Fernando Tatis Jr. and MLB's 100 most entertaining players

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Friday, September 11, 2020

Fernando Tatis Jr. was wearing a microphone during a recent Padres game, chatting with the broadcasters from his shortstop position in the middle of the second-inning action. It was charming audio -- hearing him encourage and coordinate with his teammates, getting a camera isolated on baseball's most exciting player for every pitch and play -- but, truthfully, most of the actual conversation stayed in the lane of typical ballplayer cliché.

Asked about managing clubhouse chemistry with a bunch of new Padres added at the trade deadline, Tatis took a breath and said what you'd expect: "Everybody's playing for the team over here. Giving more at-bats to the guy behind you ... "

Just then, the batter --Jonah Heimof the Athletics -- took a wild swing and lost hold of his bat, sending the lumber down the first-base line. "Oh, s---!" Tatis exclaimed.

It was a metaphor! The typical baseball game, baseball player, baseball season is so often the cliché, and this year Tatis is so often the exclamation. At least once in any game Tatis is playing -- no matter how sedate the game, how lopsided the score, no matter what he has done before -- he will suddenly make you say, "Oh, s---!"

Last summer, we tried to identify who had been baseball's most watchable player in every year of Tatis' life. In the process, we declared that the rookie Tatis was clearly the heir to that title, the current crown holder. A lot has changed in the world and the sport since then. Who, in the summer of 2020, is the most watchable every-day player in baseball? It could be anybody, from a young center fie-

No, it's obviously still Tatis. There's no suspense here. There is nobody in the same ballpark -- baseball term -- as Tatis, who hits all the major marks of watchability:

  • He's constantly on the screen, in a sport that usually makes it hard to focus on a single player: He plays shortstop; he often leads off in the Padres' lineup; he's always on base, and when he is, he's a brilliant and aggressive baserunner. As a defender, he manages to find his way onto the screen on practically every play; in that broadcast where he was mic'd up, Eric Karros suggested Tatis' manager might actually prefer that Tatis hustle less, to preserve his health. And as a hitter, his stats feel as if they matter, since he's involved in about seven different races to lead the league in significant offensive categories.
  • He's young -- 21 -- and he's historically significant, with the second-highest WAR per game through age 21 in history. (Only Mike Trout is higher.) He's a plausible long-shot threat to someday challenge the career home run record, if you want to get really wild really quickly. If you want to be calmer about it, then he's about to win the NL home run title, he's second in the majors in RBIs (while, again, often batting leadoff), and in this short season he's actually still got an outside shot at the Triple Crown.
  • He's simply stronger and faster than everybody else, in a way that's quickly visible to any viewer with hardly any context. He's the 10th-fastest runner in baseball, by Statcast's sprint speed, and the second-strongest hitter, by Statcast's average exit velocity. He has one of the best throwing arms in baseball.
  • He's playing for an exciting team in a pennant race.
  • He's doing something incredible with his uniform, and it's either going to be widely copied or prove to be uncopyable: With a combination of compression sleeves, wrist and elbow bands, high socks, neon shoelaces, sliding glove, batting gloves, headband, sunglasses, etc., he turns his uniform into something like a multitextured, multichromatic armor -- a collage of yellows, grays, pinks and blacks designed for a Mad Max showpiece.
  • Everybody talks about him pretty much constantly, and it hasn't yet turned him weird, self-conscious or self-referential. When last month there was briefly a silly hullabaloo about him swinging on a 3-0 count with a healthy lead -- he hit a grand slam; after about a half-second of debate and the Rangers' awful attempt at retaliation, almost everybody supported and celebrated Tatis' swing -- he came back the next day and calmly stole third base with the team ahead of the Rangers by 6, ice cold and totally appropriate.

So, yes, no suspense: Tatis is, for now, the most watchable player in baseball, not even close. But others before him have arguably been just as watchable and been usurped. Mike Trout was most watchable for only one season. Ichiro was most watchable for only one season. Yasiel Puig: one season. Mookie Betts, probably only a half-season. Somebody will topple him.

I don't think I want to guess who'll do the usurping. But here's who trails him right now. We're going deep: These have been the 100 most watchable players in baseball this year -- some having great seasons, some having bad seasons, some superstars and some not, none of them linked by any common definition except that (a) the viewer has a reason to want to watch them, and (b) the viewer has, largely, been rewarded for watching them. (Also, they have to be a position player and have had at least 50 plate appearances through the weekend.)

