Tommy Pham was drafted into the St. Louis Cardinals organization on June 7, 2006. The #1 song in the United States was by Chamillionaire, the movie Cars was two days away from being released in theaters, and only two other current Cardinals players, Adam Wainwright and Yadier Molina, were even in the Cardinals organization.
Which is to say that Tommy Pham has been around for a while. He has fewer than 350 MLB plate appearances, but at 28, Pham may have missed his opportunity to be considered a vital part of the future of the Cardinals franchise. Of the top ten center fielders in baseball this season by FanGraphs WAR, Pham is older than half of them, including nearly 3 1⁄2 years older than undisputed Center Field King Mike Trout.
When coupling Pham’s age (28 is hardly ancient, even by standards of a professional sports position particularly synonymous with youth, but it is beyond an age associated with excitement) and injury history, it is reasonable to not expect that Tommy Pham is the center fielder of the future. But right now, Tommy Pham is healthy and capable, at least in the present, of playing center field for the St. Louis Cardinals. The question for now is whether or not this is the optimal strategy.
The Cardinals have handled center field in a somewhat strange manner this season. 2016 began with Randal Grichuk getting off to a terrible start and Tommy Pham being removed from a game with an injury which would eventually put him on the Disabled List in the second inning of the season. And while it seemed throughout Spring Training that, having recently jettisoned Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos, the Cardinals were more than content to continue forward with Grichuk and Pham, the team has played three additional players in center field: Jeremy Hazelbaker, Stephen Piscotty, and most surprisingly, Kolten Wong.
The latter three appear to largely be out of the starting center field conversation. Hazelbaker last started in center on August 10; Piscotty, whose tenure in center was largely in an effort to allow Brandon Moss, Matt Holliday, and Matt Adams to start simultaneously, hasn’t started there since August 11, which was semi-coincidentally the day Matt Holliday suffered what may be a season-ending injury; Kolten Wong, an experiment in center field from the beginning, hasn’t played at all there since June 30 and has not played in the outfield at all in August.
It has come down to Grichuk and Pham, and especially as of late, it has mostly been the former. Last night was Randal Grichuk’s 11th consecutive start in center field; this run followed a single pinch-hitting appearance, which followed time spent with the AAA Memphis Redbirds.
That Grichuk was sent to the minors and then immediately jumped back into a starting role feeds into a common narrative surrounding him throughout his brief MLB career—that Grichuk is a “Mike Guy”, a semi-pejorative used by Cardinals fans who do not think much of Mike Matheny’s management abilities to a connote a player perceived, fairly or not, to receive preferential treatment from Mike Matheny. And that Grichuk immediately reclaimed his spot fits this trajectory like a glove.
With that said, there are two important details about Grichuk that focusing too much on the narrative omits. One is that Grichuk has, at times, been a very productive MLB player. Although he was considered a corner outfielder coming up, Grichuk complimented a 137 wRC+ in 2015, itself a revelation, with solid fielding at a position at which he was initially considered a minor liability.
The second detail is that Grichuk has been utterly incredible since his return from his latest trip to Memphis. Grichuk boasts a .546 isolated power in the month of August—Barry Bonds had an ISO of .536 in the 2001 season in which he hit 73 home runs. Sure, he still isn’t drawing many walks, and he’s still striking out a ton, and while Grichuk had been tormented with dreadful BABIP luck throughout 2016 until very recently, and his BABIP stands at a preposterous .400 in August, his absurd power shows that while Grichuk has been lucky to a degree this month, August has not been strictly an accident.
The point is that while Randal Grichuk will not keep this up, he has played so well that it is currently impossible to not grant him playing time. But while Tommy Pham has not been producing to the extent of Grichuk, he still finds himself with an OPS of over 1.000 in August and a 127 wRC+ on the season, surpassing the season wRC+ of Grichuk. Pham’s 2016 has hardly been something at which to scoff.
Evaluating the defense of Grichuk and Pham is slightly tricky, as neither has an extensive MLB sample size on which to judge. To my uneducated eye, Pham seems a little bit better in center field, though given that Grichuk has an edge by Ultimate Zone Rating, I am willing to acknowledge that I probably have some bias against Grichuk because while I have always thought of Pham as a center fielder (I wasn’t paying attention to the Cardinals’ minor leagues in 2006, when Pham was a shortstop), I initially perceived Grichuk was a corner outfielder.
Ultimately they’re both probably in the vicinity of Fine in center field, and I’d be perfectly comfortable with either playing in a corner. And perhaps one should. Either’s defensive value would be somewhat diminished in left or right field, but just as it would be hard to sit Randal Grichuk in favor of Tommy Pham, despite Pham’s successes, it would be difficult to sit Brandon Moss or Stephen Piscotty. But either of these men could play first base; in particular, the aging Moss is an appealing option at first. While he is absolutely crushing baseballs at the plate, he has been a defensive liability in left field, the outfield spot to which he seems relegated if Piscotty is playing.
With Matt Adams on the DL, the Cardinals have recently experimented with Matt Carpenter at first base. In a vacuum, this is fine, but this limits flexibility on the left side of the infield, as it usually means (with Aledmys Diaz out) placing Jhonny Peralta at third base and Greg Garcia at shortstop. While Peralta had struggled considerably before August and would have been a logical pick to sit, he has been considerably improved of late as well.
In theory, Tommy Pham deserves more playing time. But the Cardinals have a wonderful, wonderful dilemma, which is a surplus of talented offensive players. Even if Matt Holliday and Matt Adams are unable to return and perform well, the veritable embarrassment of riches which the Cardinals enjoy mean that Pham does not necessarily need to start. And while the Cardinals should feel perfectly comfortable playing Tommy Pham, it is not a necessity for the Cardinals to have a potent lineup for the stretch run.