AnalysisNL West

All Eye On Me

To some extent, we’ve all experienced the unfortunate phenomena of “forced fun.” 

Office parties, baby showers, a friend in town for one night who wants to really live it up—when we are instructed to have fun, our brains tend to reject the possibility. It almost doesn’t matter how much fun the thing actually is; instructing someone to enjoy something is the surest way to summon knee-jerk resistance. 

For awhile now, Fernando Tatis Jr. has been telling us how fun he is. In the “Make it Major” video from the beginning of this season, he smiles into the camera and explicitly promises “major fun.” In his intro video to MLB The Show 21, the cover of which depicts him executing a cool bat flip, he fake-apologizes for making the game “too exciting” and proclaims “we’re never going back.” These instances are especially significant because it’s obviously not just him telling us this. MLB and SDS and Nike and who knows how many other corporations have some stake in convincing us that Fernando Tatis Jr. is fun, and no fun will ever be more forced than fun that is forced on us by major corporations. This is especially true of MLB, possibly the least fun corporation to ever exist.

So my question is: how on earth is he actually this fun to watch?

Baseball is made up almost entirely of magic tricks. It’s a magic trick to throw a ball past a major league hitter, just like it’s a magic trick to hit a ball thrown by a major league pitcher. Maybe the most impressive magic trick in baseball is to do something everybody knows you’re trying to do, like Dave Roberts stealing that base in the 2004 ALCS when everybody knew he would, or like Mariano Rivera throwing his cutter to batter after batter. What Fernando Tatis Jr. is doing is one of the most amazing magic tricks I’ve ever seen. It defies all logic. To tell people you’re amazing, you’re fun, that you’re special, to put that in commercials and on video games, then to actually deliver? It’s simply incredible. 

So now I’m the one telling you that Fernando Tatis Jr. is fun, but what does that actually look like?

It looks something like this: last Friday night, Fernado Tatis Jr. hit two home runs off of Clayton Kershaw. The next night, he did the same thing off of Trevor Bauer, becoming the first visiting player since Barry Bonds to hit multiple home runs in back to back games at Dodger Stadium. While rounding the bases on the first of his two home runs against Bauer, he turned toward the pitcher’s mound and covered one eye, a taunting allusion to Bauer’s weird eye-closing stunt from spring training. When he homered again later in the same game, he imitated Bauer’s signature “k-strut” while crossing home plate. In another era, these gestures might have earned him a pitch to the body in his next plate appearance but, like the man said, the game has changed and we’re never going back.

Of the event, Trevor Bauer said: “…I’m all for it. I think that it’s important the game moves in that direction and we stop throwing at people because they celebrated having some success on the field.” Bauer has been so outspoken about the importance of player branding and making the game more exciting, he could hardly have said anything else. These two men probably don’t agree about much of anything, except that this kind of thing is acceptable now and that it makes the game better.

I happen to agree. This moment was a highlight of the series to me; pro wrestling-style taunts followed up with truly elite performance. This was only the tip of the fun iceberg however, as the events around these incidents unfolded with all the narrative pacing, tension, and plot twists of an Elmore Leonard novel, with Fernando Tatis Jr. as the main character.

You don’t need me to tell you that the expectations for the Dodgers-Padres rivalry going into this season were sky-high. Both teams armed themselves to the teeth over the winter and although the Dodgers still look like world-beaters, the Padres look to be making a legitimate run at finally wresting the NL West title from Andrew Friedman and company’s gilded hands. After an electric first matchup in San Diego, including a gravity-defying catch from Mookie Betts, the expectations for their first series in LA were even higher. As played, the series somehow managed to over-deliver, presenting a narratively perfect four games. Tatis was central to that perfection, the protagonist (or antagonist, depending on your point of view) of the entire weekend.

On Sunday he hit another home run, then scored the tying run to send the game to extra innings, then the winning run to win the game and the series. When all was said and done, he would have an incredible .444/.500/1.278 slash line though all four games, good for 359 wRC+ and nearly a full point of fWAR. His defense wasn’t great and he had a few costly errors, but I still don’t think you can argue that this was anything other than an absolutely dominant performance.

Being the best player in the most exciting series of the season so far, and doing it with so much style, is about as fun as baseball gets. Performances like this are the reason we watch sports in the first place. The numbers themselves, while incredible, are almost beside the point. The numbers confirm for us what we already know we’re seeing: one of the coolest guys ever being great at baseball.

Does any of this mean that Tatis is the next Barry Bonds, The Best Player in Baseball, savior of the sport? Not really. It’s literally one series in April, and we are blessed with a huge number of incredibly exciting young stars. Tatis might not even be the most exciting star in baseball at the moment, not while Shohei Ohtani, and Ronald Acuña Jr., and Juan Soto, and Mookie Betts, and Mike Trout, and others remain in the game.

But for at least one weekend he more than lived up to the hype. He told us he would be great, and he delivered on that promise. Finding out if he can maintain that level of performance is all part of the fun.

Featured Image: @MLB

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