100. Paul Goldschmidt, Cardinals. This century has produced a bunch of superstars who seemed to be obvious future Hall of Famers when they were at their peaks only to end up getting hurt, declining early and ending up a little bit short of the 65-ish WAR it takes for a traditional Hall of Fame candidacy: Andrew McCutchen, Ryan Braun, Buster Posey, Joe Mauer, David Wright, Dustin Pedroia, Troy Tulowitzki. Maybe some of them will end up getting in, but the fact that most won't goes to show how difficult it is to get that last 25 WAR, especially once a player's career momentum has stalled. Goldschmidt, the NL's best player over a six-year period, reached 40 WAR in his age 30 season. Plenty of time to get the final 25. But the final 25 are hard! After he was traded to St. Louis last year, he began the 2019 season with a terrible slump, and suddenly 65 WAR looked as if it might be too far away. Now his chances of making the Hall seem to swing wildly with each streak: When he's cold, we're convinced he's an average first baseman in unstoppable decline. But then when he's hot, we're convinced he's one of the NL's scariest hitters and one of the players we want to save for future generations. Right now he's hot, but in an odd way: infinite walks but not much power, the best OBP of his career but (perhaps) declining bat speed, a little bit like a lesser Joey Votto season. This could still go either way.

99. Kyle Tucker, Astros

98. Willi Castro, Tigers

97. Wil Myers, Padres

96. Jesse Winker, Reds

95. Joey Gallo, Rangers

94. Yasmani Grandal, White Sox

93. Jose Altuve, Astros

92. Dylan Carlson, Cardinals

91. Dylan Moore, Mariners

90. Dansby Swanson, Braves. There are two preferred backstories for the player having a breakout season: Either he came out of nowhere, a totally unforeseeable star turn, as is the case with Dylan Moore (above), who was plucked out of minor league free agency less than two years ago. Or else he can come from some previous station of extreme hype, as in the case of Swanson, the No. 1 pick by the Arizona Diamondbacksin 2015 and the No. 3 prospect in baseball before the 2017 season. Before this year, Swanson looked like a relative dud -- this is the first year he's hitting better than league average -- but he's now sixth in the majors in WAR and the leading candidate to win the NL Gold Glove at the most prestigious position.

89. Ian Happ, Cubs

88. Carter Kieboom, Nationals

87. Leody Taveras, Rangers

86. Tommy La Stella, A's

85. Andrew McCutchen, Phillies

84. Eric Hosmer, Padres

83. Jo Adell, Angels

82. Alex Verdugo, Red Sox

81. Harrison Bader, Cardinals

80. Roberto Perez, Indians. As a hitter, he's having an awful season -- one homer, after hitting 24 last year. But he's still the AL's best throwing catcher, with just two stolen bases (in eight tries) allowed this season. And he's still the world's best blocking catcher, maybe the best blocker in history. He has allowed three wild pitches all year, and he hasn't allowed a passed ball since 2018. It's really worth watching the out-of-town scoreboard and flipping over to Cleveland games anytime a runner gets on third base with the score close. In those situations, the battle between Perez and a pitch in the dirt can be as compelling as Barry Bonds vs. Eric Gagne, or Yadier Molina vs. Billy Hamilton, was.

79. Joey Votto, Reds

78. Pete Alonso, Mets

77. Rafael Devers, Red Sox

76. Andrelton Simmons, Angels

75. Yoan Moncada, White Sox

74. Brandon Belt, Giants

73. Byron Buxton, Twins

72. Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox

71. Ryan Mountcastle, Orioles

70. Rowdy Tellez, Blue Jays. Tellez is the hitter of the hardest baseball in the majors this season, excepting the existence of Giancarlo Stanton. Truthfully, if he went by Ryan John Tellez, he'd be No. 200 on this list, but we create elaborate fictions about these players' dreams and motivations in our minds, and a Dickensian name helps flesh those out.

69. Starling Marte, Marlins

68. Luis Arraez, Twins

67. Mike Yastrzemski, Giants

66. Jason Heyward, Cubs

65. Mark Canha, A's

64. Robinson Cano, Mets

63. Kevin Kiermaier, Rays

62. Jonathan Schoop, Tigers

61. Gio Urshela, Yankees

60. Victor Robles, Nationals. Maybe I just keep missing them, but Robles -- arguably the best center fielder in baseball, statistically -- rarely seems to make extraordinary catches, which makes him extra watchable to me. His excellent defense requires, and rewards, close watching to really appreciate.

