For years, the question has been: “Who is the face of baseball?” Ahead of the 2021 MLB All-Star Game though, three new superstars have proved there doesn’t need to be just one face of the sport.
Fernando Tatis Jr. of the San Diego Padres, Shohei Ohtani of the Los Angeles Angels and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. of the Toronto Blue Jays take Coors Field on Tuesday night as the three most exciting, transcendent players in the game right now — at a time when baseball needs players who sparkle on and off the field to attract the next generation of fans.
ESPN baseball writers Jeff Passan, Alden Gonzalez and Joon Lee break down what makes each player so compelling, capture the moment they truly announced their arrival as a force in the game and provide a blueprint for baseball to maximize their reach.
The three new faces of baseball are here. Now it’s up to MLB to make the most of its young superstars.
Fernando Tatis Jr.
The Face of the Faces
He is heir to a long-abdicated throne. Not since Ken Griffey Jr. has baseball witnessed a player with equal parts talent and swag, with the ability to transcend the sport and hook die-hards and casuals alike. At 22 years old, Tatis checks every box. Power? He leads the National League with 28 home runs. Speed? He’s got 20 stolen bases to boot. Position? Shortstop, the heart of the infield. Flair? In spades, from his hair to his stutter step before third base on home run trots to his extraordinarily complicated celebratory high-five routines. Bat flips? Nobody does ’em better. Success? Oodles of it, from a San Diego Padres team that’s a threat to win the World Series to individual plaudits, like leading NL position players in Wins Above Replacement with 4.6. Contract? The biggest mega-deal ever given to a player so young: 14 years, $340 million guaranteed. Sure, some will nitpick and say he’s sloppy with his throws or gets hurt too much. It’s noted, Debbie Downer. The rest of us will enjoy everything else he does, thanks.
What he does that nobody can match on the field: His off-the-charts athleticism shows up in the most magical ways. Modern defensive metrics can measure how well a player goes to his right and left. For Tatis, they should add a category: up. The catch Tatis made last week on a Ryan Zimmerman line drive looked like a recovery jump by someone falling off a Super Smash Bros. stage. Tatis launched all 6-foot-4 of himself into the air, extended his right arm, kicked his legs like he was bouncing off an invisible step and corralled the ball with his back to the plate. It was balletic, it was singular, it was Tatis.
What makes him bigger than baseball: His magnetism. Watch a game in which Tatis is playing and it’s difficult to look at anything else. It’s the pupu platter of appeal: the size, the grace, the dynamism. It’s the length of his stride and the bounce of his dreads, the smoothness of his swing and the strength of his arm. Tatis is appointment viewing because one night he’ll hit a 450-foot home run and the next he’ll do the splits and the one after that he’ll leap like a basketball player and then he’ll uncork a new kind of bat flip. In a game that has been around for more than 150 years, he is its greatest threat to do something that’s never been done.
How can MLB maximize his reach? Make him the centerpiece of every advertisement. Tatis doesn’t shy away from publicity or endorsements. He wants to be a star, and his growing incandescence clearly isn’t affecting his on-field ability. The more popularity Tatis gets, the better he’s gotten. There’s a ceiling on both, of course, but baseball needs to do everything it can to hit the off-field part while Tatis does his work on the field.
When he arrived in the majors and what we thought at the time: He’s got a chance to be really good. Remember, Tatis was only 20 years old, and he’d grown from a slight, undersized 16-year-old signed by the Chicago White Sox into a man-child stolen by the Padres in a trade for pitcher James Shields. But to think he’d be an instant superstar? Or this good this quickly? Nah. Not even the Padres, who thought enough of him to eschew manipulating his service time, thought that.
The moment he truly ARRIVED: It was on a popup. By June 23, 2019, fans had seen Tatis’ exploits for about three months, so, yeah, he had arrived. But that day, when he stood on third and Hunter Renfroe weakly skied a ball toward Pirates second baseman Kevin Newman, what Tatis unleashed illustrated just how different he was. He tried to score. At first, Newman almost didn’t believe Tatis’ gumption. Turn a popup to second into a sacrifice fly? Come on. Newman double clutched. Tatis never stopped. And even though the plate umpire called him out, Tatis stood up and put his hands to his ears, signaling to manager Jayce Tingler that he should challenge the play. Tingler did. Tatis was safe. The legend mushroomed. And it hasn’t stopped.
In a fellow All-Star’s words: “He doesn’t live in this world,” Arizona Diamondbacks infielder Eduardo Escobar said. “He lives in another world. There’s a lot of young talent in this league, but this guy is the best.”
— Jeff Passan
The Babe, Only Better
Ohtani is, for all intents and purposes, a unicorn. You have to go all the way back to the time of World War I, long before baseball integrated, to find someone who even comes close to replicating what he’s doing. And Babe Ruth might no longer do it justice. A torn ulnar collateral ligament cut Ohtani’s two-way ambitions short in his first season from Japan in 2018, but he continued to produce like an elite hitter through his first two years. The pandemic-shortened 2020 season was an all-out disaster — and that has only made his triumphant 2021 season all the more remarkable. Consider this: Before Ohtani, the most strikeouts recorded by a player with at least 25 home runs in a season was 30, by The Babe in 1919. Ohtani easily surpassed the homers and nearly tripled the strikeouts in the first half.
What he does that nobody can match on the field: Ohtani has freakish power and blazing speed, with an advanced feel in the batter’s box. But he also features a high-90s fastball, a devastating splitter and a lethal slider that make him a bona-fide starting pitcher. It’s not about any singular tool — though the power, some believe, might be without precedent — but instead the combination of them all that make Ohtani unlike any player in Major League Baseball history. Many consider him the undisputed American League MVP at this point, simply because nobody can come close to matching his contributions.
