the 'Face of MLB'

As titles go, "Face of MLB" is as elusive as it is unofficial.

The honor surely belonged to Derek Jeter as he wrapped up his legendary career with the New York Yankees in 2014. MLB Network then had fans vote for the new Face of MLB ahead of the 2015 season, and San Francisco Giants star Buster Posey emerged as the winner.

Because that competition proved to be a one-off, the Face of MLB became less a matter of confirmation and more one of nomination. Popular picks in recent years included Harper, Aaron Judge and Mookie Betts, though it was perhaps just a matter of time before the mantle defaulted to the game's best player.

Especially according to wins above replacement, that's been Trout ever since he took his place in center field for the Los Angeles Angels in 2012. And after years of shunning fame worthy of his accolades, he seemed to finally accept his place as the Face of MLB when he delivered the crucial last line of the league's second "Let the Kids Play" promo in 2019.

But even then, there was a sense Trout wasn't so much sitting on the throne as he was a steward of it. For one thing, his charisma has never measured up to his talent. For another, it's hard to be the Face of MLB when your team can't get you onto the big stage that is October baseball.

Which brings us back to Tatis, starting with how his talent-charisma gap is practically nonexistent.

Kyusung Gong/Associated Press

His numbers with the Padres—i.e., a .296/.370/.587 line with 46 home runs, 31 stolen bases and 7.7 rWAR in those 158 games—have him on an early track to Cooperstown and are backed by metrics that confirm he really is that dynamic.

To wit, he presently ranks in the 98th percentile in exit velocity and in the 95th percentile in sprint speed. His throws, meanwhile, have been clocked in the mid-90s.

And contrary to his apology in the wake of the grand slam against the Rangers, Tatis is done apologizing for doing things his way. Indeed, that's the entire conceit of his status as the cover boy for the latest entry in the long-running video game series MLB The Show.

PlayStation @PlayStation

The game has changed. Announcing Fernando Tatis Jr. as the cover athlete for MLB The Show 21, arriving April 20: https://t.co/bcmeB2oJYT https://t.co/Ve5A6nNJqB

So confident are the Padres in Tatis' ability and marketability, of course, that they signed him to what was then the third-largest contract in MLB history in February. With $340 million coming his way over the next 14 years, he won't be lacking for money any time soon.

Though San Diego isn't the biggest or most storied of baseball's markets, Tatis likewise shouldn't be lacking for exposure. After snapping a 14-year playoff drought in 2020, the Padres now boast excellent postseason (94.2 percent, according to FanGraphs) and World Series (10.9 percent) chances in 2021 after adding aces Yu Darvish, Blake Snell and Joe Musgrove in the offseason and starting 13-11.

But while all this puts a sort of "real deal" shine on Tatis' meteoric rise as the Face of MLB, he isn't altogether safe from usurpers. In his case, the ailments he suffered in 2019 and especially the shoulder trouble he's experienced this year cast the injury bug as a threat to his rule. 

For now, though, the Face of MLB simply fits with Tatis better than it does anyone else.

He's one of the most purely talented and most productive players in the sport, and he's neither shy of nor toils far from a spotlight that's never been more drawn to players such as him. Even if it doesn't last forever, he and everyone else should enjoy it while it does.

   

Stats courtesy of Baseball Reference, FanGraphs and Baseball Savant.

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