59. Jose Ramirez, Indians

58. Gleyber Torres, Yankees

57. Hanser Alberto, Orioles

56. Matt Chapman, A's

55. Will Smith, Dodgers

54. Andres Gimenez, Mets

53. DJ LeMahieu, Yankees

52. Cavan Biggio, Blue Jays

51. Carlos Correa, Astros

50. Shohei Ohtani, Angels. It's hard to admit, but right now, the only really interesting thing he does is run fast. You still watch, because you're invested in this story, and you've got hope that if you stick with it, then next season will be interesting again.

49. Alex Bregman, Astros

48. Keston Hiura, Brewers

47. Manny Machado, Padres

46. Joey Bart, Giants

45. Trea Turner, Nationals

44. Carlos Santana, Indians

43. Marcell Ozuna, Braves

42. Kyle Lewis, Mariners

41. Trent Grisham, Padres

40. Teoscar Hernandez, Blue Jays. Since the 2019 All-Star break, he's the seventh-best hitter in baseball, and this year -- before he was recently shelved with an oblique strain -- he had the fourth-highest exit velocity in baseball. Houston traded him away for short-term lefty relief help in 2017 -- traded him away for nothing, basically -- which makes him a late, long-tail addition to the short list of blunders by the McKinsey-era Astros: trading Hernandez, drafting Mark Appel, releasing J.D. Martinezand trying to steal signs in a way that was hilariously audible on nearly every pitch of every archived broadcast for an entire season.

39. Garrett Hampson, Rockies

38. Jose Iglesias, Orioles

37. Charlie Blackmon, Rockies

36. David Fletcher, Angels

35. Freddie Freeman, Braves

34. Miguel Sano, Twins

33. Eloy Jimenez, White Sox

32. Anthony Rendon, Angels

31. Jose Abreu, White Sox

30. Adalberto Mondesi, Royals. The other day, a broadcaster said of the man at the plate, "Some guys just make it look so easy." The man at the plate was Mondesi, who is hitting .200/.226/.273, has by far the worst win probability added in baseball this year and has been caught stealing more than any other hitter in baseball. It's easy to snark, but it's true that Mondesi does make anything look possible- -- if not "easy" -- and watching greatness thus far elude him produces a tense cognitive dissonance.

29. Matt Olson, A's

28. Orlando Arcia, Brewers

27. Francisco Lindor, Indians

26. Anthony Rizzo, Cubs

25. Dominic Smith, Mets.Smith was once a controversial prospect -- some saw an elite hitter with a perfect swing; others saw a power-strangling opposite-field approach -- and his climb from Triple-A to a starting big league job took forever. He began 2019 in a platoon with Pete Alonso, only to see his partner bust out as a historic slugger and claim the whole job. He began this year on the bench, starting just two of the Mets' first eight games. All along he was one of the most engaging people in the sport, as seen in his star turn in one of ESPN's mic'd-up spring training games. Now he's leading the National League in OPS+ and doubles, and the swing is still perfect -- nobody hits more beautiful line drives, from foul pole to foul pole.

24. Michael Conforto, Mets

23. Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Blue Jays

22. Trevor Story, Rockies

21. Cody Bellinger, Dodgers

20. Christian Yelich, Brewers. A player can be watchable even when he's struggling. If he was good enough before the struggles, then the struggles themselves can be even more compelling than continued excellence. Yelich, a year ago, had plausibly passed Mike Trout as the best hitter in baseball. This year, he looks a beat ahead of every off-speed pitch and a beat behind every fastball, and -- painful as it is to watch -- it's high drama to watch him trying to fix himself in real time, in huge spots. This form of watchability only works for one season, though. If Yelich (or Cody Bellinger, above) keeps slumping into next year, the watchability quickly fades.

19. Jake Cronenworth, Padres

18. Aaron Judge, Yankees

17. Willy Adames, Rays

16. Bryce Harper, Phillies

15. J.T. Realmuto, Phillies. Besides his abnormal athleticism -- he's the fastest-running catcher in the game and has the best throwing arm -- Realmuto represents one of the most watchable kinds of superstar: the superstar who is about to hit free agency. In other words, the superstar your favorite team might sign a few months from now!

