Tatis chasing rare bit of baseball history

June 6th, 2021

SAN DIEGO -- When was the last time we saw a player who blends power and speed quite like ?

Through his first 42 games this season, Tatis had slugged 17 homers and swiped 13 bags. Were it not for a couple stints on the injured list, Tatis would be on pace for the first 50-50 season in Major League history.

He still might be headed for another remarkable bit of history.

With his stolen base in the sixth inning of the Padres' 4-0 loss to the Mets on Saturday night, Tatis moved into a tie with Trea Turner for the National League stolen base lead. He also sits atop the NL home run charts, tied with Ronald Acuña Jr.

So, just how rare is that?

What it means
The last time any player in either league finished tops in both home runs and steals? Well, it's been a while. Chuck Klein of the Philadelphia Phillies slugged 38 homers and stole 20 bases to lead the NL almost 90 years ago, in 1932.

It's only happened two other times in the modern era, and the other two took place more than 100 years ago -- Ty Cobb in 1909 and Jimmy Sheckard in 1903. Needless to say, the game was in a much different place then, pre-integration and pre-expansion.

The last player to truly make a run at this feat was Matt Kemp in 2011, when he led the National League in home runs and finished tied for second in steals. Since then, no player has cracked the top three in both. (And Kemp finished 21 steals behind Michael Bourn.)

Of course, these numbers all account for just a single league. The only player to lead the Majors in both home runs and steals was Cobb in 1909. Tatis entered play Sunday trailing Vladimir Guerrero Jr. by one homer and Whit Merrifield by four steals for that distinction.

Why is it so rare?
For a number of reasons, this is a particularly challenging bit of history to make. First and foremost, if you're hitting homers in bunches, it means you aren't on base to steal bases. And if you're on the bases, it means you didn't hit a home run. It's hard to rack up big-time numbers in both.

On top of that, there are other elite stolen-base threats and other elite power threats. It's hard to keep up with both. Take last Saturday, for example, when Tatis launched a prodigious game-tying home run to the train tracks in Houston. It was one of the defining moments of the Padres’ season.

In the meantime, Turner -- who doesn't have close to the same power potential as Tatis -- did not homer, but was on base a couple times and swiped a couple bags. Even though Tatis’ .379 on-base percentage is excellent, it probably needs to be even higher for these purposes, to account for the fact that a bunch of his times on base are simply home run trots.

It's also imperative Tatis be healthy. Had he not missed nine games because of a dislocated shoulder, then eight more after testing positive for COVID-19, he'd probably sit alone atop both categories by now. These are purely counting stats, so Tatis would also benefit from a move out of the cleanup spot and back to the top of the lineup.

Why he could do it?
Still, there are reasons to believe it's an attainable feat. Tatis' walk rate has steadily risen in each of the past two seasons, and his power might make pitchers prone to pitch around him -- putting him on base to steal more bases. The reverse might also be true.

"You can't pitch around him because he can get on ... and beat you on the bases," Padres manager Jayce Tingler said. "It's just such a weapon to have offensively."

Ultimately, the home runs come down to Tatis. He clearly has enough power to lead the league, if a few things break his way. Stolen bases, on the other hand, are a product of the organization's philosophy. That's a positive sign for Tatis' chances. No team runs like the Padres, whose 61 steals lead the Majors, and it's not even close.

Perhaps no team is better at diagnosing the right spots to run, too. Associate manager Skip Schumaker and first-base coach Wayne Kirby are experts at picking up tells in opposing pitchers and passing that information along to their players. On top of all of his physical talents, Tatis is elite at digesting information and putting it to use. He's swiped 13 bags and been caught just twice.

Ultimately, it'll be an uphill climb for Tatis to achieve this rare bit of history. When the season ends, he might "only" lead the league in homers. He might "only" lead the league in steals. He might do neither, because he's simply too good at both.

But if anyone can make a push, it has to be Fernando Tatis Jr., right?