Amid Bad Luck and Injuries, Tommy Pham Starts To Turn It Around

The Padres’ nine-game winning streak came to an end on Monday night at the hands of the Brewers, who beat them 5-3 in Milwaukee, but the loss did have at least one bright spot, in that Tommy Pham homered for just the second time this season. The 33-year-old outfielder has struggled mightily since being acquired from the Rays in December 2019, particularly after being the victim of a stabbing last October, but lately he’s showed signs of heating up, a welcome development for the surging NL West leaders, who have since returned to their winning ways with back-to-back wins and at 32-18 lead the NL West by a game and a half.

Pham crushed a two-run homer in the ninth inning of Monday’s game off reliever Angel Perdomo, at a time when the Padres trailed 5-0:

The blast had an estimated distance of 430 feet, making it his longest since his 440-foot homer at Coors Field last July 31. In his previous 75 games with the Padres, he’d hit just one other drive of more than 390 feet, a 410-foot homer against the Dodgers in Los Angeles last August 13, three days before fracturing a hamate bone in his right hand while fouling off a pitch.

That hamate fracture, which required surgery and sidelined Pham for just over a month, was a far less severe injury than the stabbing. On October 11, three days after the Padres were ousted from the playoffs by the Dodgers, Pham was involved in an altercation in a parking lot outside a San Diego strip club, during which he was slashed across his lower back. He needed 200 stitches to close the deep gash, and was fortunate to escape even worse damage.

“The cut’s deep. The doctor here basically told me if I wasn’t so muscular, I might be dead or paralyzed,” Pham told reporters in late February. He said at the time that he thought the injury was career-threatening, and his recovery, which required six weeks of anti-inflammatory injections and limited his ability to do squats and deadlifts in the weight room, was slow. At some point early in the offseason, he also underwent surgery to repair torn cartilage in his left wrist. At the time he spoke to reporters he estimated that he was at about 80 percent, health-wise, making it all the more difficult to rebound from a 31-game season in which he hit just .211/.312/.312 (78 wRC+) and was 0.1 win below replacement level.

Pham recovered well enough to open the 2021 season in the Padres lineup, filling in as the center fielder during the team’s first six games while Trent Grisham was on the Injured List due to a hamstring strain, then moving to left. As with last season, his production has been far short of the 130 wRC+ he posted from 2014-19 with the Cardinals and Rays. From the start of the season through May 14, it was downright anemic, as he hit just .186/.314/.196 (59 wRC+), with an April 18 double against the Dodgers representing his only extra-base hit in a span of 118 plate appearances.

His fortunes began to turn on May 15, when he homered off a hanging curveball from the Cardinals’ Adam Wainwright. Though he went just 1-for-11 over his next four games, he went 2-for-3 with a triple and a pair of walks against the Mariners on May 21, and two days later added another triple, also against the Mariners. All told, four of his five extra-base hits came in a span of eight starts.

Pham entered Wednesday hitting just .189/.335/.276, still lousy but with a wRC+ that had risen to 84. His 17.1% walk rate is propping up that meager production, but — stop me if you’ve heard this one — according to Statcast, he’s been hitting the ball much better than his raw numbers indicate. His 90.2 mph average exit velocity, 10.4% barrel rate, and 42.7% hard-hit rate all place him in the 60th to 65th percentiles, while his .361 xwOBA places him in the 74th percentile.

Via Statcast, and based on stats through Tuesday, Pham leads the majors in terms of his gaps between his expected and actual slugging percentages…

Largest Expected Slugging Percentage Shortfalls
Name Team PA Events AVG xBA BA dif SLG xSLG SLG dif
Tommy Pham SDP 158 96 .189 .245 -.056 .276 .429 -.153
Jorge Soler KCR 182 106 .178 .230 -.052 .325 .463 -.138
Paul Goldschmidt STL 199 140 .254 .276 -.022 .405 .525 -.120
Bryce Harper PHI 162 90 .274 .292 -.018 .489 .609 -.120
Luis Arraez MIN 162 125 .277 .308 -.031 .333 .453 -.120
Alec Bohm PHI 193 129 .212 .263 -.051 .318 .435 -.117
Marcell Ozuna ATL 208 142 .213 .268 -.055 .356 .471 -.115
Freddie Freeman ATL 208 140 .241 .297 -.056 .477 .587 -.110
Kyle Tucker HOU 192 142 .235 .308 -.073 .465 .575 -.110
Evan Longoria SFG 157 99 .257 .289 -.032 .456 .564 -.108
Dominic Smith NYM 156 107 .245 .264 -.019 .322 .426 -.104
Jed Lowrie OAK 187 132 .249 .278 -.029 .391 .488 -.097
Cesar Hernandez CLE 203 140 .223 .272 -.049 .380 .474 -.094
Willy Adames TBR/MIL 157 90 .196 .221 -.025 .357 .447 -.090
Charlie Blackmon COL 170 125 .243 .300 -.057 .358 .448 -.090
Salvador Perez KCR 188 132 .281 .284 -.003 .489 .579 -.090
Marwin Gonzalez BOS 159 102 .200 .244 -.044 .286 .372 -.086
Jorge Polanco MIN 174 124 .232 .271 -.039 .381 .464 -.083
Pavin Smith ARI 186 142 .254 .281 -.027 .399 .482 -.083
Kyle Seager SEA 200 136 .229 .259 -.030 .458 .540 -.082
Minimum 150 plate appearances. All statistics through May 25.

