Can Fernando Tatis Jr. Still Mash After A Year Away From MLB?
Bob Melvin played 10 years in the big leagues, and has managed for another 20. Yet the San Diego Padres’ skipper freely admitted that he has no idea exactly what to expect from Fernando Tatis Jr., now that the 24-year-old superstar has returned to the field after missing the entire 2022 season.
“Based on what we saw in spring training and who he is, there’s obviously a high expectation level,” Melvin said a few weeks ago, sitting in the visiting dugout at Citi Field ahead of a Mets-Padres game. “But you do have to temper it knowing that he has not played in basically a year and a half.”
Tatis did show some rust during his first weekend back, going 3-for-18 — though he also hit a home run. As always, essentially everything about Tatis is an outlier. There’s both his previous career performance, which was off-the-charts excellent — particularly relative to the age at which he did it — and the multifaceted nature of his time away.
Tatis accumulated a 160 OPS+ through the first three seasons and 1,175 plate appearances of his career, covering his age 20 through 22 seasons. To get a sense of historical perspective, among hitters with at least 1,000 PAs through age 23, that OPS+ mark ranks eighth all time. The seven ahead of him? Ted Williams, Pete Browning, Ty Cobb, Mike Trout, Stan Musial, Willie Wells and Albert Pujols. Pretty good list! Tatis is ahead of everyone else — including his current teammate Juan Soto, plus Mickey Mantle, Jimmie Foxx, Reggie Jackson and Dick Allen. Simply put: There aren’t a lot of players, historically, like Tatis just from performance alone.
Tatis missed the entire 2022 season, but for two different reasons. A broken left wrist sustained during a motorcycle accident was expected to cost him the first three months or so. On Aug. 12, however, Tatis also was suspended for 80 games after testing positive for the steroid Clostebol. That carried his suspension over into the first 20 games of 2023.
But there’s time and there’s time away. Tatis wasn’t inactive for that entire period. He played this spring, as Melvin alluded to above, and he suited up for minor league games with Triple-A El Paso of the Pacific Coast League. Let’s just say he more than held his own there, slashing .515/.590/1.212 in 39 plate appearances, with seven home runs. The bat appeared ready.
“I think it’s [hard] to ask if he’s got a 1.000 OPS at the end of this season,” Melvin said. “I don’t know. But man, he looked good in spring training, he was active on the bases, and he was excited about playing. And he’s a special talent.”
Plus, there are plenty of parallels for precocious performers who pushed past a protracted pause.
That list has got to start with Musial, whose .344/.423/.539 line from 1941 to 1944 was interrupted by his military service, costing him the entire 1945 season. But the U.S. Navy discharged him in March 1946, and after hitchhiking home to Donora, Pennsylvania, to see his family, he headed to St. Louis Cardinals camp to see if he could still hit.
Spoiler alert: He could. Musial’s slash line by the end of April was .370/.404/.574, including a four-hit effort against the Cubs, and he discussed how little the layoff was affecting him with the AP’s Duke Morgan in an article from April 28, 1946.
“I’m not having any trouble so far with any of the pitchers and I’m hitting the ball well — much better than I expected after my layoff,” Musial told Morgan. Musial finished the 1946 season at .365/.434/.587, good for an OPS+ of 183, and he ended up winning the National League batting title. And the MVP. And the World Series, in seven games, over the Red Sox.
If Musial is any kind of comparison for Tatis — who missed his age-23 (rather than age-24) season and played at a similar level to Musial prior to his time off — then there’s good reason for optimism around San Diego’s prodigal shortstop.
Of course, Tatis wasn’t just taking time off from the game — he suffered a significant injury. Though not exactly the same, Andres Galarraga can relate some: In The Big Cat’s case, he was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin lymphoma following a 1998 season in which he slashed .305/.397/.595 with 44 home runs and a 157 OPS+ for the Atlanta Braves. After a year away from the game spent undergoing chemotherapy, Galarraga was back and ready to play again by the spring of 2000. Though he, too, didn’t know what that might look like.
“After one year, I thought it would be hard,” Galarraga told Steve Rock of the Kansas City Star in March of 2000. “I didn’t know what kind of reactions I would have. But as soon as I started swinging, I was feeling comfortable. I surprised myself.”
Galarraga went on to hit .302/.369/.526, good for a 123 OPS+. That earned him an All-Star appearance and NL Comeback Player of the Year honors. While it was a drop-off from 1998, Galarraga’s comeback might represent a floor of sorts for Tatis in his own return. The nature of the reason for his absence, along with his advanced baseball age — he turned 39 during the 2000 season — make Galarraga an imperfect comparison for the 24-year-old Padre.
A similar disclaimer applies to another recent return from missing a full year — that of Alex Rodriguez, whose own steroids suspension cost him the entire 2014 season before he returned to the field for the 2015 New York Yankees.
Rodriguez, immersed in a deeply complicated scandal we don’t need to rehash here, hadn’t played particularly well in 2013 either, so it made sense that when he stood in for his first spring at-bat in March 2015, he told the umpire: “Take it easy on me, it’s been a couple of years since I’ve been in the batter’s box.”
But Rodriguez did quite well in 2015, slashing .250/.356/.486 for a 129 OPS+ and 33 home runs in what was the final excellent season of his career. He even played in 151 games, a further example of players returning from layoff and putting in a full campaign on the diamond. Musial played 156 games in 1946; Galarraga played 141 in 2000.
And how much will Tatis Jr. play? Melvin said he’s going to follow the doctors on how often to incorporate his young star, but the plan is full speed ahead.
“It’s more in communication with the training staff on how many in a row maybe for him,” Melvin said. “But soon as we get him, he’s gonna be in the lineup, 100 percent.”
Which means we’ll start to get some answers soon about where this long-awaited return fits into the compendium of comebacks from throughout baseball history.
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