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Exciting Latin stars 'hungry for the game'

@JesseSanchezMLB
September 15, 2020

Fernando Tatis Jr. was born with it. His love of the game, his instincts and swagger are part of his DNA. “Baseball is part of our culture,” Tatis, 21, said. “It’s part of us.” The “us” that Tatis is referring to is a group of young stars that includes players

Fernando Tatis Jr. was born with it. His love of the game, his instincts and swagger are part of his DNA.

“Baseball is part of our culture,” Tatis, 21, said. “It’s part of us.”

The “us” that Tatis is referring to is a group of young stars that includes players like Washington’s Juan Soto, who, like Tatis, is from the Dominican Republic; White Sox outfielder Luis Robert of Cuba; Atlanta outfielder Ronald Acuña Jr. of Venezuela; and countless others. Together, these young Latinos are among the most exciting players in the game, and they represent the future of the sport.

And like Tatis, they all have “It” -- which is a good thing for the rest of us.

“We are all just hungry for the game,” Tatis said. “Every time a game is about to start, I tell myself, ‘It's time to make history.’ So every time I get out there, I am trying to do something special.”

Tatis, Soto, Robert could make MVP history

This season, Tatis is batting .293 with 15 homers and 40 RBIs. His future could be even better. According to ZiPS projections, he is projected to hit at least 30 home runs and steal at least 20 bases from his age-22 season through his age-29 seasons. Barry Bonds is the only player with eight seasons of 30-20 in the history of the game.

Oh, and there’s more …

Those same ZiPS projections have Tatis driving in 124 runs in each of the next eight seasons, which is particularly notable since no player has had 120 or more RBIs in each year from ages 22 through 29 since the stat became official in 1920. Only five players have had at least eight 120-RBI campaigns in their careers: Lou Gehrig (11), Babe Ruth (11), Alex Rodriguez (9), Joe DiMaggio (8) and Jimmie Foxx (8).

Then there’s Soto, 21, who has a chance to be one of the best hitters to ever play this game. He had 26 three-hit games before turning 22. That’s one more than DiMaggio and Mike Trout, who had 25 apiece. He also has 67 career home runs (and counting), the fourth most before turning 22. His 56 career home runs before age 21 tied Tony Conigliaro for the second most in history. Only Mel Ott (61) had more.

Soto’s postseason stats are equally amazing. His 18 hits during the 2019 postseason tied Miguel Cabrera (Marlins, 2003) for most by a player age 21 or younger in a single postseason. His five home runs during that span are the most by any player in a single postseason age 21 or younger. He also hit three home runs in the World Series, the most by a player 21 or younger in a single postseason all-time.

“You're seeing someone really mature every year,” Nationals manager Dave Martinez said. “He's been here, we've had him, now he understands that hey, he knows what he can do, he knows what pitches that he's looking for, what he can hit hard. Even his foul balls. That's hitting, I mean, on tough pitches, he's hitting them pretty good.”

Acuña, 22, is also making his mark on the game and solidifying himself as one of the faces of baseball. The dynamic outfielder hit 67 home runs before turning 22, the fourth most in MLB history. Last year, he became the second-youngest member of the 30-30 club, doing so during his age-21 season. Trout did it in his age-20 season in 2012. Acuña, Rodriguez, Trout and Ken Griffey Jr. are the only players to total at least 60 home runs and 50 stolen bases at 21 or younger.

“His skills have been documented, what he's done and at such an early age, and as I said last year, he's not a finished product yet. He’s still learning about the game and himself,” Braves manager Brian Snitker said. “I think the sky's the limit as far as what this kid can accomplish, but it's going to be up to him in how he handles the whole thing, the stardom, the notoriety and trying to stay in a day-to-day frame of mind. Never taking things for granted. I think if he does all that, he has the potential to be a really good player for a long time.”

In addition to Robert, 23, who has blazing speed and emerging power, the White Sox have rising stars in Cuban Yoán Moncada, 25, and Eloy Jiménez, 23, who is from the Dominican Republic.

The game hasn’t seen this type of impact from young talent since Javier Báez, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, Mookie Betts, Manny Machado and Corey Seager burst onto the scene. It’s comparable to 2012, when Trout, Bryce Harper, Giancarlo Stanton and Jason Heyward had a 5-plus WAR at age 23 or younger.

There’s also new generation of young stars from Latin America on the horizon and likely more on the way. That’s because competition between teams for international talent is at an all-time high, and more resources are being allocated toward international scouting than ever. All teams have an academy and programs in the Dominican Republic, and most have instituted systematic approaches to the international market that include input from several top decision makers.

In addition to traditional scouting methods, teams are also using advanced technology as part of the evaluation process, which allows for tomorrow’s international prospects to be identified much sooner.

It’s hard to argue with the results. More than 1,000 international prospects, primarily from the Dominican Republic, sign each year during the international period. This season, there were a record 109 players from the Dominican Republic on Opening Day rosters.

“Obviously, as you look at our roster, acquiring international talent is important to us,” White Sox general manager Rick Hahn said. “For generations now, international talent has been part of the White Sox tradition, and as we embarked on the rebuild path a few years back, we knew it was imperative for that to continue. [International scouting director] Marco Paddy has done a remarkable job for us both in the role he played in the signing of free agents like [José] Abreu and Robert, but also with the makeup knowledge and relationships he had with others when we acquired like Eloy and Moncada.”

Their numbers speak for themselves, but these young players also play with style. They are having fun, and it shows.

“I think the one thing that stands out with those players is just their talent level and that they are unbelievable talents,” Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. “And in being so young, they've got a certain freshness and certain spark about them that they play with a certain swagger and confidence. I personally think it's healthy and a good thing, because the main thing is allowing for people to be themselves. That's what we encourage. We're certainly going to be professional, but we think it's important to be yourself.”

Sometimes, being yourself is a tricky proposition for new-school players like Tatis and Soto when it challenges old-school tradition. Last month, Tatis’ grand slam on a 3-0 count late in the game against Texas created a controversy because it conflicted with the "unwritten rules of the game." Soto’s shuffle in the batter’s box -- where he stares down opposing pitchers while moving his feet back and forth -- has been received to mixed reviews.

But for these players, and to many others, the gestures are all in good fun and great for the game.

“I think in all Latin culture, not just the Dominican, we celebrate a little bit different,” Tatis said. “We express our joy when we are playing. It’s just how our culture is. We express more love, we express when we are happy, and even when we are not having a good time, we express that, too. We respect the game. I just think we express it a little bit different.”

Tatis and his fellow young stars have also accepted the responsibilities that come with being role models off the field. They honor the Latino legends that came before them by embodying them in spirit and carrying it forward.

Just like in baseball, it all seems to come naturally.

“Seeing the youngsters and seeing how passionate they are playing the game that we love, there’s no greater satisfaction than that,” Hall of Fame reliever Mariano Rivera said. “But they must remember they represent not only Dominican Republic, not only Venezuela, not only Puerto Rico, not only Panama, but all of us together.”

Jesse Sanchez, who has been a reporter for MLB.com since 2001, is a national reporter based in Phoenix. Follow him on Twitter @JesseSanchezMLB and Facebook.