Padres star Fernando Tatis Jr. is fully back

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After a tumultuous 2022 followed by a somewhat down year at the plate last year, Fernando Tatis Jr. appears to be finally fully back.

The standard for Fernando Tatis Jr. is higher than the skyscrapers that stare down at Petco Park in downtown San Diego.

It’s been a long journey for Tatis. He was in the penthouse suite in 2021, finishing third in NL MVP voting while leading the National League with 42 home runs. That was coming off of a stellar 2020 season that saw him become the cover athlete for MLB The Show 21.

From there, the elevator shaft broke, and he plummeted to the basement. Between the questionable offseason activities leading to wrist injuries and the eventual suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, 2022 was a dark time for Tatis. Many turned their backs on him. Fans were understandably hurt and angry. He lost an Adidas sponsorship. For a time, he basically went dark.

2023 offered a rebirth of sorts. He got his shoulder and wrist operated on and fully repaired ahead of the season. He moved to a new defensive position at right field. All he did was post 2.3 dWAR and an NL-high 29 Defensive Runs Saved. He won not only a Gold Glove in his first year at a new position but the coveted Platinum Glove, given to one fielder in each league.

Despite his defense being a smashing success, his numbers at the plate were pedestrian compared to his pre-suspension/injury numbers. Between 2020 and 2021, when his lowest finish in MVP voting was fourth, he posted a .963 OPS and 163 OPS+.

Last year, those numbers were .770 and 113, respectively. While still above average, there was a clear drop-off from his previous form. Many wondered if he would ever return to his 2021 self. Doubters and haters suggested his previous numbers were chemically induced.

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Previously, I offered a comparison to Ronald Acuña Jr., who had a very lackluster 2022 season by his standards after returning from a torn ACL. Then, in 2023, he went gangbusters, posting a 41-HR, 73-stolen base season on his way to an MVP.

While it’s still very early in 2024, there are signs that Tatis is fully back. Perhaps, like Acuña, Tatis needed that full season under his belt to get his sea legs back.

First off, he got maybe his first “normal” offseason. Finally, he could prepare without rehabbing injuries or having a cloud of a suspension hanging over him, or league-wide interruptions, maybe since his rookie season. 2020 brought COVID, 2021 was the lockout, and then…all hell broke loose for him.

Now, he can just be a ballplayer. And it’s magnificent to behold.

Where the clearest evidence lies of his proper return is in the exit velocity. Among 438 batted balls last season, his hardest hit ball went 113.4 mph.

With just 42 balls put in play so far in a very young 2024 campaign, he has already exceeded his top 2023 mark twice.

His 116.7 mph single in Korea against the Dodgers was the hardest hit ball of his entire career.

The fact that Tatis is hitting the ball harder than at any other time in his career should scare the entire league and excite Padres fans. Also, he is miraculously still just 25 years old. He is younger than Adley Rutschman and Juan Soto. He’s barely old enough to rent a car without an additional fee.

The 25-year-old is still in the 79th percentile or better in barrel rate, strikeout rate, expected WOBA, expected batting average, and expected slugging. Also at this point, he has the lowest strikeout rate (7.4%) of his career. He is putting the ball in play more and hitting it harder.

Yes, it is still extremely early. However, it’s hard to ignore the fact that Tatis is hitting the ball harder than he ever has before. Plus, his heroics on Monday night etched another notable moment in his young yet storied career.

That go-ahead home run to cap the dramatic eight-run comeback against the Cubs was his first homer in what is considered by FanGraphs as a “high leverage” situation in the eighth inning or later in his entire career. He came through in the clutch like he never has before. The question now is- can he sustain it? This team desperately needs MVP-level Tatis. Their playoff hopes may rest upon his strong shoulders.

Is Tatis back to competing for MVPs? Again, it is very early. But as best we can tell through 13 games, he looks more and more like the all-around superstar we all fell in love with a few years ago.

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