The Woes of Tommy Pham

Amidst the offseason hubbub, it’s easy to miss a move here and there. Last week, Tommy Pham signed with the Reds on a one-year, $7.5 million contract. Cincinnati had one of the league’s weaker outfields, with an unimpressive trio of Nick Senzel, Tyler Naquin, and Shogo Akiyama. Pham, now 34, is old in baseball years. His time in San Diego didn’t go so well, and he’s been presented with an opportunity to prove himself. The Reds are selling, but precisely because they aren’t contenders, Pham should find plenty of time on the field. This is a deal both sides are presumably happy with.

But if you’ve been on Baseball Savant before, you could imagine how this deal might have ended up differently. In that scenario, Pham certainly nets more than $7.5 million. Maybe even multiple years. He’s settled for his current contract because, in the last two seasons, Pham has posted a 97 wRC+. The Reds are paying him as if he’s expected to contribute one or two wins above replacement.

I’ll get to the point. Below is a simple scatterplot, featuring actual wOBA on the x-axis and expected wOBA on the y-axis. Each point is a player, and the point in yellow is Pham:

The 500 plate appearance minimum is there to eliminate one-and-dones, but also to show that, after a sufficient period of time, the two metrics bear a strong resemblance. It’s rare for hitters to drastically under- or over-perform across a full season or more. There are always exceptions, of course. Since 2020, Pham’s actual wOBA has been .312, compared to an expected wOBA of .354. His is the third largest gap in this sample, behind Carlos Santana and Gregory Polanco. By what Pham has actually achieved, he looks like a hitter in decline. But by what Pham could have achieved, he looks like a borderline All-Star.

To break down Pham’s misfortune, I’ve divided this article by batted ball type: groundballs, line drives, and fly balls. Doing so is efficient and will provide us with an accurate diagnosis of what’s ailing Pham. If Pham’s grounders have been unproductive, that’s workable. Line drives, though, are a different story. Let’s get to the bottom of this:

Groundballs: .213 wOBA / .249 xwOBA

Alright, this isn’t so bad. Pham did worse than expected on his groundballs, but the actual-expected gap is within the realm of variance. Besides, they’re the least valuable of the three. Getting up to that .249 mark wouldn’t have boosted Pham’s production by a significant amount, reality doesn’t change, I still end up writing this article, and so on.

Does Pham maintain his bad luck on grounders in the future? It depends. Pull-heavy sluggers affected by the shift tend to do poorly when hitting the ball straight down, but since 2020, our protagonist has pulled just 43.1% of his groundballs. He’s moderately fast, so he isn’t missing out on beatable throws to first. But most of all, groundballs are plain fickle, and there’s not much a hitter can do about them. Maybe Pham undershoots his groundball xwOBA this season; maybe he doesn’t. We won’t know until the results start trickling in.

Line Drives: .625 wOBA / .681 xwOBA

This is a bit more substantial. A line drive is one of the best outcomes for a hitter, but Pham hasn’t been reaping the full benefits. The way it seems, he’s about equal parts responsible and not. Batted ball direction is an important factor that xwOBA doesn’t account for, and in the case of line drives, pulled ones significantly over-perform, opposite field ones slightly over-perform, and straightaway ones significantly underperform. These are trends based on large swaths of Statcast data.

In one sense, Pham hasn’t carved out his own luck. As established earlier, he doesn’t pull the ball much, and around a third of his line drives were hit towards center field. Not surprisingly, a good chunk of them turned into outs. Balls lose momentum the farther they’re hit, hitting the ball to the middle maximizes distance, and center fielders tend to have the best range. It’s an uphill battle of sorts. And while Pham emerged victorious at times, he lost enough to create a dent in his production.

What he’s not responsible for: When Pham hit a line drive the other way, he collected a .389 wOBA as opposed to an expected .590 wOBA. That’s gotta sting. There’s no satisfying explanation, either. Did pitchers exploit his tendency to go oppo and bombard the outer half of the plate? Not really – as far as I can tell, a Pham-specific approach doesn’t exist. What about outfield shifts, since Pham’s spray patterns are well known? I checked, but there were only three possible plays where it might have made a difference. This is one of them:

Per Baseball Savant, Taylor was slightly to his left. He’s also a rangy defender, so it’s hard to say he wouldn’t have made the catch otherwise. Overall, it doesn’t seem like a huge factor. And Pham had little control over the factors that did matter. Sometimes, the wind takes the ball to a strange location, or fielders just happen to be standing at the perfect spot. Sometimes, Mookie Betts happens:

