It was never a question of if Fernando Tatís Jr.’s athleticism would play on defense. Even in his tumultuous time as a shortstop, he flashed the leather with leaping plays that made him look more like the Air Jordan logo than a baseball player.
But the errors piled up and the Defensive Runs Saved sank, and after a brief cameo in the corner outfield in late 2021, it was clear Tatís, who missed all of last year first due to a fractured wrist and then a PED suspension, would be calling right field his more permanent home entering 2023.
By the numbers, the move has paid off in spades. The 24-year-old is the runaway right field leader in Defensive Runs Saved with 23. His 21 Runs Saved rank second among all outfielders, trailing only Daulton Varsho’s 24 and above past Fielding Bible Award winners like Kevin Kiermaier and Steven Kwan.
Most Defensive Runs Saved – 2023 Right Field
|Fernando Tatis Jr.||Padres||23|
|Alex Verdugo||Red Sox||14|
A closer look reveals how he’s tapped into his unicorn-like athletic ability to close the gap on such stalwarts, and where he can hope to improve to rank among the truly defensive elite in the outfield.
What stands out, perhaps unsurprisingly, is his arm. He’s tied for 2nd among outfielders in assists with 11 and the video shows they’re no cheapies.
“I was having a conversation about this very topic the other day and the thing we are all wondering is why people keep running,” SIS VP of Baseball Bobby Scales said. “It seems foolish, but they keep going.”
“The only thing we can think of is they are testing his decision making and/or his accuracy. Jeff Francoeur used to be this way as well: People ran because they were betting on him chucking it into row ZZ. But if they were wrong, it was ugly.”
— Talkin' Twins ⚾️ (@TalkinTwins) April 30, 2023
Ridiculous throw from Tatis.
— Sporting News MLB (@sn_mlb) May 17, 2023
Early on in the year, like the plays shown above, it was a matter of baserunners and base coaches underestimating the might of his cannon. As the season has progressed, however, he’s been turning awkward angles into surprising outs.
Of Tatís’ 4Good Fielding Plays given for outfield assists in June, three came on plays in which his momentum was carrying him toward the right field line. Two such plays demonstrate the potential of Tatís’ defensive ability (on the third, the Colorado broadcast team claims Elehuris Montero stumbled a bit out of the box, making him easier to nab).
— MLB Now (@MLBNow) June 15, 2023
On this play against the Guardians, Amed Rosario, who possesses 95th percentile sprint speed (per Baseball Savant), thinks about taking two. As he sees Tatís digging the ball out of the corner, he throws on the brakes, fearful of getting nailed at second. Tatís, whose mind was surely on making the throw to second to try to prevent Rosario from getting there, sees the runner make the wide turn, adjusts, and fires a one-hop strike to Jake Cronenworth for the out.
The baserunner is erased, both out of fear of Tatís’ arm and because of it.
No se le puede correr a Fernando Tatis Jr. 😬💥
El líder de DRS de la liga Nacional lo vuelve a hacer 🎯
La victima: Elly de la Cruz 🏃♂️⚡️ pic.twitter.com/Eb34K2NcOx
— Erick José Lantigua (@EJLantigua) June 30, 2023
In this play, Elly De La Cruz chops a single into shallow right. Tatís comes in to field the ball and De La Cruz, maybe the fastest man in the sport, decides to challenge him. The displaced infielder picks up the ball like a second baseman, turns like he’s making a throw across the diamond, and fires a seed to get the runner.
In both plays, Tatís is able to control himself as he moves laterally to field the ball, shift his body to put himself in a position to make a throw back toward the infield, and fires to get the runner. They require skills one might typically expect from an infielder, demonstrating one of the advantages the former shortstop seems to have over his outfield contemporaries: He was playing on the dirt just two seasons ago.
It hasn’t been only with his arm that Tatís has been able to save extra bases. He leads all right fielders with +10 Plays Saved on deep balls, which are likelier to be doubles and triples.
Just Fernando Tatis Jr. making a great running catch in right field and jumping into the wall while blowing a bubble with this gum. 😎
Clip that pic.twitter.com/oDjf64jnpN
— Neil Horowitz (@njh287) April 21, 2023
The converted infielder has shown no fear going back toward the wall. On this play, in just his 21st Major League game in right field, he sprints toward the corner before using the fence to stop his momentum. At the end of last month, he navigated an awkward right field corner at Petco Park to rob Bryan Reynolds, crashing into the jutting right field foul pole to pad his fall.
What a catch by Tatis! pic.twitter.com/ZaznGNTbnL
— Talking Friars (@TalkingFriars) July 26, 2023
Early in the season, he made his share of misplays that can likely be attributed to inexperience.
On two plays in his first series back from suspension, Tatís attempted to throw to the base ahead of the lead runner, allowing the trail runner to advance an additional base. On one hit in his very first game back, he fired home even though the runner didn’t even attempt to advance from third, making it easy for the batter to take second.
The 4th-year standout has also suffered a bit from overestimating his own ability. He didn’t have much of a chance on two failed slides against the Nationals in the first half, allowing runners to move up extra bases.
But though there have been mistakes – Tatis ranks 8th among right fielders in our Defensive Misplay tracking on a per-inning basis – the benefits have far outweighed the risks.
And it’s that athletic ability that makes one wonder what the defensive ceiling looks like for him.
C.J. Abrams RBI Double pic.twitter.com/9BCJsDiV78
— BuenDeportes (@BuenDeportes) June 24, 2023
He gets a defensive misplay on this deep fly ball for not reeling it in, but if you were to make a short list of outfielders who have a chance to make that play in the first place, Tatís might be the only name.
That always is the case: No matter where he finds himself on the diamond, Tatís’ upside is sky-high.