Wednesday, the Cardinals won their most thrilling game of the season behind Tommy Pham. But what is Pham to the Redbirds?
The St. Louis Cardinals won on Wednesday, in a very non-2017 Cardinals manner. Down 5-0 early, they rallied to tie the game, took advantage of a lesser team’s mistakes to take the lead and splashed water on a potential fire to close the deal.
The hero of the evening was Tommy Pham, who hammered a homer to get the Cards on the board then tied the game with another in the ninth. In the bottom of the ninth, he gunned down Odubel Herrera at the plate to ensure it wasn’t all for naught.
— St. Louis Cardinals (@Cardinals) June 22, 2017
Pham has been a pleasant surprise for an otherwise mediocre St. Louis squad this spring. After not cracking the Opening Day roster, Pham got his shot in early May and hasn’t looked back.
Among the nine Cardinals hitters with at least 163 plate appearances, Pham leads with a 135 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). He’s also first in slugging percentage (.521) and third in batting average (.286), on-base percentage (.374) and wins above replacement (1.3). It’s not a stretch to say that he’s helped to keep the offense afloat despite lackluster performances from some of the bigger names.
We’ve now seen Pham in three spurts, each with a similar sample size (173, 183, 163 PA, plus 328.1, 377.2, 334.0 defensive innings). And each sample has been a little different.
The three Phams
2015: .268/.347/.477, 125 wRC+, 11.0 BB%, 23.7 K%, .333 BABIP, 3 DRS, 1.5 WAR
2016: .226/.324/.440, 105 wRC+, 10.9 BB%, 38.8 K%, .342 BABIP, -4 DRS, 0.1 WAR
2017: .286/.374/.521, 135 wRC+, 11.0 BB%, 24.5 K%, .333 BABIP, 4 DRS, 1.3 WAR
It’s fair to say that the three glimpses we’ve seen of Pham have been up and down. His 2015 and 2017 campaigns look remarkably similar, while his 2016 was merely average.
First, the constants: Pham has managed to maintain an above-average walk rate and batting average on balls in play. Next, the major differences: in 2016, his strikeout rate spiked while he dipped to a below-average defender in the outfield.
So, which Pham are we to believe is the real one? There are two questions to answer to figure that out. One, is he hitting the ball any differently? Two, is he in control of the strike zone?
From a look at the batted ball data, nothing seems to stand out. Pham is hitting similar amounts of line drives, ground balls and fly balls, and the same number of fly balls are getting out of the park. He has a similar balance of hard and soft hits. The only slight difference may be that he’s pulling the ball a bit more, but it’s not a significant difference.
This is where we get to what I believe is the biggest difference between Pham now and Pham in 2016. Last season’s sample came in 78 games. This year’s came in 41 games. He’s playing every day, and that seems to have made a real difference. It isn’t the whole reason he’s been able to cut his strikeout rate nearly in half, but he’s swinging 6.3 percent less outside the strike zone (25.4% in 2016, 19.1% this season).
Tommy Pham is Aaron Hicks
Anecdotally, it seems like Pham is one of those players who gets better as he gets more consistent playing time, because he needs to be able to control the strike zone to get into better counts and get better pitches to hit. What he’s done this season seems very similar to what Aaron Hicks is doing in New York. Both not particularly young (Pham is 29, Hicks is 27), they played roles off the bench last season before getting everyday chances this year. Possessing a variety of tools (defense, speed, power), they’ve each been able to put it together through repetition, at least through June.
That said, Pham is 29, and we still haven’t answered whether this is the real Pham or not. The Cardinals have control of Pham through 2021, so there’s no rush, but there is a sense of urgency with this team on the edge of buying or selling. Is Pham someone worth holding onto or is he someone you flip while his value is somewhat high?
That’s a question the Cardinals may have to answer in the coming weeks. Until then, Pham should continue to start every day as the team attempts to inch its way back into contention. If the Cardinals have a late-blooming legitimate major league starting outfielder, they need to find out.
Image Credit: Eric Hartline-USA TODAY Sports