In a shocking story heading into the weekend, MLB announced that Padres shortstop Fernando Tatis Jr. would be suspended for 80 games under the league’s Joint Drug Prevention and Treatment Program. His positive test was for Clostebol, an anabolic steroid that previously led to the suspensions of Dee Strange-Gordon and Freddy Galvis. The ban ends his 2022 season before it ever officially started, and he will also miss a decent chunk of next year, as well.
To say this is unwelcome news would be an understatement. The Padres are in prime playoff position without having the services of Tatis this year, but this is a giant hit; they’re in this position in spite of his loss. Whether you’re talking about the projections of nerdy computer systems or the expectations of team employees and their fans, the idea that he would be back on the roster for at least most of the stretch run and the playoffs was baked into the assumptions.
While a certain trade with the team in D.C. for a specific outfielder of much acclaim rightfully got the most thundering plaudits after the deadline, the depth move for Brandon Drury in a small trade with the Reds is looking even better. After a string of disappointing seasons following his early success in Arizona, he’s having a career year, hitting .269/.333/.521 for a wRC+ of 130 and playing several positions. Drury is competent at both second base and third base, which amplifies the value of his offensive production, and that flexibility allows the Padres to shuffle players around the diamond as needs, matchups, or injuries demand. He’s even played enough shortstop that he can be at least considered an emergency option, but it’s less needed in San Diego with Ha-Seong Kim and Jake Cronenworth likely ahead of him in the depth chart at the position.
The Padres’ depth mitigates the loss of Tatis, but their young superstar is so good that practically any timeshare of mortals will represent a significant downgrade at the position. Entering 2022, ZiPS ranked him second in baseball in projected WAR, behind only Juan Soto, and only because it projected fewer games played for Tatis because of his injury history. ZiPS was not exactly going out on a limb here; Steamer and THE BAT held him in similar regard, as did, well, every person who was even vaguely familiar with baseball. Even my mom, who has just about zero interest in the sport, knew about the suspension, though admittedly she referred to him as “Taters.”
In any case, let’s run the median projections for the NL West, both without a Tatis suspension and with him returning at the end of this week:
ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West (Pre-Tatis Suspension)
|Los Angeles Dodgers||106||56||—||.654||99.9%||0.1%||100.0%||10.7%|
|San Diego Padres||91||71||15||.562||0.1%||85.5%||85.6%||6.3%|
|San Francisco Giants||82||80||24||.506||0.0%||5.4%||5.4%||0.2%|
The Dodgers have basically closed the door on the longshot chance that San Diego would catch them in the NL West, but the Padres are among the best situated of the plausible wild card teams. Adding Soto gave them the strongest roster among wild card contenders, a roster as strong as Los Angeles’ until Walker Buehler and Clayton Kershaw return. ZiPS saw San Diego, against league-average competition, as a .582 team with the assumption that Tatis would be back. Now let’s go to the current projection without Tatis, which reduces the roster strength by 26 points of winning percentage, to .556.
ZiPS Projected Standings – NL West (After 8/15 Games)
|Los Angeles Dodgers||106||56||—||.654||100.0%||0.0%||100.0%||10.7%|
|San Diego Padres||90||72||16||.556||0.0%||76.0%||76.0%||5.3%|
|San Francisco Giants||82||80||24||.506||0.0%||6.5%||6.5%||0.2%|
The impact on both San Diego’s chances of making the playoffs and winning the World Series is significant. In terms of the postseason, just under a tenth of the time, the Padres playing postseason baseball becomes the Padres playing golf and watching the playoffs on TV. Playoffs being a bit of a crapshoot, the absolute impact is relatively small, but that a sixth of their World Series chances just evaporated has to be a sore spot for a team trying to win right now. Against a .575 team, going from a .582 team to a .556 team reduces the chances of victory by about four to six percentage points every series, depending on length.
Naturally, Tatis’ teammates and organization have expressed their frustration with him publicly; it would be unreasonable for them to feel differently. Nobody can find fault when a player is injured, but when he’s out from actions of his own doing, it feels a bit like a betrayal. If I were suspended from my BBWAA membership for a year for conduct violations, while it would obviously affect my personal career, it would be a real slap in the face of my colleagues at FanGraphs and the many writers who have spread my work around over the years.
Joe Musgrove on Tatis:
“A little bummed, a little pissed,” said Joe Musgrove, the lifelong Padres fan and now a pitcher and a leader on the team. “It’s hard to make a judgement or say anything until I hear from Tati or what those details are. But yeah, not a good day.”
“You can say he’s a young kid and he’s gonna learn his lessons or whatnot,” Musgrove said. “But ultimately, I think you’ve got to start showing a little bit of that remorse and showing us that you’re committed to it and that you want to be here.”
“The second time we’ve been disappointed with him,” pitcher Mike Clevinger said last night. “You hope he grows up and learns from this and learns it’s about more than just him.”
President of Baseball Operations A.J. Preller:
“It’s very disappointing,” Preller said. “He’s somebody that from the organization’s standpoint we’ve invested time and money into. When he’s on the field, he’s a difference maker. You have to learn from the situations. We were hoping that from the offseason to now that there would be some maturity, and obviously with the news today, it’s more of a pattern and it’s something that we’ve got to dig a bit more into. … I’m sure he’s very disappointed. But at the end of the day, it’s one thing to say it. You’ve got to start showing by your actions.”
