Fernando Tatis Jr. and MLB's Most Exciting Player every year since he was born

BySam Miller ESPN logo
Monday, July 15, 2019

When each night of baseball begins, the player I want to watch more than any other is Fernando Tatis Jr. There are scores of players I'm interested in, hot streaks to follow, stat chases to track, pennant races to care about, matchups, backstories, new players, breakouts, a constantly changing treasure map of where the good stuff is. But more constant than all of that is Tatis.

He has the best arm of any shortstop. Only 10 hitters in all of baseball have hit a ball harder than his max velocity of 115.9 mph. He's stunningly aggressive on the bases, scoring twice on sacrifice flies to the second baseman. He plays like his hair is on fire, and when his helmet falls off -- as it often does -- he looks like it, too. Consider a single play:

His casual, upright posture as he takes his lead; the intimidating flash of the bluffed steal; the speed of his head traveling the bottom of the screen as the base hit drops in; the juxtaposition of Jose Martinez running, and then Tatis running; the helmet shaking off at the final second, the fire; the way he ran so hard his shirt came unbuttoned; the way players can be so beautiful they can wear a camouflage baseball jersey and look good; the eye contact and smile he gives to Eric Hosmer, making sure Hosmer acknowledges Tatis just gifted him an RBI; the irony of Tatis, making the league minimum, making money fingers at Hosmer, a player paid 40 times more than that; the comic timing of doing money fingers from inside an oven mitt.

And he's incredibly good, too. Prorate his stats over a full season and he'd have 40 homers and 35 stolen bases, 130 runs scored and (as a leadoff man) 95 runs driven in. He's in the top 10 in the National League in all three slash stats. He's a leadoff hitter who slugs .620. He missed all of May and he's 16th in the majors in WAR. He's 20, the second-youngest hitter in the majors.

What do we call this? Most Fun Player In Baseball? Most Exciting? Most Watchable? The final word probably works the best, and is the least easily misunderstood, though it's also a little clunky. The idea we're going for is threefold: a player who is almost certain to do something interesting in a given game; who can frequently do something stunning, unprecedented or GIFable; and who plays in a way that evokes some secondary emotion, apart from the mere thrill of victory/agony of defeat that all sport offers. Whatever the word, Tatis -- regardless of what happens with the rest of his career -- has now joined a lineage of players who were, for a time, the most entertaining player in the game.

Tatis was born Jan. 2, 1999. Since then, by our reckoning, there have been almost two dozen players who have held this unofficial title.* The churn is rapid. We grow complacent, we seek novelty, and age takes its toll on players. As it is now, though, Tatis fits perfectly at the end of this list:

April 1999-July 1999: At the time Omar Vizquel was, by reputation, the best defensive shortstop in baseball, a trick-shot master of barehanded snags, back-to-the-infield catches, and fake-out throws to trick runners. He didn't hit much. But in the final month of 1998, he hit .338/.413/.493 with 10 steals in 21 games, a hint of the breakout that would come in 1999, when he set career highs in all three slash stats (despite just five home runs). He was the opposite of Mark McGwire in every way, and in the hangover period after the 1998 home run chase -- and as McGwire and Sammy Sosa kept bopping cheap-60s home run totals -- Vizquel's offensive style seemed livelier and less repetitive. He batted second in a Cleveland lineup that scored 1,009 runs in 1999, the only team to do that since 1950 (and still the most recent). And while it was in 2000, not 1999, that Vizquel first completed a straight steal of home, he was already the sort of player who felt like he might steal home. He also was in the process of inventing the post-walkoff celebration that is now the sport's standard.

July 1999-July 2000: In the 1999 All-Star Game, when Pedro Martinez famously struck out five batters in two dominant innings, the hardest throw might well have been by Ivan Rodriguez, who nailed Matt Williams on a strikeout/throw-out double play to complete Martinez's second inning. Rodriguez, by statistic and by anecdote, was the greatest thrower in catching history, and in 1999 he picked off 11 runners and threw out 55 percent of those who tried to steal. He also fulfilled his manager's prophecies by becoming an incredible offensive force, hitting 35 homers, stealing 25 bases (while allowing only 34!) and batting .332. He was even better the next year, hitting .347/.375/.667 before an injury ended his season in July.

July 2000-end of that season: Vladimir Guerrero is a defensible answer for any time period between June 3, 1997, and Aug. 14, 2009. His limbs moved like the flames in a barrel fire, barely contained, ever reaching over the sides, with a terrifying appetite to do more and more. He swung at everything, and every swing was his hardest; he tried to throw out every baserunner, and every throw was all the way on the fly. He led the league in outfield errors six consecutive years, and was typically high on the leaderboards of outs made on the bases, but he also hit .345/.410/.664 for the 2000 season, with 13 home runs in September alone.

