Kaline, Cobb and ... Tatis? Phenom eyes history

Padres rookie has shot at becoming youngest batting champ

August 5th, 2019

LOS ANGELES -- Regardless of whether his name shows up on the league leaderboards, is putting together a flat-out incredible rookie season.

But the Padres' rookie phenom will finally have enough at-bats to qualify for those leaderboards later this month -- the first time since he missed May with a hamstring injury. At his current pace, Tatis is eight games away, which lines him up to be eligible by the end of the Padres' next homestand.

At that point, Tatis could find himself on the verge of history.

If he were to finish with the National League's highest batting average, Tatis would be the youngest player in Major League Baseball history to win a batting crown. He'd be in good company, too, barely edging out Hall of Famers Al Kaline and Ty Cobb -- the only other 20-year-olds to do so.

To be sure, Tatis remains something of a long shot. He's hitting .323, 13 points behind the Mets' Jeff McNeil, who sits atop the leaderboard. Tatis has the Brewers' Christian Yelich (.330) and the Dodgers' Cody Bellinger (.326) and the Rockies' Charlie Blackmon (.325) to jump as well.

"I'm not thinking about it," said Tatis. "But it's for sure something that I would love to win. It's very important for me to start my career and set that base for myself."

It would be quite a start, indeed. No Padres player has earned an NL batting crown since Tony Gwynn won his eighth 22 years ago. The award given to the NL's batting leader is now named after Gwynn, who hit .372 in 1997.

Tatis is unlikely to reach the lofty batting-average standards set by Gwynn -- a career .338 hitter. But in an era that places less emphasis on average, the Padres are confident Tatis will grace those leaderboards on a yearly basis.

"He'll do it at some point," said Padres hitting coach Johnny Washington when asked about Tatis' push for a batting title. "We think he's an MVP-caliber type player. He's a premier talent, and nothing surprises me when he does it."

If anything, Tatis' game should lend itself nicely to a high average. Sure, his strikeout rate is a bit high, but when he makes contact, it's often loud contact. He's reached 115 mph with his exit velocity and has hit 36 balls 105 mph or harder. Couple that with elite speed and solid pitch recognition, and Tatis has an ideal skill set for keeping his average high.

"He has some tools that others don't," Washington said. "He legs the ball out, and he hits the ball harder than some other guys. ... Some nights he'll hit three balls in the infield and get three hits. Some nights he'll hit three bullets and get no hits. But over the long haul, it's for sure in his favor."

In the Padres' eyes, however, the most impressive aspect of Tatis' rookie season has been his poise. On multiple occasions, he's looked lost at the plate to start a game, only to finish it with critical hits in the later innings.

"I struggled a lot in the Minor Leagues, and I learned to not give at-bats away," Tatis said. "Those at-bats are the ones that at the end of the year, instead of hitting .297 or .298, you're hitting .308. Those at-bats still count. They're still very important. You can't give them away."

Said Washington: "There's an inner calmness that he has, an inner confidence. He understands that if he just continues plugging, continues doing what he's doing, he'll be fine. Wherever he ends up at the end of the year, I don't think he chases numbers. He's just chasing being great. Wherever those numbers are, that's where they end up."

Right now, those numbers are pretty good. Tatis had 97 hits in 300 at-bats after going 1-for-5 on Sunday. To qualify for a batting title, a player must have recorded at least 3.1 plate appearances per team game. Tatis has 334, currently leaving him 10 shy of the minimum requirement.

Hitting exclusively in the leadoff spot since his return from the injured list, Tatis has closed that gap quickly. It's fair to expect a day or two of rest for Tatis this month, as the Padres embark on a busy stretch with two off-days in a 30-day stretch beginning Tuesday.

But barring injury, Tatis will be well past the threshold when the Padres end their season on September 29 in Arizona. He'd be 20 years, 270 days old then, making him the youngest batting champ by a razor thin margin -- by 10 days over Kaline and 17 over Cobb.

But Tatis isn't concerning himself with the history involved in the accomplishment. He prefers to view it in a forward-thinking light.

"It would be great," Tatis said. "It would mean a lot to me, and it would set the bar very high to start my career. That's how I want it."