Can Padres’ Fernando Tatis Jr. return to MVP form?

Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

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Mandatory Credit: Orlando Ramirez-USA TODAY Sports

Fernando Tatis Jr. returned to the field in 2023 after missing the entire previous season. Overall, his numbers were down compared to past seasons. Can he return to form in 2024?

Padres fans waited a long time for Fernando Tatis Jr. to return to the field following the 2021 season. They waited exactly 564 days, in fact.

The last time Tatis was on the field prior to this year, he was in near MVP form. His 2021 season was one of the most prolific in Padres history, with an NL-leading 42 homers, a .979 OPS, 166 OPS+, and 25 stolen bases. That all added up to a 6.6 WAR, the seventh-most in franchise history. His 7.3 oWAR was the third highest in franchise single-season history. He was named an All-Star, took home his second Silver Slugger Award, and finished third in NL MVP voting.

Then, his world came crashing down.

First, he arrived at Spring Training in 2022 with a broken wrist from an ill-fated motorcycle accident. Then, right as he was working his way back from the injury, he was dinged in August for PEDs and suspended 80 games. With his reputation tarnished and a complicated relationship with the fanbase, Tatis went dark for several months.

He came out on the other side in April 2023, returning to the Padres lineup. Not only that, he learned a new position, entrenching himself in right field. There, he played 137 games this season. He missed just one game the rest of the way, setting a career-high with 141 games played.

Despite the uptick in games, Tatis’ offensive numbers were pedestrian compared to his 2021 campaign. Even though the average MLB hitter certainly covets such numbers, for Tatis, they seem mildly disappointing.

2021 .282 42 97 .975 166 7.3
2023 .257 25 78 .770 113 2.7

Clearly, there was a major drop-off in offensive production. Was it fair to expect similar results? Perhaps not. That long of a layoff seemed to affect him. Not only was he suspended, but his wrist had two surgeries, and he finally repaired his shoulder with an additional procedure. To ask him to return to MVP level after 18 months away from elite competition is hardly fair.

Fatigue also could be a factor after such a long absence from the day-to-day grind, as he posted just a .226 average and .679 OPS in the final 38 games of this season.

Why his season should not be considered a disappointment is that, along with the long layoff, he shifted to a completely new defensive position in right field.

It should be emphasized that what Tatis did in right field is truly remarkable. After playing shortstop for the majority of his life, he played right field not only at a Gold Glove level but platinum. He is second in all of MLB with 27 Defensive Runs Saved. Only the Blue Jays’ Daulton Varsho collected more in all of baseball.

Tatis also led all right fielders in Outs Above Average with 11. The next closest was at six.

Surely, the Dominican star should win an NL Gold Glove this offseason.

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Given his elite defense at a new position, plus getting a year at the plate under his belt, should lead to improved numbers in 2024. Despite a “down” season at the plate, thanks to his defense supplementing it, he still posted 5.5 WAR, good enough for 14th among position players in baseball.

Can he return to the MVP form we saw in 2021?

A helpful comparison could be when Ronald Acuña Jr. tore his ACL in 2021 and returned the next season and didn’t look himself. He had 15 homers and a 113 OPS+ in 119 games after coming back in 2022.

Now? He’s very likely going to win NL MVP this season after a historic 41-homer, 73-stolen base campaign. It seems like it took him a full season after to fully recover from the injury and long layoff.

Perhaps there is hope for Tatis to return more to his 2021 form in 2024 after getting a full season back under his belt. Let’s not forget, he will be just be 25 years old next Opening Day. Plus, his first (hopefully) “normal” offseason since 2020-2021 should do wonders as well.

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