2001: If Guerrero was muscular chaos, Ichiro was all precision and straight lines: Direct routes, low throws, line drives. His "iconic throw to third base," a video of him throwing out Terrence Long, has more than 5 million views on YouTube, and came in his eighth career game. By that point he was hitting .371, an average that would drop only to .350 by the end of his rookie season. He led the league in steals, hits, batting average and fielding percentage. He was way skinnier than the rest of the stars, he hit with a totally unconventional swing that produced very little power, but for parts of that season you would have been sure he was the best in the world at four of the five scouting tools.

2002 through June 2003: In 2002, Guerrero came within one homer of baseball's fourth 40-40 season, for an Expos team that was threatened the previous offseason with contraction but turned out to be a surprise contender.

June 2003 through the end of the season: Miguel Cabrera entered the year ranked 12th among all prospects on Baseball America's preseason list, and then hit .365 with power at Double-A. He ended his major league debut with the Marlins by hitting a walk-off home run (over center fielder Rocco Baldelli, another Most Exciting contender in 2003), and he crushed the Cubs in that year's National League Championship Series. He was still skinny, and I swear I remember him making swell plays at third base in that postseason.

2004: Carlos Beltran was the biggest name on the midseason trade market, and poised to be the best free agent that winter, so a couple dozen teams' fans could watch him dominate two leagues in 2004 while fantasizing about their team somehow acquiring him. He hit 38 homers that year while stealing 42 bases (and getting caught just three times), but it was what he did after a trade to Houston that was most memorable: 28 stolen bases without being caught, 23 homers (and seven triples!) in just 90 games, and then perhaps the greatest postseason in history: eight homers in 12 games, a .435/.536/1.022 slash line, and six stolen bases.

2005-2006: This was a very clutch-skeptical era, especially in the snarky stathead writing that captured the zeitgeist of the period. David Ortiz was, of course, beloved for myriad reasons, an incredible hitter with a huge smile and a fantastic backstory. He was also, after the 2004 postseason, the most Obviously Clutch hitter in the world, and the tension of these two things drove a lot of people nuts. As Ken Tremendous wrote at the time, "This kills me to write, but ... there is no such thing as clutch hitting. The reason it kills me is because I have watched David Ortiz win thirteen games with walk-off hits in the last three years, including three in the playoffs, and two in the last two days. David Ortiz/clutch hitting is like one of those magic eyes holograms -- you know there is no 3-D space shuttle in the book you are holding, but holy Christ does it look like there is a 3-D space shuttle." It was fun.

2007: Since integration there have been three players who've had 20 triples, 20 homers and 20 steals in the same season: Willie Mays, in 1957, and Curtis Granderson and Jimmy Rollins, both in 2007. Each could have been the Most Exciting that year, but Rollins was also one of the two or three best defensive shortstops in baseball at the time, and the better base stealer, and he struck out much less frequently.

April 2008 through July 2008: Josh Hamilton's comeback from addiction was, by 2007, already enough to justify an autobiography. But in 2008 he played his first full season, started the All-Star Game in center field, and set Home Run Derby records with his 28-homer first round. "Josh Hamilton is the best baseball player to ever walk the planet," his teammate Ian Kinsler said that year, which was obviously not true in the traditional sense but had a sort of logic to it all the same.

August 2008 through the end of that season: When Manny Ramirez was happy, you half expected him to sprout rocket boosters, take off into the sky and do a bunch of whirlies in the clouds. When he got traded to the Dodgers on the final day of July 2008, he got really happy, and he hit .396/.489/.743 the rest of the way, then .520/.667/1.080 in eight postseason games. He was 36, but in a way he felt like a prospect being called up. Just a total phenomenon.

2009: In my lifetime, "Son of Vladimir Guerrero" has only one competitor for most exciting prospect biographical note: "Son of Cecil Fielder." Prince Fielder might have actually been more exciting in 2007, when he hit 50 homers as a 23-year-old, or 2011, when he took the Brewers to the NLCS, but 2009 was probably his best year, and it was also the year of the still-never-topped bomb-drop celebration at home plate.

2010: Citing a hot streak isn't quite in the spirit of the exercise, but Troy Tulowitzki's Two Weeks In September 2010 is my permanent standard for How Hot Can A Player Get? Over 16 games -- one-tenth of a season -- he hit 14 home runs, slugging 1.121 in that time. It wasn't just those two weeks, though: He was probably the best defensive shortstop in baseball at the time, seemingly oversized for the position but with an outrageously strong arm that he could utilize from any orientation. He just couldn't seem to stay healthy, so you made sure to watch when he was, as he mostly was in the first year of this decade.

2011: Pablo Sandoval, in 2011, hit .306/.383/.551 -- on pitches out of the strike zone! (He hit .319/.319/.546 on pitches in the zone.) He would swing at anything, he would hit it, it was all great fun, and there was the cool nickname/merchandising tie-in to go along with it. The 2011 season was also the one when he was phenomenal defensively, according to both advanced metrics and the eye test.

