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Tommy Pham's long strange trip to 2016

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The odds of Tommy Pham having a prosperous career are likely stacked against him but he might have the skills to overcome them anyway.

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On September 16, 2015, the Cardinals scraped by to a 5-4 win over the Brewers in Milwaukee.  It was the middle game of an important three-game sweep with a road series versus the Cubs looming on the horizon and the Cardinals clinging to a three game lead in the NL Central.  As much as the Cardinals have a "Pete Kozma game" or a "Tommy Herr seat cushion game" this evening belonged to another Tommy - this was the Tommy Pham game.  He hit towering home runs in his first two at-bats, tripled in his third, and then drove a ball nearly 400 feet to deep centerfield in the 8th inning which unceremoniously dropped for an out at the wall.  The rookie finished with eleven total bases, drove in four of the Cardinals' five runs, and if his last fly out had carried just a bit more this would have possibly been the best offensive performance from a Cardinal since Mark Whitten broke baseball in September 1993.

As Derrick Goold noted in his column that night, Pham's two home runs followed up a home run he hit the previous evening and he joined Albert Pujols (3x), Lance Berkman, Whitten, Troy Glaus, Reggie Smith, and Ray Lankford as the only Cardinals to homer in three straight at-bats since 1974.  Whether this was a sign of things to come or simply Pham's Tuffy Rhodes moment was unclear, but while his offensive display was fleeting it didn't look like a mirage.  He was frequently hitting the ball hard.  And as the Baseball Prospectus 2016 annual reminded it was Pham, not Randal Grichuk, who led the team in exit velocity.

His pinch-hit home run in the bottom of the 8th in Game 1 of the NLDS helped the Cardinals breathe a bit easier from what was then just a 1-0 lead and paved the way for their last win of the season.  In total, he hit .268/.347/.477 in 173 plate appearances which was good for 1.5 fWAR.  He's likely to be the Cardinals fourth outfielder in 2016 but was a solid enough contributor last year that the moment Grichuk, or any of the other outfielders for that matter, find themselves in the middle of a modest slump there will be loud choruses calling for Pham all over the internet.

Even so, Pham's projections heading into 2016 are nothing special.  Steamer expects him to be worth 0.6 wins, ZiPS - 1.7, and PECOTA - 1.0.  As always, it's helpful to remember that projections systems are conservative by design, but in spite of his burst of power in mid-September few think Pham will be the player to ease the sting of losing the best free agent outfielder to a division rival.  Not that that's a surprise for a fourth outfielder.  And furthermore, if recent history is any guide, his profile doesn't bode well for future stardom.

Baseball has never fairly allocated injuries and no one encapsulates that more than Pham.  Torn quads, labrum, and ligaments have stunted his development throughout his career.  A casual fan might assumes he's around age 24 or 25, when, in fact, because of injuries he's entering his age-28 season without having yet made 200 trips to an MLB batter's box.  In 2011 and 2012 he only played a combined 52 games of AA ball.  In 2013, he split 75 games between AA and AAA.  Finally, in 2014, he was able to string together 104 games and 390 plate appearances at AAA and hit .324/.395/.491.  He near-uncannily replicated those numbers last year in 196 plate appearances in AAA before getting called up and seeing enough time to qualify as a rookie in 2015.

Unfortunately, not many players make their debut at age 27 and go on to have a long, illustrious career.  Using FanGraphs Leaderboards, the two best age-27 rookies from the last 30 seasons by fWAR are Ichiro Suzuki (6.0) and Jose Abreu (5.3), both of whom got off to a late start in their MLB career for reasons outside the norm.  Ichiro because he spent nine years being one of the best players in Japan and Abreu for similar reasons in Cuba before he defected.  The rest of the top ten reads like a list of players found in a shoebox of baseball card "commons."  It includes Mike Aviles, Randy Milligan, Lew Ford, Scott Podsednik, Freddy Sanchez, David Lough, Andy Stankiewicz, and John Mayberry (noted Pham comp in the BP 2016 annual).  Most of these careers are done and of those eight players, Sanchez has the highest career fWAR at 15.7.  Aviles is the only player scheduled to suit up for an MLB team in the spring with Lough and Mayberry being signed to minor league contracts.

As for players who saw limited playing time like Pham did in 2015, the list is even less imposing.  Dating back 30 seasons, here's the list of rookies in their age-27 season who saw less than 200 plate appearances yet were worth at least 1.0 fWAR:

  1. Brian Bogusevic (2011) - 2.1
  2. Jack Voigt (1993) - 1.8
  3. Armando Rios (1999) - 1.6
  4. Craig Gentry (2011) - 1. 6*
  5. Tommy Pham (2015) - 1.5*
  6. Marcus Thames (2004) - 1.5
  7. Kelly Shoppach (2007) - 1.2
  8. Tony Eusebio (1994) - 1.2
  9. Robb Quinlan (2004) - 1.1
  10. Ryan Freel (2003) - 1.0

*still active

Freel has the highest career fWAR at 9.3, as well as the best season by fWAR (3.8) when he hit .271/.363/.399 in 2006 with the Reds.  But the takeaway is that Pham is not traveling the road frequented by all-stars or even regular contributors.  Good careers, much less great, don't often start after age-27.  In fact, projection namesake Bill Pecota just missed the above cut as he was worth 0.9 fWAR as an age-27 rookie in 1987 in 172 plate appearances.  Maybe Pham is destined to be remembered more as a projection model (the Pitcher Hitter Algorithm Model; the PHAM Score?) and less for games like last September 16th.

I'm aware of these stats yet this past Monday I made the argument against acquiring Dexter Fowler - who might be shaping up to be a big bargain this offseason - partly because of Pham's presence on the team and what he showed last year.  He is not yet a fully polished hitter.  His contact rate was a bit below league average in 2015 and he also struck out more than desirable (23.6 K%).  But, as noted, he's able to drive the ball and has been doing so since starting the 2014 season in Memphis.  And with his speed and arm he can fit almost anywhere in the outfield.  The quick glimpse into his potential have earned him the right to show us more.  Like the Cardinals batting average with runners in scoring position in 2013 or their staff's run prevention numbers last year, if Pham can stick around for a bit and show last September was the beginning and not the pinnacle he could be the latest in a series of welcoming outliers.