The explanation given by Tatis was unconvincing.
The Major League Baseball Players Association issued the following statement on behalf of Fernando Tatis, Jr.: pic.twitter.com/gCNVcs0a5Y
— MLBPA Communications (@MLBPA_News) August 12, 2022
Athletes blaming their positive tests on others is old hat, but the claims of a tainted ringworm treatment, while not impossible, sound like a stretch. Dr. Rany Jazayerli, a name most of you ought to be familiar with, is at that rare intersection of baseball analyst, long-suffering Royals fan, and working dermatologist, and he was highly skeptical about Tatis’ claims. On Twitter, he reiterated that he would not consider prescribing anything with Clostebol — as opposed to the similarly named Clobetasol — to a patient with ringworm.
I only speak from my experience as a US-trained, board-certified dermatologist for 19 years. Maybe Clostebol is used to treat ringworm elsewhere, even though it makes no medical sense.
Or maybe Tatis googled Clostebol and was fed a bunch of results for Clobetasol instead. ????
— Rany Jazayerli (@jazayerli) August 13, 2022
Tatis accepted the suspension without appealing, but that’s hardly a great sacrifice given that drug suspensions in baseball are largely strict liability. Without being able to challenge the proof of the violation itself, he must prove by clear and convincing evidence that he bore no significant fault or negligence for the positive test. That’s a tough burden and mostly serves simply to mitigate the penalty to a minimum of 30 games for a first-time offender while still leaving him ineligible for the playoffs. Luckily for the Padres, the postseason ban only applies to the season during which a suspension commences, not all seasons in which there is a suspension, which leaves Tatis eligible to play in the 2023 postseason along with most of the regular season.
There’s no real silver lining, but if Tatis had been suspended just a few weeks later, there would have been an additional problem for the Padres. Since his suspension runs for fewer than 40 games in 2023, he is allowed to play in all spring training games, not just the intrasquad games for which no tickets are sold. Given that Tatis had already missed most of a season with a fractured wrist, the franchise should be happy to get him into as many actual baseball games as they can before he returns sometime next year. If San Diego plays in the maximum of 22 postseason games, he could be back as soon as mid-April!
From a projection standpoint, little changes about Tatis other than the additional normal hit taken from missing time from a non-injury. ZiPS does not look at drug suspensions differently because, after spending a decade researching this issue from every angle I can think of, knowing whether or not a player has been banned for PED use has had no predictive value in the context of performance from MLB-level players. This is largely why I consider PED use a safety issue — players shouldn’t feel forced to use, whether or not they’re effective — and a public relations one.
That latter arena is where Tatis might take the biggest hit of all. The reputational damage will be immense, no matter the efficacy of his PED use. We’re in uncharted territory here, in which a young, elite player is caught using. While Alex Rodriguez has admitted using, and there’s at least a question about David Ortiz as a young player in 2003, these weren’t known at the time. Tatis could come back, put up a Hall of Fame-type run for a decade and pass every drug test with flying colors, and there will be inevitably some people who still think of him as a cheater. Robinson Canó didn’t have to play baseball for 15 years after a drug suspension, and players like Frankie Montas and Nelson Cruz just aren’t in the same tier as Tatis; fans seem to be far more forgiving of moderate talents than transcendent ones.
There could even be Cooperstown consequences. Only speaking for myself, I consider a drug suspension, even if I don’t believe it significantly changed performance, to be a serious offense. To me, as with corked bats, it’s the attempt to cheat, not the efficacy. I do think there is a gray area, as when Mark McGwire allegedly was using. Some will cite Fay Vincent’s 1991 memo banning steroid use as evidence of a baseball rule, but even Vincent himself didn’t believe his memo applied to players.
“I sent it out because I believed it was important to take the position that steroids were dangerous, as were other illegal drugs,” Vincent said. “As you know, the union would not bargain with us, would not discuss, would not agree to any form of a coherent drug plan. So my memo really applied to all the people who were not players.”
In other words, that memo could ban Jim Fregosi or Terry Collins for steroid use. But the drug testing agreement explicitly made it against the rules with penalties attached, and that wiggle room vanished.
Unlike some writers, I don’t consider a PED suspension an automatic disqualifier, but under the Hall of Fame’s voting guidelines, I consider it a violation of the character clause, which I see in baseball terms, and for a borderline candidate, that could put him out. That said, the Hall of Fame voting pool will change a lot in the 20–25 years before Tatis would come up to the electorate — I don’t vote until after the 2025 season, and by the point I would be voting on Tatis, I’ll be in my mid-to-late 60s — so it’s hard to gauge exactly how writers will feel about drug use with another quarter century of experience.
Regardless of what happens to Tatis personally, this is a hit for baseball. He’s one of the league’s most marketable young talents, and one of the proponents for baseball actually being allowed to be fun, not a Very Serious Affair in which we tut-tut about brutish bat flips and proletariat celebrations as we gently sip our beers (pinky out!) and yearn for the return of Regency Baseball standards. Tatis should be one of the faces of baseball, not one of its disgraces. When we lose a player like that, everybody who loves the game loses.