14. Javier Baez, Cubs

13. Nolan Arenado, Rockies

12. Corey Seager, Dodgers

11. Bo Bichette, Blue Jays

10. Giancarlo Stanton, Yankees. This risks sounding more like a complaint than we intend, but at this point the snakebitten Stanton appears so rarely that when he's actually healthy it's like finding out that your favorite band, which never tours, is playing a secret show down the street. You drop what you're doing and you go. Stanton has just 54 plate appearances, yet he still managed to hit three of the six hardest-hit baseballs in the majors this year. His high-velocity homers are, aesthetically, far more beautiful than the league's other ball-wreckers' are. Theirs tend to be fly balls to center field, engulfed by all the empty space out there. His are more likely to be screeching line drives that knock off the third baseman's cap and get embedded in left-field seatbacks.

9. Tim Anderson, White Sox

8. Ketel Marte, Diamondbacks.It's fun watching a good defensive shortstop play the position -- see the relatively high placement of Orlando Arcia and Jose Iglesias on this list -- but it can be even more fun watching a good defensive shortstop playing second base, when he's obviously overqualified for it. In this era of infield shifts -- where so much defense happens right up the middle -- Marte is the best there is around the bag, fielding knockdown liners, starting close-range double-play turns, pulling out hocus pocus. He's also an extraordinarily strong hitter -- only five batters hit a ball harder than he has this year -- though the season has been a letdown from his 2019 MVP bid, and he was just sidelined with wrist inflammation.

7.Ronald Acuna Jr., Braves

6. Nelson Cruz, Twins. Watchability, like all baseball skills, follows an aging curve, but it's unlike any other curve in the sport. If you were to graph it, it would look like this: At age 20, 21, the line starts very near the top, as the player arrives in the majors as the hot new thing. (See: Dylan Carlson, Carter Kieboom.) Then, at 22, 23, the line reaches its peak, as the player combines hot newness with enough familiarity to be culturally relevant/omnipresent (See: Bo Bichette, Ronald Acuna Jr.) Then it starts to drop slowly, even as the player likely plays his way through his peak, as his playing style begins to slow down and we start to take his presence for granted. (See: Francisco Lindor, Bryce Harper.) Around 28, 29, it begins to plummet quickly, even if the player isn't obviously in decline. By this point, he has probably moved from a fun position to a boring one; he's probably no longer hitting triples or making diving, leaping plays; he's quite likely not on his original team, the one we associate with his youth. (See: Paul Goldschmidt.) This continues through the 30s. Nothing feels less watchable than a 34-year-old veteran hitting .279/.328/.452 as a corner player on his fourth team.

And then, around 38, in the unlikely event you can make it there, the line starts to tick back up. There are very few players who reach 39 as regulars. Fewer still are as good as they were in their youth, or -- nearly unthinkably -- even better. Those few who make it defy everything about elite athletics, which are essentially our metaphorical proxy for grappling with the inevitability of decline. By virtue of having outlasted the thousands of players who've come before, these older stars begin making history, setting records for their age groups. And, by this point, they have almost inevitably become beloved. An entire generation of current and former teammates rave about their influence in a clubhouse, vouch for their wisdom and acumen, their generosity, their sense of calm. They are heroes from an earlier mythology, somehow reassuringly undiminished.

Nelson Cruz is 39 years old, and he's having the best season of his career. Through the weekend, he was the best hitter in the American League. Seven years ago, he was signing a one-year deal because nobody thought he'd age very well. Twelve years ago, he was in Triple-A. He is known for so many things in his career -- a missed catch in the 2011 World Series; a PED suspension in 2013; a redemptive home run title in 2014; a charmingly awkward selfie in the middle of an All-Star Game; and his leadership of the 2019 Bomba Squad, the greatest homer-hitting team ever. At this point, though, he might be writing over all of that. He has become one of the greatest old-age power hitters in history and, with the exception of PED-fueled Barry Bonds, has a shot to be the best. He's got the 11st-most homers ever from age 35 onward. One more season and he should be third, behind Bonds and Hank Aaron. Two more seasons and he should be second.

