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It’s time to talk about Tommy Pham

Tommy Pham seems to have hit (and walked) himself into a starting role.

Boston Red Sox v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

Tommy Pham was drafted all the way back in 2006. Since then, he has went through many trials and tribulations on his unique path to the majors. As a prospect, he was generally seen by baseball scouts as a “toolbox” (that’s a good thing) for his speed, power, and defense. He’s also renowned for his ability to get injured. Pham has only managed about 300 plate appearances a season since his first debut in a full-season league back in 2008.

Due to his all-world ability to find the disabled list, you could be excused for not noticing that one of his ailments includes a degenerative eye condition known as keratoconus, which according to Wikipedia affects 1 in 2,000 people. Those who suffer from it can deal with blurry vision, double vision, nearsightedness, astigmatism, and light sensitivity. Pham himself describes it as driving a car with Vaseline smeared on the windshield.

That strange but interesting comparison came courtesy of a great recent article by Derrick Goold where he spells out Tommy’s struggles with the condition. Within, he details how Pham must check his vision several times throughout the game. Sometimes, his vision gets worse during the game, so he always needs to bring backups to his specially shaped contacts. Sometimes the backups don’t work either and he has to fly out the next day to his eye doctor to get a new prescription. Check out the article for more details, it’s a great read.

This goes a long way towards explaining his struggles last year, when he struck out in nearly two out of five plate appearances. You can see how he struggled with the condition last year by looking at his plate discipline stats:

Tommy Pham plate discipline stats.txt

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% BB% K% non-contact wOBA
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% BB% K% non-contact wOBA
2015 27.3 % 59.6 % 75.9 % 11.0 % 23.7 % .211
2016 25.4 % 61.1 % 66.1 % 10.9 % 38.8 % .165
2017 20.0 % 61.1 % 74.6 % 11.2 % 24.7 % .246

Normally, Pham is slightly below average at making contact. Last year though, he dropped to bottom of the league level. What’s interesting is that through it all, his strike-zone management remained unchanged. His O-Swing% (percentage of pitches out of the zone that he swung at) and Z-Swing% (in the zone swings) held relatively steady. You’d think eye sight would play a pretty big role in determining whether or not to swing at a pitch, but Pham is one data point that says it doesn’t.

Non-contact wOBA is a player’s wOBA in non-contact events, namely unintentional walks, strikeouts, and hit-by-pitches. For context, last year the league average was .200. 2016 was a abysmal year for Pham in this stat, but 2017 has even been an improvement over 2015, when he was above-average.

That’s a stark contrast to the hitter he’s now replacing in the lineup, Randal Grichuk:

Randal Grichuk plate discipline stats.txt

Season O-Swing% Z-Swing % Contact% BB% K% non-contact wOBA
Season O-Swing% Z-Swing % Contact% BB% K% non-contact wOBA
2015 39.1 % 70.8 % 72.0 % 6.3 % 31.4 % .125
2016 37.8 % 65.5 % 72.3 % 5.9 % 29.5 % .125
2017 37.7 % 69.5 % 71.2 % 6.6 % 29.8 % .126

Randal has been consistently poor in non-contact situations over the last three years. From 2015 to present, Grichuk is 176th of 181 qualified players in non-contact wOBA. Grichuk is bad at limiting strikeouts as well as poor at drawing walks. Of course, other things make-up for it, namely power and speed. The mix has worked overall, as he’s been 9% better than average at the plate since 2015, while offering virtually average defense and above-average base-running. I find his extreme profile fascinating, just because it’s so unique to be able to pull it off.

But you know what’s better? Being good in on-contact and non-contact situations. That’s what Pham has been in his time as a major leaguer, with the exception of non-contact situations in 2016. You know, when he was legally blind in his left eye, which is his dominant eye when hitting.

