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Hey, Tommy Pham Can Play!

Tommy Pham Cardinals

Tommy Pham’s stock has changed dramatically throughout the season, from Opening Day starter to minor leaguer, and back to the majors. While the results haven’t all been great, he has added a lot of value this season.

I was among those with high hopes for Tommy Pham entering his second season. Perhaps they were too high considering that he was a 28 year-old second year player. Nevertheless, I was hoping he could continue to produce at a high level, after recording a 1.5 WAR in just 52 games in 2015. I thought it was possible for him to reach the 4 -WAR mark this year, but that won’t happen. Instead, we’ll have to settle for what we get from Pham, which is actually pretty good.

Pick on Pham for his .256 batting average if you want. Criticize his inability to stay on the field if that makes you happy. Cringe at every strike out if that’s bothering you, too. Despite all of that, Pham is a well above average hitter, and I would like to start recognizing that fact.

I hate using batting average to talk about anyone, since on-base percentage is a much better gauge of how often a batter succeeds. While .256 is just the Major League average, Pham’s .351 OBP is about thirty points higher than average. In addition, he has hit nine home runs this year, which is roughly a 25-30 homer pace for a full season. Sure, the batting average is nothing great, but he does other things very well.

Walk rate is still one of the of the more underused statistics in baseball. The Oakland Athletics exploited that market inefficiency during the Moneyball years, but most of us still don’t realize how valuable it is to walk. I don’t have an exact valuation, but a player’s success rate on balls in play does not deviate too much from the average. Therefore, succeeding without putting the ball in play is very important. Pham’s 11.4 percent walk rate would put him twentieth among qualified players. Check out the guys ahead of him and you’ll see a bunch of MVP candidates.

The flip side to the above argument, of course, is that strikeouts are particularly harmful. That is true, and Pham does strikeout a lot. There is no perfect breakeven rate for strikeouts to walks for batters, but it is worth noting that it balances out somewhat. Again, the results aren’t perfect, but they’re better than what you get from the average player.

The other area where Tommy Pham is providing value is the power department. I already mentioned his home run pace, but he might even be getting shortchanged there. That may sound weird, since Pham was rarely a big home run guy in the minors. He only had two double digit homer seasons in the minors, but he is about to get there this year. The reason I say he might be getting unlucky, though, is his hard hit rate. His 44.3 percent hard hit rate would be third, behind only David Ortiz and Trevor Story, among qualified players. Additionally, his soft hit rate of 10.1 percent is incredibly low.

He may strike out a lot, but when Tommy Pham makes contact, he makes hard contact. Another consideration with balls in play is where the ball goes. Specifically, I am talking about ground balls versus fly balls versus line drives. Pham’s line drive rate would rank in the top ten in the majors, and he has not yet hit an infield popup. For reference, only Joey Votto, Joe Mauer, and Howie Kendrick have yet to hit an infield popup among qualified players. That’s some great bat control (OK, Votto and Mauer have great bat control).

Pham finds himself in exclusive company for many offensive rate statistics. In fact, if it weren’t for his strikeout rate, Tommy Pham would probably be one of the team’s better players. However, we cannot just throw away the strikeouts. Thus, Pham is merely above average, instead of one of the game’s best hitters. Pham’s wRC+ of 131 demonstrates just how valuable he is to the Cardinals’ offense and what he can do at the plate. He has his flaws, but if we focus on the positives, we like the results a lot.

Photo Credit: Troy Taormina – USA TODAY Sports