What makes him bigger than baseball: It’s the joy with which he plays. Remember Little League? What did the best player on your team do? He pitched, and he hit in the middle of the lineup. That’s basically what Ohtani does, and he navigates through it with this palpable sort of glee that easily resonates with those who watch him. MLB is doing everything it can — enlarging bases, banning shifts, cracking down on foreign substances — to create more action and thus appeal to the casual fan. But there might not be anything else that accomplishes the latter goal better than someone like Ohtani, a 27-year-old international superstar excelling at a near-unprecedented task and doing it with child-like wonder.
How can MLB maximize his reach? Every time Ohtani does something, it’s an event — whether he’s on the mound, in the batter’s box or on the bases. MLB can’t truly replicate the NFL’s “RedZone” channel, which has done wonders for the league, as the greatest things that take place in baseball are often unpredictable. Ohtani’s mere presence, however, is as close as it gets. Given that, MLB’s app should have the option of setting notifications for any time Ohtani is on the verge of either taking the mound or coming up to bat, because he truly is appointment television.
When he arrived in the majors and what we thought at the time: Ohtani’s first introduction to a U.S. audience, in spring training of 2018, was a rough one. In two Cactus League starts, he gave up nine runs and recorded only eight outs. In 32 at-bats, he struck out 10 times and accumulated only four hits. The skeptics who initially scoffed at the hype surrounding a prospective two-way player at baseball’s highest level felt emboldened. There were calls to send him to the minor leagues and to abandon the experiment entirely. Then came the games that mattered. Ohtani ditched his high leg kick in the batter’s box, threw with more intensity on the mound and for two months, before his UCL injury, he showed glimpses of what this could all look like.
The moment he truly ARRIVED: April 4, 2021. Tommy John surgery, other minor injuries and a disastrous 2020 season created plenty of lingering doubt about Ohtani’s chances of becoming a two-way player in the major leagues. There were positive signs during spring training, but it needed to happen when the lights came on. And then came his first pitching start of the season — at home, on Sunday Night Baseball, against the rising Chicago White Sox. Ohtani was placed in the lineup on his start day for the first time, a testament to manager Joe Maddon’s desire to let him play more freely, and it seemed as if the entire world was tuning in to watch Ohtani. He didn’t disappoint. In the top of the first, he threw a fastball clocked at 101 mph. In the bottom of the first, he hit a home run that traveled at 110 mph. For the first time, it really felt as if he could do this.
In a fellow All-Star’s words: “He’s literally two players in one,” Washington Nationals shortstop Trea Turner said. “You take any hitter here [at the All-Star Game] and any pitcher here and put them together as the same person, that’s him. He throws 100, can hit the ball a mile and he’s fast. He’s something special.”
— Alden Gonzalez
Vladimir Guerrero Jr.
The Son of an Icon Becoming an Icon
Guerrero entered the big leagues as one of the most hyped prospects of his generation, with the most excitement around a young player since Bryce Harper and his Sports Illustrated cover shoot as a high school phenom.
After an up-and-down first couple of seasons in the majors, the 22-year-old namesake of the Hall of Fame outfielder is now one of the best hitters in the sport, in contention for the Triple Crown while somehow exceeding the hype that accompanied his rise to The Show.
What he does that nobody can match on the field: The dude can just flat out hit. On a nightly basis during the 2021 season, it seems like Guerrero just hits another moonshot. Accompanying his power is an elite ability to hit the baseball, similar to his father. This isn’t your typical three-outcome power hitter who only swings for the fences. Guerrero is a combination of generational power and one of the sport’s best pure hitters.
What makes him bigger than baseball: There’s a certain unique appeal of watching the son of a legendary big leaguer excel at the exact same thing. Junior Griffey helped define an entire generation with his abilities on the baseball field, and Guerrero could do the exact same thing for today’s game.
How can MLB maximize his reach? By leaning into what makes him special and unique, the fact that he’s got immense talent at the plate while also bringing the pedigree and nostalgia the sport loves so much. Every time Guerrero steps up to the plate, it’s impossible not to see the flashes of his father’s swing, given their mechanical similarities. He has a long way to go until he’s in the Hall of Fame conversation, but it’s undeniable that he’s one of the most gifted hitters in the sport. Throw in his family’s baseball backstory and you have catnip for baseball traditionalists who revere the sport’s history.
When he arrived in the majors and what we thought at the time: Guerrero entered the majors as a star before seeing a single pitch. As he rose up through the minor leagues, he drew media scrutiny and fan attention, drumming up substantial hype before his MLB debut in 2019. Evaluators expected Guerrero to immediately make his mark at the plate, and while it took him a bit more time than that, he’s shown he deserved the fanfare.
The moment he truly ARRIVED: The 2019 Home Run Derby. Guerrero showed what was to come when he faced off for the Derby title in Cleveland. While he didn’t win the crown — losing out to Mets first baseman Pete Alonso — he set the single-round home run record with 40 after three overtimes in the semifinals against Joc Pederson and set the record for the most total home runs in a derby with 91. At the peak of his hype as a young up-and-coming rookie, he not only met the moment, but exceeded it.
In a fellow All-Star’s words: “For two months, he was seeing beach balls and it didn’t matter what you threw him,” Boston Red Sox closer Matt Barnes said. “A ton of fun to compete against. He’s a special talent. Hopefully, he plays a long time.”
— Joon Lee