…and expected and actual wOBA, in a list that has considerable overlap with the one above:

Largest Expected wOBA Shortfalls, 2021
Name Team PA Events wOBA xwOBA wOBA dif
Tommy Pham SDP 158 96 .288 .361 -.073
Jorge Soler KCR 182 106 .259 .330 -.071
Kyle Tucker HOU 192 142 .325 .395 -.070
Alec Bohm PHI 193 129 .248 .317 -.069
Marcell Ozuna ATL 208 142 .287 .350 -.063
Freddie Freeman ATL 208 140 .357 .413 -.056
Dominic Smith NYM 156 107 .273 .329 -.056
Charlie Blackmon COL 170 125 .314 .368 -.054
Luis Arraez MIN 162 125 .311 .364 -.053
Cesar Hernandez CLE 203 140 .309 .362 -.053
Elvis Andrus OAK 164 127 .209 .259 -.050
Francisco Lindor NYM 179 128 .260 .310 -.050
Paul Goldschmidt STL 199 140 .312 .361 -.049
Marwin Gonzalez BOS 159 102 .264 .313 -.049
Michael Brantley HOU 179 146 .347 .395 -.048
Jorge Polanco MIN 174 124 .301 .349 -.048
Evan Longoria SFG 157 99 .351 .398 -.047
Jed Lowrie OAK 187 132 .312 .358 -.046
David Dahl TEX 154 106 .253 .299 -.046
Erik González PIT 155 122 .235 .280 -.045
Minimum 150 plate appearances. All statistics through May 25.

Additionally, Pham’s 56-point batting average shortfall places him in a virtual tie for third with Freddie Freeman, trailing only Charlie Blackmon (57 points) and Kyle Tucker (73 points). He really hasn’t gotten his money’s worth.

As to why this is happening, some of Pham’s woes likely owe to bad luck, but one thing that stands out is that while he’s generally had a pretty heavy groundball tendency — this year’s 51% rate is actually his lowest since 2018, well down from last year’s 62.2% — he’s been pulling the ball more since leaving St. Louis, with a 48.8% rate last year and 39.6% this year. Opponents regularly shift on him, and lately, it’s taken big bites out of his production. In 35 PA ending with the shift this year, he has a .235 AVG, .294 SLG, and a 41 wRC+, the last of which places him in the 23rd percentile among righty batters with at least 30 PA under such conditions. Last year, he was even worse in that context, with a .231 AVG and 31 wRC+ in 39 PA, good for only the 13th percentile. That’s quite a plunge given that Pham used to be quite adept at handling shifts, with a .341 AVG and 109 wRC+ in 209 PA from 2015-19.

Batted ball events on shifts account for about one-quarter of Pham’s PA over the past two seasons, though that share increases to 43% once you account for his walks and strikeouts. But regardless of defensive alignments, he’s been one of the least productive righties when pulling the ball in general over the past two seasons, batting .256 and slugging .474 on the 78 balls he’s pulled, with a 74.4% groundball rate. His 95 wRC+ when pulling the ball places him in the fifth percentile among righties with at least 70 PA in that context. By comparison, on a major league-wide basis, righties pulling the ball have hit .343, slugged .644, and hit groundballs 58.7% of the time over that two-season span, for a 164 wRC+.

Understandably, Pham’s injuries and physical condition may be partly to blame for his diminished production. His litany as a Padre began with his rehabbing a sprained ulnar collateral ligament in his right elbow in the winter of 2019-20, and included a positive test for COVID-19 shortly after summer camp opened last July. Then came the hamate and wrist surgeries as well as his post-stabbing back surgery, all in a span of around three months. Earlier this week, the outfielder admitted that he still wasn’t 100 percent physically, and that he was experimenting with various types of specialized contact lenses to address an eye disorder called keratoconus, a condition that thins and warps the cornea and one for which he underwent surgery in 2011.

Pham draws praise for his work ethic, but reading some of his responses to reporters, it does sound as though he’s vulnerable to putting extra pressure on himself, at times losing focus or trying to do too much with one swing or in one game. “When things aren’t going your way, you really have to not give away any at-bats,” he said in mid-April, when his hard-hit drives weren’t falling in. “You have four at-bats a game, and right now I’m giving away two of those. So, it’s kind magnified right now.”

“To have a great season, it takes two good months and four average months,” he said earlier this week. “I need to have three good months this year and two average months to make up for it.”

Pham isn’t going to get there overnight, and Tuesday’s 0-for-4 served as a reminder that he’s not out of the woods yet. Even so, he still has time to turn his season around, and the Padres, who have gotten above-average production at every other position besides right field (where Wil Myers has slumped lately) have the luxury of waiting to see if the player who at times appeared to be on the verge of stardom during his days with the Cardinals and Rays can reemerge.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

I’m sorry, but where is the analysis here? How is he starting to turn things around? What’s different about his game the last two weeks or so compared to the previous month and a half? It’s not FanGraphs level-analysis in my opinion to just restate his Statcast metrics and take the wOBA/SLG minus xwOBA/SLG leaders from Savant and paste it into a table and drag out the length of the post with so much backstory and quotes. There’s really only two paragraphs of analysis here–the bit about the shifts, and even then, anyone can find that out if they know how to use FanGraphs’ splits tools. I’m just not sure what was added here. Nick Gaut on the RotoGraphs side of the site had more analysis about Pham in a simple “Patience or Panic” type of article a few weeks ago where he highlighted more than just one player.

I usually enjoy Jay’s writing, and this isn’t a shot at just Jay, this is a trend I’ve just been noticing more from FanGraphs lately.

1 year ago

You know what’s a trend I’ve been noticing lately? Bad comments.

1 year ago
Reply to  Mike

Whatever man, it’s my opinion. I just didn’t feel like this particular post satisfied the particular topic.