5. Mike Trout, Angels. He's still here! With all due respect to most of these other players' extremely hard work and superhuman physical abilities, the world isn't going to care that much in 80 years about what they did. The world probably won't spend much time thinking about Pete Alonso hitting a rookie-record 53 homers, any more than you spend time thinking about Al Rosen hitting a then-rookie-record 37 homers in 1950. You think about Chuck Klein's bold ink much lately? Are we all still talking about how close the 1935 AL MVP race was? Still breathing hard from when Zoilo Versalles broke up Dean Chance's 1962 no-hit bid in the eighth? Of course not. Most of the emotions that these baseball games produce are just for the people who are around them at the time, and then they get replaced by new emotions by new players produced for new people. Only a few things are really for history, and for this generation, that thing is Mike Trout. Surprises come up every season, but the one storyline that definitely matters every season is simply this: Is Mike Trout still the best player in baseball? Is he in any sort of decline, or does his run as arguably the greatest player ever through Age 2_ continue for another season? Is he still on pace to challenge, a decade from now, the greatest career totals in history? (Through Monday, he leads the AL in homers, slugging and OPS, so there's the answer.)

4. Mookie Betts, Dodgers. If the dominant individual storyline entering each season is whether Mike Trout is in decline, a secondary storyline is whether anybody will rise up and surpass him. As long as Trout doesn't decline, the answer is almost certainly not, but a little less footspeed, a little defensive drop-off, and Trout could be caught, so the question turns to "by whom?" Right now, the attention is on Tatis. But the simpler answer might be that Betts has already passed him. Other players have hung with Trout's WAR for a year or two -- Harper, Bellinger, Bregman, Yelich, Josh Donaldson-- but nobody else has come close in an extended run of seasons. Betts' WAR nearly matched Trout's in 2016; was better than Trout's in 2018; and is way past Trout's this year, with Betts leading the majors.

3. Luis Robert, White Sox. Another one for the "who'll pass Trout?" game. Robert is, as his teammate Jose Abreu put it, "the Mike Trout of the Cubans." Like Trout, and like previous "next-Trout" prospects Byron Buxton and Ronald Acuna Jr., Robert has 95th percentile speed and 480-foot power. Only Abreu has more WAR in the American League, and even if Robert couldn't hit at all,his defense would put him around No. 50 on this list.

2. Juan Soto, Nationals. Obviously, outlandishly good at hitting -- as in, plausibly Ted Williams at this point:

  • Ted, through age 21: 293 games, 54 HRs, .439 OBP, .601 SLG, 203 BB, 161 OPS+
  • Juan, through Sunday (21): 293 games, 67 HRs, .407 OBP, .555 SLG, 204 BB, 148 OPS+

But watchability is about more than drawing walks (and, often, is contrary to drawing walks). Soto is watchable because he, more than any other player in baseball, understands that there's an audience watching on TV -- that, in fact, these days there's only an audience watching on TV. He goes to the batter's box -- baseball's version of center stage, that familiar default shot from the center-field camera -- and starts the show. He stares down the pitcher, opens his eyes real wide, sometimes bares his teeth and gives us that clear, unobstructed look at his emotions. The pitcher is usually the protagonist in baseball, but Soto seizes that role, and for those three minutes or so, he has a choreographed performance of frustration, of respect, of confidence, of hope. He responds to every pitch. The other team hates it -- he reportedly praised J.T. Realmuto for not being "one of the mad catchers" -- and I imagine to a crowd of 50,000 a lot of the nuance of his dance gets lost. But to a TV audience, it's perfect, like King George's spittle in the filmed production of Hamilton, invisible beyond Row G but appreciated by the audience at home. We're all, today, the audience at home.

1. Tatis, Padres. On Aug. 27, Tatis was playing probably his worst game of the year. He was facing a rookie named Ljay Newsome, who was making his first major league start, and Tatis just could not get to him. In his first at-bat, he struck out swinging on a fastball right down the middle. In his second, he struck out swinging again, on an unexceptional 92 mph fastball over the inner half. In between, Tatis made an error, bobbling a grounder that might have turned into a double play, and got spun around and handcuffed on what looked like a catchable popup. It was the first game of a doubleheader, and it seemed as if Tatis might have a long, frustrating day.

Then, he got one hanging slider. He hit it all the way out of Petco Park, on top of the Western Metal Supply Co. building, where only one hitter on record has ever homered before. Oh, s---.

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