How risky would it be to take Fernando Tatis, Jr. in the first round?

Updated: Jan 19, 2020

The smell is in the air. By ‘smell’ I’m referring to cracking my fifth beer on a random Sunday night in July and agonizing over my FAAB bids with the stench of whatever a newborn sprayed on me recently. Ah yes, fantasy baseball will soon be here. The time to spend too much time reading and researching instead of sleeping like a normal person is here too.


Speaking of smell, Fernando Tatis, Jr. probably smells like a superstar. In the most complimentary way possible, he’s what I imagine a blend between a superstar baseball player and superstar cologne model would look like. Charlize Theron secretly has a crush on him… probably. Put on a Padres game on MLB.TV and the swag will splash onto your keyboard.

Everything the guy does on the baseball field looks cool, and he carries himself with a competitiveness and confidence well beyond his years thanks to plus-plus instincts. Oh, he has elite tools too. There are many reasons why professional scouts and at least one prospect evaluator, Keith Law, ranked him the No. 1 overall prospect ahead of Vladdy, Jr. heading into last season.


So, yeah, I really, really like Tatis, Jr. If I’m compiling a list of must-watch baseball players or the All MLB.tv Team, he might be at the top of the list. But is he also the riskiest player going inside the top 20 of NFBC drafts, on average, thus far?


Perhaps biggest gamble or make-or-break player might be a better way to phrase it. Currently, Tatis, Jr. is being selected 18th on average; his earliest selection is No. 8 overall, and his lowest is 29th. Some of the position players being selected on average behind Tatis, Jr.: Jose Ramirez, Anthony Rendon, Rafael Devers, J.D. Martinez, and Aaron Judge. That’s quite a list. A couple of those players, Devers and Rendon, finished sixth and seventh, respectively, in RazzBall.com’s player rater.


The talent is undeniable, but Tatis, Jr. won’t enter your draft rooms without risk. Let’s identify some areas:


SAMPLE SIZE

He’s played just 84 MLB games, and just turned 21-years-old. Also, he never played a single game at AAA, which makes his 2019, albeit in basically a half season, even more incredible.


BABIP:

In the minors, Tatis, Jr. never had a BABIP under .342, and with his combination of power, barrel rate, and sprint speed (32nd fastest in baseball), it makes sense. However, his .410 BABIP would have been higher than any regular in baseball last season, and there was a stark difference between his xBA, .259, and actual batting average, .317. Predicting a drop below .300 is foolish, but would a BABIP closer to .340 than .400 be that surprising? No.


HOW REAL IS THE POWER?

Tatis, Jr.’s .272 ISO would have ranked ahead the likes of Max Muncy, Franmil Reyes (long live the Franimal, basher of homers), Trevor Story, Matt Chapman, Josh Donaldson, Nolan Arenado, Juan Soto, Freddie Freeman, and J.D. Martinez. Fangraphs.com assigned his future power a 70, and his max exit velocity of 115.9 MPH suggests the plus-plus power potential is real along with being in the top nine percent of barrel rate.


But how real as it directly relates to 22 homers in 372 plate appearances?


His fly ball rate was just slightly above league average, his average exit velocity ranked 101st, and his 6.8 launch angle was below average; plus, there was a massive difference between his .590 slugging percentage and .490 xSLG.


Oh, he also plays his home games at Petco.


CONCERNS IN THE SWING PROFILE

As outstanding as Tatis, Jr.’s barrel% and wOBA were last season, his strikeout percentage was equally as bad. The future superstar – and perhaps future Hall of Famer – mashed fastballs to the tune of .378 with a slugging percentage of .684. Like his overall numbers, the expected statistics - .304 xBA and .561 xSLG – suggested he outperformed expected results, but those are still extremely impressive numbers.


Of the pitches he saw last season, 55.4% were fastballs, and he had a 23.7 whiff%. That trend could change given his numbers versus breaking balls and offspeed pitches, per Baseball Savant:


Breaking stuff: .221/.323/.433 xBA/xwOBA/xSLG; 52.5 whiff%

Offspeed: .143/.200/.306; 44.4 whiff%


Plus, Tatis, Jr.’s zone contact%, chase%, chase contact%, and whiff% were all worse than MLB averages, including a few that were much worse. (oddly, Savant has these numbers flipped, so it’s unclear which slash line belongs to breaking stuff or offspeed; general point still remains, though)


What the young infielder excelled at, though, was jumping on first pitches he could handle and swinging often at pitches in the strike zone. For a player that played just 84 games, his +14 in swing runs is an impressive number, and demonstrates he swung at good pitches at a high rate and did damage with the bat in motion.


Make no mistake, this column isn’t sponsored by Debbie Downer. Silky Johnson didn’t walk into your fantasy party and smack Tatis, Jr.’s name out of your hand with his cane. Again, I love Tatis, Jr. He has a real chance to grab the torch and become the game’s best player in his prime. He’s as exciting and must-watch as anyone in baseball.


But a first-round pick in fantasy drafts? Let’s take a look at the Razzball/Steamer projection:


.265/.333/.484; 88/29/78 with 23 steals over 635 plate appearances.


That’s not bad. I’d love to have that on my team. But Razzball also projects Tatis, Jr. to rate as the No. 36 overall player this year, well behind another very speedy shortstop, Aldaberto Mondesi. Projection models probably have a difficult time with Tatis, Jr., though. Looking at that slash line and those totals, I think it would all maybe be a worst-case scenario - besides the batting average and maybe the homers - given how spectacular last season was.


What you’re buying that early in the draft, if you take Tatis, Jr. in the second round or perhaps late in the first round, is the power/speed combination and the potential for a full season of numbers similar to last season; emphasis on "potential" because this isn't a Ronald Acuna, Jr. guarantee. Speaking of Acuna, Jr., you can find some similarities in his swing/contact rates, and barrel rates from his first year. Of course, he made a massive jump his second full season similar to what Tatis, Jr. could do. So, we have seen someone young and a bit unproven do this recently, a player many analysts were having this same discussion about last year.


According to Razzball’s projections, there are only nine players projected to hit 20 or more homers while stealing 20 or more bags as well, and of those players, four are being taken ahead of Tatis, Jr. with one, Jose Ramirez, being directly behind him. Guys like Mike Trout, Mookie Betts, Trevor Story barely missed the cutoff because of fewer than 20 steals projections, but are all going ahead of Tatis, Jr. in drafts. Basically, the hunt for power/speed combination is very, very real because stolen bases are down, and players that can provide power, runs, RBI, average and steals are down as well or even just power and speed. Insert your cheesy Top Gun quote here.


VERDICT

While I think there are obvious risk signs, although his splits were fairly similar throughout the season, with Tatis, Jr. being selected as early as he is right now, his mental makeup makes him a safer young player with a small sample size compared to most top prospects in a similar situation. You know what you’re getting with the position players taken ahead of Tatis, Jr., who is the first true risk of the top 20 overall picks. But if you’re seeing speed/power combos, which are hard to find beyond the top 20 picks, fly off the board and you want to make an upside pick early, selecting him anywhere from 12th on is a fine, calculated gamble because we know his skill, talent, and speed are real. Just know that it comes with more risk than most players selected in that position, a position you can't afford to whiff on.

photo: @Padres on Twitter

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