First off, let’s look at his performance when making contact in 2017, courtesy of the statcast data hosted at :

If you’re not familiar with the image above, this is a radial chart, which represents every batted ball classified by Launch Angle and Exit Velocity. The six shaded regions represent the six types of contact quality. Each dot represents one of Pham’s batted balls in 2017. If you’re still confused, that’s okay, I was too the first time. Check out this post for a good explanation of how to read the above image, and for an explanation of each type of contact.

The above image is really neat, but what it lacks is context. Let’s compare Pham’s performance on contact to league average, as well as to Grichuk:

Pham and Grichuk contact quality

Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Topped% Under% Weak%
Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Topped% Under% Weak%
Avg wOBA 1.433 0.692 0.63 0.206 0.095 0.46
Lg Avg 6.7% 5.6% 24.6% 33.0% 24.5% 5.7%
Pham 2017 15.2% 2.2% 30.4% 37.0% 13.0% 2.2%
Grichuck 2017 14.0% 10.5% 17.5% 21.9% 28.1% 7.9%

One interesting thing to note is that Grichuk is still producing well-above averge contact quality. Randal’s xwOBA this year is .023 points better than his wOBA, but still below both league average and his career norms. xwOBA is another statcast-based stat hosted at , and replaces the on-contact portion of wOBA with what it should have been, based on the average performance of his assortment of batted balls. Our own Craig Edwards recently found xwOBA to be more predictive of future wOBA than wOBA itself. With his non-contact performance virtually the same as it’s always been, it’s easy to see Randal as still being the same Randal he’s always been, despite the poor results and recent demotion. Every player’s career is made of hot and cold streaks, but Randal’s dependence on results on-contact makes him even more prone to the variance.

As good as Randal has been on contact though, Pham has been right with him. Pham is short on “Solid Contact”, but makes up for it in terms of “Flares and Burners”, which are almost as valuable. Remember though, Pham doesn’t even have to hang with Grichuk in terms of contact quality, since he strikes out less and walks more.

Take two players with identical contact quality, but one with Pham’s non-contact profile and one with Randal’s. The player with Pham’s profile would have a wOBA .042 points higher. That’s not quite a win over a full season, but it’s close.

You might be inclined to say I should pump the brakes at this point. Pham having strong contact over 93 PA shouldn’t make us think he’s similar to Grichuk when making contact. Regression is still a thing even though we’re looking at things at a more granular level. The thing is, this isn’t new. Let’s compare the two again, but from 2015 to now:

Pham and Grichuk contact quality

Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Topped% Under% Weak%
Player Barrels% Solid Contact% Flares and Burners% Topped% Under% Weak%
Avg wOBA 1.433 0.692 0.63 0.206 0.095 0.46
Lg Avg 6.7% 5.6% 24.6% 33.0% 24.5% 5.7%
Pham 2015-2017 11.3% 5.8% 24.8% 34.5% 19.7% 3.9%
Grichuk 2015-2017 11.0% 6.4% 20.2% 24.6% 33.8% 3.9%

Pham’s contact quality has more or less matched Randal’s throughout their MLB careers, even with all of his issues. Granted, Pham has had 449 PA over this time frame, and Grichuk has had over twice that. Randal has proven his contact quality more than Tommy has, but it’s still notable that Pham has matched him on a rate basis.

Over his MLB career, Pham has registered a 120 wRC+, meaning he’s been 20% better than average at the plate. That’s including his struggles with eyesight. That’s only over 451 plate appearances (he had two in 2014), but his xwOBA is only .011 points worse than his wOBA. xwOBA doesn’t take speed into account, and when you consider that it probably bumps his xwOBA right up next to his wOBA. In other words, Pham has earned that 120 wRC+, and it doesn’t look fluky.

Does that mean he’ll hold that performance going forward? Not when you consider that it would require staying healthy, something he’s never been able to do. There’s also the fact that his MLB career has also still only consisted about 3/4th of a season. That’s a less than ideal sample size. Baseball is a game of adjustments, and pitchers are better than ever at identifying hitter’s flaws. We’ll have to see if he can continue to more than hold his own at the plate going forward. At the least, he’s earned the opportunity.