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Is Tommy Pham a late bloomer or a flash in the pan?

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ICYMI, this Cards outfielder has excelled in limited playing time the past few years and currently has a full time gig. Sure, he’s 29, but could he just be a late bloomer or will he fade?

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Miami Marlins Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

If you’re not a Cardinals fan (#theCardinalWay or something like that), you probably haven’t heard much about Tommy Pham. He was a non-prospect that debuted at age 26 as a fourth outfielder in 2014. In the years since, he has not topped 183 PA in any season. Clearly, the Cardinals did not value him above their other options like Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Jason Heyward, Matt Holliday, Matt Adams (what a disaster he was in the outfield!), and a cavalcade of others.

I also wrote some stuff about him last year, when discussing the Cardinals outfield, and apparently Joe Gentile and Eddy Almaguer have discussed him briefly recently in their posts, but I wanted to do an in-depth look today.

Despite limited playing time, he’s actually put up good numbers, to wit:

MLB Career: 467 PA, 19 HR, 72 R, 50 RBI, 8 SB, 0.255/0.348/0.468, good enough for a 120 wRC+

That’s an above average outfielder in most fantasy leagues. Strikeouts killed him in 2016, with a disastrous 38.8% strikeout rate. That produced a 0.226 average despite a very good 0.342 BABIP. He’s always had strong walk rates (>10%) and his K% is back down to a more normal 25.7% this season. So, we’ve established that he has been pretty good in limited playing time.

The 2017 Cardinals are somehow still competing despite poor performances and injuries at many positions. Fun Fact (unless you root for the red birds): Adam Wainwright is the sixth best hitter by WAR on the roster. His wRC+ is 3rd. That’s the kind of dysfunction I’m talking about. Sure Mike Leake, Carlos Martinez, and company have kept the rotation rolling, but much of the hitting has been bad. Incidentally, one of the two hitters better than Wainwright? Thomas James Pham.

Anyway, Randal Grichuk was so bad he got sent to A+ ball to relearn the strike zone and Jose Martinez is the only outfielder left not named Fowler, Piscotty, or Pham, so Pham has picked up a full time job for the time being. Grichuk is working his way back, but you have to think Matheny will keep Pham as long as he is hitting.

Now we are back to the original premise: can Pham keep this up with a full time job? We haven’t seen him in this role before for very long. Is there anything to back up his performance so far? He’s 29 years old, so he’s not exactly a young player anymore and it is rare for players to emerge at his age, but let’s see what the numbers say.

First, his primary 2017 numbers:

109 PA, 5 HR, 4 SB, 0.289/0.394/0.511, 0.222 ISO (over 0.200 every season), 0.356 BABIP, 13.8% BB%, 25.7% K%

And then his secondary 2017 numbers:

47.6% GB%, 15% IFFB%, 25% HR/FB%, 39.1% Hard%, 9.8% SwStr% (league avg at 10.3%)

The primary numbers look great. Power, speed, batting average, a BABIP that’s high but not crazy high for a guy like him, great walk rate, K% not that far above average (21.6%). That’s a great start, but I always have to dig deeper.

His secondary numbers start to show some weaknesses. His GB% is too high for someone with his power, I would like to see it in the low 40s or upper 30s. His IFFB% is also too high. It would ideally be under 8% or so. That’s too many pop-ups and easy outs. His HR/FB% will certainly come down. Few hitters can keep that level going. That means a hit to the power output. His swinging strike rate is quite good and means his strikeout rate could come down a little.

I’ve buried the lead here because we need to talk about that hard hit rate. 39.1% is huge. If he had enough AB to qualify for the leaderboard, he would slot in at #30, tied with Robinson Cano, just a half a percent behind Ryan Zimmerman. Ok, so he’s hitting the ball hard, but that’s just one data source. What does Statcast say?

Over at baseballsavant.com, Pham’s barrels per plate appearance (a measure of how many times he hits a ball hard and at a good launch angle) puts him somewhere around 45th best at 7.3%. The same is true for his barrels per batted ball (12.5%). He’s in the top 40 for average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives at 95.7 mph. He falls all the way to the middle of the pack for average exit velocity on all batted balls, though. That’s not a big deal because the balls in the air are what we care about anyway.

He’s also in the top 50 in average home run distance. Heading over to ESPN’s home run tracker, he has one no doubt (ND) homer and two “just enoughs”. For more on how the tracker works, let’s look at what the site says:

The league averages for 2006 were 27% JE, 55% PL and 18% ND. Hitters who amassed a significantly larger than average percentage of JE homers may have benefitted from good fortune, and thus may be ripe for a regression towards the league average this season.

Just pretend it isn’t from 2006, which is kind of ancient, and let’s use those % anyway. Pham’s got 5 HR, so 20% are ND, 40% are JE, and 40% are PL (plenty). I think he’s basically at the average, so I don’t expect much regression.

Ok, so every measure of power I can find outside of a few numbers of lesser importance says Pham is one of the 40 most powerful hitters in baseball this year. Just for fun, I thought I would look at how many homers the 40th place hitter in 2016 hit. It was Carlos Beltran with 29. If Pham had a full season of playing time, I think he could do that.

Oh, and we haven’t talked about his other big skill: stealing bases. In his career, he has 8 steals in 467 PA. Extrapolate that out to 600 PA and you have 10 steals. Basically, he could be a 25 HR/10 SB hitter with a high OBP and decent batting average. If such a corner outfielder has value in your league, I suggest checking out Mr. Pham. His power is legit, he has some speed, good plate discipline, and a full time job. Tschus!