What the Fernando Tatis Jr. Injury Means to the Padres’ 2021 Outlook

What the Fernando Tatis Jr. Injury Means to the Padres’ 2021 Outlook article feature image
Credit:

Denis Poroy/Getty Images. Pictured: Fernando Tatis Jr.

If you had started a franchise mode with the Padres on MLB the Show, or Out of the Park Baseball and Fernando Tatis Jr. was injured five games into your simulation — you would have already deleted the file and restarted.

Unfortunately, we don’t have that option, and some of our worst fears as baseball fans were realized when the 22-year-old, second-generation MLB superstar went down in a heap as a result of a non-contact injury on Monday night:

Fernando Tatis Jr. went back to the clubhouse after hurting himself on this swing pic.twitter.com/iQh81fkwjU

— SF Giants on NBCS (@NBCSGiants) April 6, 2021

It was a scary moment for fans, but also for the Padres, who recently inked the wunderkind shortstop to a 14-year, $340 million contract through the 2034 season. (At which point I might either be dead or broke from betting the Pirates.)

While there’s no way of knowing how the injury will affect Tatis moving forward, we can certainly figure out how his absence — or presence — will affect the outlook of their 2021 season.

Below, I’ll examine the possible timelines for El Niño’s return, the possible replacements the Padres will play in his stead, and how their 2021 outlook changes depending upon how many games he can play.

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Injury Timelines

For hitters, shoulder injuries come in all sorts of shapes and sizes, with varying levels of complication and impact. But we do have some historical data to guesstimate how long Tatis might be out of action.

The worst-case scenario, and my initial reaction, was highly reminiscent of Michael Conforto’s 2017 non-contact injury where he tore the posterior capsule in his shoulder and required season-ending surgery. Conforto struggled (relatively speaking) upon his return, posting a 100 wrC+ over the first half of the 2018 campaign before fully rediscovering his power (142 wRC+) during the second half of that season.

The best-case scenario seemed closer to Nick Madrigal’s injury last August when the White Sox rookie missed just 22 days with a shoulder separation after sliding awkwardly into a base.

Tatis dealt with shoulder trouble throughout his minor-league career and injured the same shoulder late in Spring Training. Perhaps he finally aggravated a preexisting condition that he was already playing through. While the Padres have deemed the injury to be “non-surgical,” he will still miss some amount of time the rest of the way.

Using the excellent injury dashboards from JagFantasySports, we can put a rough timeline on Tatis’ expected return.

In short, I would expect him to be out three weeks to a month, at minimum, but likely closer to six weeks. And surgery would mean the end of his season: 

Possible Replacements

Fortunately, the Padres are better equipped to handle an injury to a star shortstop than most other teams. The organization has been spending like a big-market club for several seasons. One of their most surprising signings was the addition of Korean infielder Ha-seong Kim this offseason.

Obviously, Manny Machado is a former shortstop himself. Still, he was pretty inefficient on defense (-4 Defensive Runs Saved) over 37 games at the position for the Padres in 2019 after falling off a cliff at the position (-10 DRS in 147 games played) in his final season before hitting free agency. Machado seems firmly entrenched at third base, and moving him off of that spot creates an equally large hole to fill at that position.

Jake Cronenworth (11 games played, -3 DRS at shortstop in 2020) is likely a worse defensive option than Machado, and I don’t see him moving off of second base.

That leaves Kim and Jorge Mateo as the two best options to replace Tatis in the short term.

Let’s take a look at how Steamer projections would compare their relative production over 600 plate appearances:

For those unfamiliar with the above data points, I’ll try to break this down more simplistically:

  • Tatís is 37% better than a league-average hitter and a top-10 offensive producer in MLB, on par with another young star, Ronald Acuña Jr.
  • Kim is roughly 3% below average as a hitter, which is still very good (18th overall) for a shortstop, equivalent to Didi Gregorius or Jean Segura’s offensive projections.
  • Kim’s defensive projection is likely combining time at second base and shortstop, so the difference in defensive value compared to Tatís is likely a wash.
  • Mateo is roughly 40% below average as a hitter, and the projections consider him to be a significantly worse fielder than both of his teammates. Mateo played a bunch of shortstop in the minors but has yet to play an MLB game at the position and is a fringe bench player, at best.