2012: Mike Trout. He stole four home runs with leaping catches. He might well have been the fastest player in baseball -- he led the league in steals, and in breathless accounts from scouts with stopwatches -- and he was almost certainly the fastest starting from a stopped position, plowing up infield dirt behind him. At one point in the summer he was leading the majors in baserunning runs, hitting runs and fielding runs at his position, the three main components of WAR. He has somehow become a better player since then, but that was peak fun.

2013: This was a ridiculous year for watchable players. Manny Machado was 20 years old, leading the league in doubles and plausibly the best defensive third baseman of all time. Andrelton Simmons, meanwhile, was producing four GIFs a week with unprecedented shortstop play in his first full season. Billy Hamilton debuted, a year after stealing 155 bases in the minors, and raising all sorts of questions about the limits of speed; a showdown between him and Yadier Molina in September is an enduring memory from that season. Carlos Gomez, a nearly perfect accumulation of tools, put everything together for an MVP-caliber season, which culminated in the defining battle of this decade's Unwritten Rules Wars. Hanley Ramirez broke out of Florida -- where he'd been miserable -- and finished in the top 10 in MVP voting for the Dodgers, despite missing half a season. But it's definitely Yasiel Puig, who hit .517 in spring training, then .436 in his first full month in the majors, and who devoted every calorie he consumed to creating an outlandish highlight. He was unapologetic and seemed intent on pulling the sport his way until it could keep up with his pace.

2014: This was the year the Hunter Pence signs started -- "Hunter Pence eats pizza with a fork" and other rando stuff. The signs weren't that much fun, but they coincided with Freaky Pence Stuff really reaching its cultural peak. Only he could contort the way he did, only he threw and swung the way he did, and nobody else who has ever finished 11th in MVP voting (as he did that year -- his highest finish) looked more like he was making fun of baseball playing than he did.

2015: It's probably Bryce Harper, more because of the sense of payoff -- this was what we'd been investing our attention in since he was a high school sophomore -- than because the best player is necessarily always the most watchable. There's a case for Joey Votto here, bouncing back from a mostly lost 2014 season and mastering the strike zone like nobody since Barry Bonds had. There's a case for Jose Bautista, who flipped the danged bat (and also hit 40 regular-season homers, all of them majestic and beautiful). It's Harper, though.

Early 2016: Quoting myself, from around that time: "A good Mookie Betts day is the most fun you can have at a ballpark. He'll put the ball in play four times. One will be a sharp line drive up the middle on an impossible-to-hit 0-2 pitch. One will be a double into right-center -- no, wait, he's going to stretch it, it's going to be close, here'll come the throw and he'll be ... safe at third! He'll homer, and it'll look like Little Mac using one of his stars, a towering uppercut blow from the smallest guy in the lineup. He'll work a tough walk to keep a rally going, then he'll steal second, then he'll score from second on an infield single. He'll make a leaping catch in right field on a dead sprint; he'll cut a ball off on its way to the gap, and then he'll gun down the runner trying to go first to third. Wins Above Replacement stick to him like he's magnetized." There have been many brief challenges to Trout's title of best in baseball, but Betts' challenge has been the most sustained and his approach the closest, and it started in 2016.

Late 2016: Gary Sanchez had been an elite prospect, a name baseball fans knew for five whole years before he got called up for good Aug. 3. He hit 20 home runs in 52 games and, despite criticism for other parts of his defense, he threw as hard as any catcher in baseball. New York stars become extremely famous extremely fast, and for those two months it looked like Sanchez, not the still-to-come Aaron Judge, might quickly become the most famous baseball player in the world.

2017: I've never seen anybody swing harder than Javier Baez. I've almost never seen anybody swing more often. Over the course of a season, his swings alone burn twice as much fuel as an energy-efficient major leaguer's. He's astonishingly aggressive as a runner, taking extra bases (e.g., first to third or scoring from second on a single) more often in his career than much-faster Dee Gordon and Billy Hamilton. He's also the most creative defender in baseball, "El Mago," a magician who might conjure outs out of nothing anytime he's holding the baseball. He does the most mundane things with flair. He might be the most watchable player of my life, to be honest, and it was almost easier to appreciate this before he became an outright superstar in 2018.

2018: Shohei Ohtani. Easy one.

2019: Tatis.

There are players we can't believe we didn't name. Jose Reyes, Adrian Beltre, Grady Sizemore, Giancarlo Stanton, Francisco Lindor, Carl Crawford, Buster Posey, Jose Ramirez, Byron Buxton, Lorenzo Cain, Nolan Arenado, Cody Bellinger, Aaron Judge, Torii Hunter, Yoenis Cespedes, Andrew McCutchen. Not to mention Ronald Acuna Jr. and Vladimir Guerrero Jr.

Those final two are a daily challenge to Tatis' hold on this spot. For now, though, he's outrunning them both.

*We limited this title to position players. Pitching is just a different role entirely, entertainmentwise, and while we'd love to have spent Tuesday writing about Jose Fernandez and Dontrelle Willis, they feel like a separate category. We also restricted the pool of candidates to major leaguers only.

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