Last year was one of many great stories for baseball. Leading the way was the ascendance of the Houston Astros, fulfilling the prophecy made three years earlier. Max Scherzer attempted to wrest the “Best Pitcher” title from Kershaw, and Aaron Judge obliterated pitches on the way to giving baseball one of its most exciting new faces in years. Yet, despite all of this, possibly the best story on the year was the breakout of St. Louis outfielder Tommy Pham, rising from being blocked at all three outfield positions to being the best player on the Cardinals.
What Pham did was virtually unprecedented. It took him eight years to reach the majors, and he became a regular player 11 years after his draft season. Then he put up over six wins’ worth of value in that first campaign of regular at-bats. Over the offseason, the Cardinals traded for Marcell Ozuna, envisioning him to be their new best position player. Despite this, with a quarter of the season done, we still see Pham leading the Cardinals offense. He has built on his breakout 2017, continuing onward with an astonishing consistency.
Before looking at Pham in 2018, we should consider his remarkable rise. Even though he got some part-time work in 2015 and 2016, accruing over 350 plate appearances, he wasn’t expected to factor into a Cardinals outfield that featured two former first-round picks (Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty) along with newly signed Dexter Fowler. However, injuries to Piscotty and fourth outfielder Jose Martinez gave Pham his opportunity. At age 29, Pham put up the fifth-best season by a player who was getting his first shot at being a regular (400-plus PAs) later than age 25.
It’s a varied list of players that Pham joined, including players from the Federal League and at least one other from the NPB. Yet Pham’s journey had one extra aspect to consider. Pham, drafted in the 16th round of the 2006 draft, waited a long time to get his first taste of regular major-league at-bats. In this way, he was similar to Andres Torres. Torres had been drafted in the 1998 draft, got some irregular playing time starting in 2002, but didn’t really break into the Giants’ everyday lineup until 2010 at age 32 with over 500 plate appearances and 6 WAR.
However, after Torres’ incredible 2010, he faded in each of the following three seasons. He would only put up a combined 3.9 WAR over those campaigns, never again providing league-average offense. And to a certain extent, this performance — combined with general regression to talent level — led to some skepticism about Pham’s ability to continue to produce at his 2017 level. ZiPS and Steamer both expected this and projected him for 2.9 WAR in 2018. While a very respectable forecast, it was a far cry from the numbers we had just seen.
Those projections undersold Pham a little bit. As we mentioned earlier, he has continued his pace from last year, and with 2.1 WAR, he has nearly surpassed his projections. However, even beyond maintaining his previous levels of production, 2018 has been a year of improvements to his underlying attributes. To begin, Pham has attacked pitchers at a higher rate than in 2017 while maintaining his traditionally good plate discipline. His swing rate (59.9% to 63.1%) and contact (86.5% to 89.6%) on pitches in the zone has increased, even while his walk rate has also risen. He’s also maintained one of the lowest chase rates in the league.
Pham’s contact has improved as well, despite the similarity of his surface line. In 2017, Pham maintained one of the highest ground-ball percentages in baseball at 51.7%, despite having an above-average ISO (.214). This placed him in the company of players like Jean Segura (54.3% GB, .128 ISO) and Orlando Arcia (51.6% GB, .130 ISO), a far cry from the company his WAR would suggest he would keep. We have seen that ground-ball rate lower to 46.6% in 2018, still on the high end but improving nonetheless.
The distribution of those balls in the air saw a change as well. Across baseball, line drives and fly balls see a distribution of approximately 30%-35%-35% pull-center-oppo, while Pham had been a little more opposite-field heavy on his balls in the air (21%-36%-43% from 2015-2017). This year, that breakdown looks something closer to league average, with Pham’s line drives and fly balls seeing a split of 29%-33%-38%. Since pulled balls in the air result in a wRC+ of nearly 400 (compared to 139 wRC+ for center and opposite field), it seems reasonable that this change would allow Pham to reap some benefits.
However, most important to Pham’s improvement is not solely the lessening of his ground balls or a more pull-heavy approach, but the overall raising of his exit velocity. Across all pitches inside and outside the strike zone, Pham has hit the ball with more authority. After spending 2017 outside the top 100 in exit velocity (89.2 MPH), 41 games in sees him sitting at 92.8 mph, good for 23rd in baseball and 19th in hard-hit rate (51.5%).
This combination — the increased walk rate, more aggressive attacking of the zone, and harder contact — has led to an increase in offensive value. Last year, Pham exceeded league-average offense with a wRC+ of 148, while this year he sits at 157. His slash lines (.306/.411/.520 vs. .303/.409/.517), ISO (.214 vs. .214), and wOBA (.398 vs. .399) are all virtually identical. Yet the underlying numbers suggest there might even be a little bit more production possible.
I mentioned earlier that “regression to talent level,” along with the unprecedented nature of his breakout, led to some skepticism of the viability of Pham’s future. After seeing his results continue at the level we saw last season, combined with improved underlying numbers that bolster that production, we have to start wondering if this is Pham’s talent level. His age might make his peak a little shorter than most, but this type of production far exceeds what one would expect of a 16th-round pick, and it is far beyond what anyone might have expected just two years ago.
Stephen Loftus is a Visiting Assistant Professor in Mathematical Sciences at Sweet Briar College in Virginia. In his spare time he usually can be found playing the pipe organ or working on his rambling sabermetric thoughts.