Is Tatis the best shortstop in Padres' history?

June 10th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- He's only 22. He's played only 189 Major League games.

But might already be the best shortstop in Padres history.

No, we're not talking about the things Tatis might still accomplish. Few would argue that Tatis will take that mantle eventually, considering everything he can do on the baseball field -- the otherworldly power, the electric baserunning, the remarkable athleticism.

We're talking about: Based on everything Tatis has done, if he were never to play another game for San Diego, would he go down as the best shortstop in franchise history?

Remarkably, the answer might be yes. Take a look at the Padres all-time bWAR and fWAR leaderboards at shortstop:

Top Padres shortstops, bWAR

  1. Ozzie Smith, 10.9 (1978-81)
  2. Garry Templeton, 10.0 (1982-91)
  3. Tatis, 9.7 (2019-21)
  4. Khalil Greene, 9.3 (2003-08)

Top Padres shortstops, fWAR

  1. Greene, 9.0
  2. Tatis, 8.8
  3. Templeton, 8.4
  4. Smith, 8.1

Yes, these leaderboards tell quite a story. The Padres' history at shortstop isn't a good one. Call it the curse of The Wizard, maybe? Smith was an elite defender in San Diego, but he couldn't hit much. San Diego traded him to St. Louis on Dec. 10, 1981, and Smith blossomed into a Hall of Famer, maintaining his defensive excellence while adding value offensively with his batting average and his wheels.

In that trade, the Padres received Templeton, who was an integral piece in the team's first pennant winner in 1984 and played 10 solid seasons with San Diego. He was later inducted into the team's Hall of Fame. But, uh, he wasn't Smith. As for Greene, he never quite reached the heights many had envisioned. Still, when we ranked the top five shortstops in franchise history a year ago, Greene was first.

The era after Greene was a particularly barren one. In between Greene and Tatis, Padres shortstops combined to post 1.4 fWAR. That’s barely better than replacement level for an entire decade. As you'd expect, that number was by far the worst in baseball.

The Padres' games-played leaderboard at shortstop in that span reads as a remember-some-guys list:
1) Everth Cabrera, 452
2) Alexi Amarista, 189
3) Jason Bartlett, 164
4) Freddy Galvis, 160
5) Alexei Ramirez, 109
6) Erick Aybar, 95
7) Clint Barmes, 70
8) Jerry Hairston, 61
9) Miguel Tejada, 58
10) Luis Sardiñas, 37

San Diego spent a decade searching for a competent shortstop. It was at the top of general manager A.J. Preller's to-do list when he arrived, and it stayed there for a few seasons. And then, the Padres found Tatis.

At some point this season, Tatis is going to assume the top spot on both franchise WAR leaderboards, at this rate sooner rather than later. He is slashing .277/.358/.639 with 17 homers and 13 steals. He would make a remarkable bit of history if he could lead the league in those two categories.

And while Tatis has struggled defensively, leading the league with 15 errors, if you factor in his elite range, his defense isn't quite so damning. He hasn't been good, but his -5 outs above average at shortstop put him on par with the Dodgers' Corey Seager and the Yankees' Gleyber Torres. Tatis' -3 defensive runs saved have him tied with Boston's Xander Bogaerts and the Angels' José Iglesias. Clean up a few throws, and Tatis is an average to above-average shortstop. (Plus, let's not discount the fact that even when he's poor defensively, his value skyrockets anyway, because he's producing so much offense at a premium defensive position.)

Tatis currently sits second in fWAR and third in bWAR, respectively, on the Padres' all-time list. But the distance from the top spot is statistically insignificant. In fact, 1-2-3-4 on one franchise WAR leaderboard rank 4-3-2-1 the other. Based solely on WAR, you could take any of those four shortstops and rank them in any order. It's that close.

Let's get to another variable: On-field impact. In games Tatis has played, San Diego has a .529 winning percentage, and that includes a 2019 rookie season on a bad Padres team. (It's also notable how that team spiraled after losing Tatis in mid-August to a back injury.) Tatis helped carry San Diego to the playoffs last season, and his exploits on an otherwise poor Padres offense in 2021 are the biggest reason they’re 10 games above .500. Not to mention, Tatis' playoff debut saw him bat .318 with a 1.126 OPS and a couple of homers.

So, is Fernando Tatis Jr. already the best shortstop in Padres history? It’s certainly easier to argue “yes” than “no,” and that's remarkable for a number of reasons.