The Near-Term Outlook for Tommy Pham, 27-Year-Old Rookie

Unless you’re Cardinals fan, or you happened to watch a lot of Cardinals games this year, you’ve probably given very little thought to Tommy Pham. It’s very possible that you’d never even heard of him before this year’s playoffs. Heck, it’s even possible you’re still not even sure who he is or where he came from. But the 27-year-old rookie played a big role in Friday night’s game, when he blasted a pinch-hit homer off of Jon Lester in the 8th inning. His homer added an important insurance run for the Cards, extending their lead from one run to two. Check it out.

Hitting a homer isn’t a particularly rare occurrence for Pham, at least not lately. He hit five of them in his 173 big league trips to the plate this year, which helped propel him to a .268/.347/.477 batting line. His home-run total placed him third among Cardinals rookies, trailing only Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. But unlike his rookie teammates, Pham missed the cut for just about every organizational prospect list — both this season and in every prior season.

His absence from these lists had almost everything to do with his age. Pham turned 27 back in March, making him significantly older than your average rookie. But while 27-year-old impact rookies are few and far between, Pham’s success hasn’t exactly come out of the woodwork. He hit .320/.391/.487 in 603 Triple-A plate appearances between this year and last, which was good for a 132 wRC+. To put that in context, Pham was essentially the Lucas Duda of Triple-A before the Cardinals gave him a call.

Hitting isn’t Pham’s only strong suit. In addition to his intriguing offensive profile, he also possesses a good bit of speed. Between Triple-A and the majors the past two years, he nabbed 31 steals, and was only caught twice. He also played primarily center field in the minors, and logged 33 games there for the Cardinals this season.

Normally, this is the point in the article where I talk about a player’s future outlook and generate a list of statistical comps along with their WARs through his age-28 season. This time, however, I’m going to do things a bit differently. Rather than looking long-term, I’m going to zero in on what Pham’s comps did immediately after their Pham-tastic seasons. At 27, Pham’s well past the age where one might expect large-scale improvements to occur. And even if he were, say, 24, you probably don’t much care about how good Pham will be three years from now, or even one year from now. We’re in the playoffs for Pete’s sake. This is about the here and now.

Using Pham’s league-adjusted stats and his age, I calculated the Mahalanobis distance between his 2014 and 2015 numbers, and every Triple-A  season since 1990 in which a player recorded at least 400 plate appearances. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Pham’s, ranked from most to least similar.

Tommy Pham’s Mahalanobis Comps
Rank Mah Dist Year Hitter Next season PA Next Season wRC+
1 0.73 2010 Elliot Johnson 181 66
2 0.74 2007 Darnell McDonald 0 0
3 0.89 1996 Terry Bradshaw 0 0
4 0.91 1999 Chris Latham 0 0
5 1.53 1991 Cecil Espy 211 84
6 1.61 1997 Benny Agbayani 16 -13
7 1.69 2001 Casey Blake 22 40
8 1.70 2013 Matt Angle 0 0
9 1.74 1990 Alonzo Powell 125 81
10 1.75 2011 Alejandro De Aza 585 106
11 1.79 2003 Trent Durrington 87 68
12 1.80 1994 Scott Lydy 0 0
13 1.80 2010 Trent Oeltjen 91 84
14 1.91 2009 Don Kelly 251 71
15 1.99 2008 Cory Sullivan 157 93

As usual, this list is something of a mixed bag: some of these hitters adapted well to the big leagues, while others struggled. Others still never got much of a shot. But several of these names became serviceable big leaguers, despite spending part of their mid-20s in Triple-A. Alejandro De Aza, Cecil Espy and Cory Sullivan are the most notable. Plus, although it took them a couple of years, Casey BlakeBenny Agbayani and Darnell McDonald also had their moments in the show.

After toiling in the Cardinals minor league system for nearly a decade, Pham is finally getting his shot. So far he’s made the most of the opportunity. On a per-plate-appearance basis, he hit better than Mike Moustakas and Prince Fielder this season. Sure, this is a small sample size, and we all know he’s not that good, but 173 plate appearances of good hitting isn’t nothing, either. And, oh yeah, on Friday night he delivered one of the bigger hits thus far in this year’s playoffs. All in all, the Cardinals have to be thrilled with the production they’ve received from a guy who was sixth or seventh on the outfield depth chart in spring training.

Barring an injury to one of the Cardinals’ outfielders, Pham figures to play pretty sparingly — much like he did down the stretch for St. Louis. He’ll likely be limited to pinch-hitting or pinch-running duties late in games. But the few at bats he does receive could wind up being pivotal. Pinch hitters can be extremely important, as their at-bats often come in the highest of the high leverage situations. Look no further than Friday night’s game. And going by everything he’s done recently, Pham looks like a fine candidate for both pinch-hitting and pinch-running.

Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Jason Bourne
Jason Bourne

It should probably be noted that he has been plagued with injuries over the years, which is part of the reason his rookie season came at such an advanced age.