Opportunity Found: Tommy Pham
Back in November, I tabbed St. Louis outfielder Tommy Pham as a possible breakout candidate this season. As a 29 year-old with 314 career at bats heading into the season, it was an admitted stretch choosing a guy like Pham, and I received some backlash in the comments section as a result. Needless to say, I was very disappointed when Opening Day rosters were announced and Pham found himself on the outside looking in. This was a guy who I was convinced had the talent to play the game at a high level, he just needed to be given an extended opportunity and to stay healthy, as Pham has yet to even cross the 350 at-bat plateau in any professional seasons in his eleven year career. Fast forward to May 21st, and the Cardinals have shipped out longtime first baseman and experimental outfielder Matt Adams to the Atlanta Braves, opening Pham up to near everyday playing time. Opportunity: found.
So what exactly has Pham done with his opportunity thus far, and what can we expect from him in the future? Over the past calendar year, Pham ranks 9th among all center fielders in wRC+, 17th among all left fielders, and 32nd among all outfielders. His 113 wRC+ is better than that of Jose Bautista, Christian Yelich, Starling Marte, Joc Pederson, Ben Zobrist, Mark Trumbo, Yaisel Puig, Marcell Ozuna, Carlos Gonzalez, and several other prominent slugging outfielders. Pham provides his owners with both power and patience, ranking 22nd among outfielders with a .224 ISO and 29th in walk-rate (10.5%). He also has seven steals in 419 career plate attempts which would put him on pace for about 10 over a full season’s worth of at bats, but I believe that a completely healthy Pham could push for 15-20 steals in a full season if given the chance. He stole 20 bags in just 390 plate appearances in Triple-A in 2014 and nabbed 18 back in Advanced High-A back in 2009.
Like many power-speed threats, Pham has struggled to make consistent contact for much of his career. Heading into 2017, his career strikeout rate was 32%. He’s managed to cut that number down to 29.5% this year, but a closer look at the underlying plate discipline numbers reveals even more room for improvement. His O-Swing% (the percentage of pitches swung at that are outside the strike zone) has gone from 25.4% last year down to 20.4% this year, and his O-Contact% went from 39.6% all the way up to 69.6%. That’s not a typo, that’s a 30% increase in contact made on pitches outside the strike zone. His overall contact rate is up 8.6%, from 66.1% up to 74.7% right now. Perhaps most encouraging, his SwStr% (the percent of pitches swung at and missed, a big indicator of future K%) is down from 14% last year to a much more palatable 10% in 2017 thus far. Those numbers can still be improved, and perhaps if Pham can finally find the right pair of contact lenses, maybe we will see even more improvement in his ability to discern balls from strikes, fastballs from offspeed, and just make harder more consistent contact. For a guy who ranks 19th among all outfielders in line-drive rate and 10th in Hard% (the percentage of balls hit hard as opposed to soft or medium contact), that is a scary proposition.
Overall, I think it’s safe to say I myself may need to go on the 10-Day Disabled List since I’m close to pulling a muscle in my shoulder from patting myself on the back, and it is certainly early enough in the season to where this call could end up looking poor. Still, Pham is Exhibit A of why you always bet on talent and why patience will pay off more often than not. Pham was likely unowned in all but the deepest of leagues heading into the 2017 season and was likely a very cheap dynasty league target this offseason. Now may be the last time to buy some shares and join the Phamily (sorry), as it looks like Fowler, Piscotty, Grichuk and Peralta are all healthy for once. Matt Carpenter is the starter at first according to Roster Resource, but I’d like to note that he bats left-handed and although he’s never played an official inning at the position, Pham did get drafted as a shortstop and started all 37 games of his debut in 2006 there. I think Pham is going to start seeing at-bats at first and possibly in center if they want to rest Fowler versus tough lefties.
While some think staying healthy is an attribute, I think Pham’s injuries have largely been a result of poor luck more than anything. As he enters his age-30 season, it’s time Pham starts catching some breaks. When in doubt, bet on talent, and Tommy Pham’s got it in spades.