Fly Balls: .387 wOBA / .549 xwOBA

There’s our problem. No wonder Pham’s efforts didn’t translate into on-field results. When he hit a fly ball in his two most recent seasons, it resulted in one too many deaths at the warning track. You could chalk some of that up to crummy luck, sure. But unlike with groundballs and line drives, this seems like a direct consequence of Pham – specifically, with respect to how he’s changed as a hitter. He doesn’t pull a lot of grounders, and the rate at which he does has been mostly consistent. Ditto with line drives. When it comes to fly balls, though, we can observe a change:

You can ignore that blip in 2020, as Pham hit only 16 line drives that year. Otherwise, the trend is apparent. At the start of that graph, his rate of non-pulled fly balls stood at 78.9%. Four years later, it climbed to 89.3%. Nearly nine out of every 10 fly balls went to either center or the opposite field last season, with major implications for his results on contact. In the Statcast era, opposite-field fly balls have underperformed by a margin of five points of wOBA. That’s hardly a loss, but it’s certainly less beneficial than pulling the ball.

Here’s the kicker: Straightaway fly balls have underperformed by a margin of 151 points of wOBA. It takes a lot of strength to muscle a ball over the center field wall, and while Pham has above-average pop, he’s often come up short. It also doesn’t help that due to the new baseball’s added drag, non-pulled fly balls, which already travel less far at lower speeds compared to their pulled counterparts, averaged the lowest distance on record. In other words, Pham chose just about the worst moment to kick his pull-averse tendencies into overdrive.

Finally, I’d be remiss if I omitted the environments Pham plays in. There’s been a shift in this regard, since he went from playing with the Rays (mid-2018–19) to the Padres (2020–21). The former team belongs to the AL East; the latter belongs to the NL West. What I’m about to lay out isn’t a foolproof comparison, but its premise is sound. Baseball Savant provides park factor data. Among several options to choose from, let’s focus on the home run factor for lefties. Why lefties? Pham bats right-handed, but his fly ball distribution resembles that of the typical lefty. And it’s the fly balls that have damaged him the most.

With that in mind, here’s a pretty self-explanatory table:

Park Factors, AL East vs. NL West
AL East Factor NL East Factor
Blue Jays 135 Dodgers 113
Orioles 120 Rockies 112
Yankees 111 Diamondbacks 101
Red Sox 91 Padres 84
Rays 82 Giants 73
AVERAGE 107.8 96.6

Each number is the three-year rolling average of the lefty home run factor for a given team’s home park. In arriving in San Diego, Pham moved from a division that would stand to boost his home run total to another that would stand to reduce it. As I mentioned earlier, this is hardly a perfect measure. Players aren’t confined to their division, for example. The Blue Jays, as part of the nomad lifestyle, spent a large chunk of time away from their home, Rogers Center. That complicates how we measure park factors. They don’t apply equally to each at-bat, so it’s possible to defy these factors for a year, maybe two.

But, overall, we can agree that Pham found himself in an unfavorable environment. The one remaining question is why his existing tendencies became more extreme. Avoiding the pull side with most of your air balls suggests intent. Maybe Pham thought that would work to his benefit, though it’s worth noting I failed to identify a change in his batting stance. Or maybe there’s an issue with his swing mechanics, something neither he nor the Padres picked up on. It’s hard to say as outsiders with no knowledge of team inner-workings.

As Pham now finds himself in the NL Central, perhaps the Reds can help him shake off a disappointing two-year stretch. At the very least, Great American Ball Park is a haven for left- and right-handed hitters alike. It’s unlikely Pham starts pulling the ball after a career of avoiding doing so, but at the same time, I’d argue he crossed a dangerous threshold last season. All that’s necessary is a return to the norm. Even if Pham doesn’t change, it’s undeniable that he’s been down on his luck. He can’t underperform for much longer – a 42-point gap is ridiculous – and this season seems like a chance to turn it around on a low-risk deal.

One more thing. In July of last year, with Oakland at San Diego, Pham hit a monster fly ball against Yusmeiro Petit to center. It was held captive by Petco Park, and ended up dying at the warning track. Here’s his expression shortly after the ball was caught:

That’s the face of a man resigned to a lifetime of near-misses. May the woes of Tommy Pham remain in the past.

Justin is a contributor at FanGraphs. His previous work can be found at Prospects365 and Dodgers Digest. His less serious work can be found on Twitter @justinochoi.

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Harrison Friedman
2 years ago

He remains one of my favorite players in baseball. You have to root for Sisyphus.