Games Played and Expected Wins

I projected the Padres as a 96.4 win team before Opening Day. ATC projections had them at 95.2 wins, Davenport put them at 101 wins, FanGraphs forecasted 95.4 wins, and PECOTA estimated 95.1 wins.

San Diego is off to a 4-2 start in 2021 and on pace for 107.9 wins over the course of a full season, but they will obviously face steeper competition than the Diamondbacks and Giants, who were both projected to win about 75-76 games before opening day.

Tatis has been a slightly below-average shortstop (-4 Defensive Runs Saved, -6 Outs Above Average) over the course of 145 MLB games, but for purposes of this experiment, we’re going to assume that Ha-seong Kim is either an equivalent defensive player or that if he does represent a slight improvement at the position, it is offset by Tatis’ superior contributions on the base paths.

So the ultimate question: How does the Padres’ outlook change, depending upon how many games Tatis plays the rest of the way?

The Padres are still an extremely talented team even if Tatis were to miss the remainder of the 2021 season, and in fact, they would still be one of the favorites to claim a wild card spot if he doesn’t play another game until 2022. Their depth is that impressive.

Even if Tatis plays just half a season, I would make them the favorite in the NL wild card race, and they would still have an outside chance (though increasingly unlikely) of overtaking the Dodgers in the NL West.

As a result, it’s more important that they bring him back fully healthy rather than reinserting him into the lineup as soon as possible.

Game-to-Game and World Series Projections

On a game-to-game basis, whether Tatis is in or out of the lineup might not move my projections as much as you might think — because Kim is a capable player who could start for half of the teams around MLB.

For Wednesday’s contest against the San Francisco Giants, for example, I made the Padres a 55.4% favorite (implied -124) with Kim in the lineup. If you swapped Kim for Tatis, my game projection isn’t moving much more than about two percent, to roughly 57.5% (implied -135).

While that may not appear to be a substantial move at first glance, when you consider the fact that I’m generally betting edges greater than 3.5% relative to listed odds, it’s certainly enough of a factor to put me on or off of a game.

If the Padres do make the playoffs, and if you previously gave them a 10% chance (implied +900) of winning the World Series with Tatis, their odds in each playoff series (after the Wild Card round) would decrease by about 4% without Tatis, moving their projected World Series odds closer to 7.7% (implied +1200).

Final Thoughts

We often discuss the physical side of injuries without considering the mental scars they can cause in athletes.

I often think about the scene from Friday Night Lights, where Boobie Miles goes for an MRI on his knee, and the doctor tells him, “the things that you do well — the reason you’re great — is that you can run and cut and hammer people and you don’t hesitate because you’ve got a solid knee. When you don’t have this ligament, you can’t do that.”

The thing that makes Tatis truly great is his energy and effort, which accentuates his physical attributes. He swings violently and dives for every ball and base within his range. But if you throw some hesitancy into that equation, it takes some luster away from his lure.

Will Tatis start to slide feet first into every base to protect the shoulder? Will he dive for fewer balls than he would normally have gotten to in order to avoid future injury? Will his swing path become less aggressive and his production less potent in an effort to stay healthy?

Bryce Harper was injured numerous times early in his career because he played so damned hard and he kept running himself into outfield walls in order to make plays. After taking his foot off the gas pedal, particularly on defense, Harper has been able to stay healthy for five out of the past six seasons, but he’s also noticeably less “fun” than he used to be.

And that’s perfectly OK. Maybe it’s in Tatis’ best interest to ease off a little bit and protect his body to extend his prime. But I hope that doesn’t detract from his ability to launch 100+ mph lasers off of his bat or steal base hits on defense from spots that he had no business getting to in the first place.

I have dealt with this shoulder injury, specifically. I had a shoulder subluxation and tore my labrum back in college — and I can tell you, it alters your behavior rather quickly. You can feel the incessant popping and clicking in that shoulder every time you reach for something over your head, and it makes you less inclined to use that arm for things in the future; until it gets fixed and rehabilitated.

In everyday life, you become hesitant as a result of the injury. You stop reaching for things with that arm, and you think about how to protect it — and avoid that popping — constantly.

That’s what I worry about most for Tatis: that one of the game’s brightest young stars might be hesitant to rely upon the physical attributes which make him great. It could be temporary, or it might be permanent, but the thought will likely cross his mind at some point.

Either way, I’ll be rooting for him, because this game needs more potentially transcendent stars like Fernando Tatís Jr.

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