Fernando Tatis Jr. is the most exciting player in baseball, and it feels like he adds a new historic feat to his season resume practically daily. If he continues to play at this productive pace, he’ll likely add another honor to the list: a Most Valuable Player Award.
He has 15 home runs this season, tied for most in the Majors with Mike Trout and Nelson Cruz. Only two 21-year-olds have had at least a share of the Major League lead in homers for a season: 1953 Eddie Mathews and 1901 Sam Crawford.
That’s not the only stat that indicates his MVP candidacy. Tatis has 3.1 Wins Above Replacement this season according to FanGraphs, most among position players, and is hitting the ball harder than pretty much anyone on the planet. His 66.1% hard-hit rate is by far the highest among players with at least 50 batted balls.
What’s most impressive about Tatis’ 2020 campaign so far is the young age at which he’s doing all of this: 21, as noted above. And he isn’t the only youngster doing big things this season. Juan Soto, also 21, and Luis Robert, who just turned 23, are also having notably valuable seasons for their clubs at young ages. Not to mention 22-year-old Ronald Acuña Jr., who’s making a push lately after missing time with injury.
November’s MVP voting results could be historic.
They’re rooting for it to happen
Tatis and Soto seem aware of this connection between them and their chances at the award, too. On Aug. 31, when the Las Mayores Instagram account posted a Tatis highlight video, Soto commented “MVP!” in encouragement. Tatis responded to that comment and said, in Spanish, that he hopes the two of them finish first and second, in either order, noting that it’s great either way, if they keep it among their countrymen.
The exchange itself is part of what makes both players so captivating -- the way they approach the game and interact with others. And it helps that the sentiment is a very real one, given the seasons the players have put together so far.
And they’re only 21
Tatis seems like the NL MVP favorite right now, with the Giants’ Mike Yastrzemski and the Dodgers’ Mookie Betts also prominently featured in that conversation, but Soto, who has been outstanding since his season began, is there, too. His .752 slugging percentage is 67 points higher than that of the player with at least 100 plate appearances who is next on the list -- and that’s none other than Cruz, at .685.
Either Tatis or Soto would be the youngest player to be named MVP since the BBWAA began voting on awards in 1931, as neither player will turn 22 until after the regular season. No player who was 21 or younger at the end of the season has ever won. Four players who were 22 have won: Stan Musial (1943), Johnny Bench (1970), Vida Blue (1971) and Bryce Harper (2015). Blue, who turned 22 in July of that season, was the youngest of that group, by age on the final day of the season.
There is, however, precedent for a 21-year-old coming close to winning MVP honors. Five players who were under the age of 22 at the end of a season have finished second in MVP voting, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. Trout was the most recent to do it, in 2012. He joined a list with 1996 Alex Rodriguez, 1955 Al Kaline, 1953 Mathews and 1940 Bob Feller.
Players under age 22 to finish 2nd in MVP voting, with winner & first-place votes:
2012: Mike Trout (5 first-place votes); Miguel Cabrera, 23 first-place votes
1996: Alex Rodriguez (10); Juan Gonzalez, 11
1955: Al Kaline (4); Yogi Berra, 7
1953: Eddie Mathews (3); Roy Campanella, 17
1940: Bob Feller (6); Hank Greenberg, 16
What if Tatis and Soto were to finish first and second, in either order, as Tatis said on Instagram he’s hoping for? We already know that a 21-year-old winning would be unprecedented, and a player that age finishing even top two would be joining a very short list.
Expanding that slightly, there’s only been one instance of two players under the age of 22 both finishing top five in the same league’s MVP voting in a season, according to Elias -- the 1939 AL award. Joe DiMaggio won it, but the 20-year-old Feller finished third and 21-year-old Ted Williams finished fourth.
Thus, if Tatis and Soto each finish top-five, even, it will be historically relevant. And right now, it feels like each could find himself even closer to the top.
The AL could be historic, too
There are a number of good AL position players within about 0.5 WAR of each other, led by Cruz and Anthony Rendon at 2.2, with Trout right behind at 2.0 and others in the 1.7-plus range. Trout is tied for the Major League lead in home runs, with Tatis and Cruz. In short, he’s doing Mike Trout things again, and might become the second player to win more than three MVPs, joining Barry Bonds (seven).
But Robert is among that handful of other AL players putting up stellar seasons as well, and he’s doing it at just 23 years old. His 1.7 WAR is tied for fifth in the AL, behind the group noted above and teammate Tim Anderson (1.9). Thus far, Robert has lived up to the five-tool moniker, with 97th-percentile sprint speed, a 97th-percentile barrel rate and six Outs Above Average, most among outfielders.
The only players to win Rookie of the Year and MVP honors in the same season are Fred Lynn in 1975 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. Lynn was 23, while Ichiro was 27, after having a professional career in Japan before joining the Mariners. If Robert were to surpass Trout for the award, he’d likely join that duo.
But even if Robert doesn’t win, finishing second could be quite notable, in conjunction with Tatis and Soto’s quest in the NL. There has been just one season where a player under the age of 24 finished in the top two in each league’s MVP voting, according to Elias. That was in 1941, when Williams finished second in the AL at 23 and Pete Reiser, at 22, finished second in the NL.
The youthful energy and high-caliber play has been off the charts in baseball this year. And by awards season, there may be some historic finishes to put that young prowess into perspective.