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MLB

Could A “Bad Fielder” Do This? (Yes.)

Fernando Tatis leaps
San Diego Padres

On average, Fernando Tatis Jr. is a defensive liability at shortstop for the Padres. Though he obviously more than makes up for this shortcoming with what is currently the scariest bat in the National League, when his team’s pitcher is on the mound he gives a small fraction of that value away with a subpar glove. Measured in the simplest possible way, Tatis leads the Majors at all positions with 18 errors committed this year, and while he only made three in last year’s shortened season, his rookie year also saw him finish fifth-worst in the Majors in E’s despite playing half of a full campaign. The fancy metrics agree with the evaluation implied by the easy-to-count numbers. Tatis’s Ultimate Zone Rating is negative in the two seasons where he’s played more than 60 games. Defensive Runs Saved and Total Zone Fielding Runs also rate him as a below-average shortstop.

Those are all true facts! Here’s another true fact: Fernando Tatis Jr. might have jumped higher than I’ve ever seen a baseball man jump before to catch a line drive with a runner on second in the Padres’ game against the Nationals on Monday night. Seriously, he leaped so high! And upon multiple viewings of the replay, it becomes more and more baffling how he does this little leg-kick double-jump maneuver in midair to help himself stretch just enough to snag that ball. It’s all very, very cool—the kind of play that stays imprinted on your brain, in a way that most errors never will, when you think about a guy’s career years down the line, like Ichiro’s throw to get Terrence Long in April 2001.

“Just how athletic he is and how long he is, it felt like he was up there 10 1/2 feet, went up there and grabbed that ball off Zimmerman,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said afterwards. “I’d be surprised if there’s many other shortstops that can get up there. That was pretty special.”

For as awesome as that play was, it is no shock that Tatis is capable of incredible athletic feats out at short. Even as he’s racked up the errors, the 22-year-old has been able to earn plenty of highlight-reel appearances as well. Some of these are fated for significantly more obscurity than last night’s but still count as super neat, like a tag on a runner stealing second and then a sliding stop and putout from a series against the Cubs last month.

Others are more solid members of the Tatito Canon, like this diving catch in Game 3 of the Wild Card against the Cardinals last year.

For a Padres neutral, anyway, these plays are worth the price, which is the existence of things like a Tatis Worst Errors compilation that’s picked up 200K views since the start of the season.

Does this make Tatis, on the whole, a good fielder? Not really. I don’t think I would claim that Eugenio Suárez, for example, is a good hitter because his 17 big flies are more memorable than all the outs he’s made en route to a .178 average. But Tatis if nothing else asks you to question, just a bit, the overlap between your definitions of what makes a fielder good and what makes a fielder fun to watch. Is your preferred brand of shortstop a guy who limits mistakes and, mathematically speaking, generally adds to his team’s probability of winning? Well then Tatis isn’t your man. Or do you favor a guy who, even if he’s somewhat unreliable, is capable of making a play that redefines the physical limits of the position? I know who I prefer.

And I didn’t even mention that in Monday’s game Tatis also hit the hardest ball of his career, at 116 mph off the bat, over the fence in left.