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Tommy Pham should be the center fielder

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Tommy Pham has played very well in center field, and keeping him there gives the Cardinals their best possible outfield.

Washington Nationals v St Louis Cardinals Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images

My first trip to Busch Stadium this season was for the series against the Nationals. My mom is a huge Nats fan, my sister and I also love that team, so it seemed like the perfect summer weekend. Last Friday, as Brian Goodwin stepped in to face Mike Leake, Mom was all smiles. Then Goodwin launched the second pitch of the series to the center field wall.

Robbed!

My mom is still talking about that catch. In a series full of superstars like Bryce Harper and Yadier Molina, my mom was most affected by a play made by ... Tommy Pham? We ran into some Nats fans in the hotel and even they were still talking about him.

Pham has been a good sport, playing left or right or center depending upon where he is needed. Mike Matheny said, “We can’t just plop a title on a guy and say, ‘This is you from here on out.’”

Tommy Pham has hit well enough to earn a spot in the starting lineup. In 236 plate appearances, he is batting .299 and has a wRC+ of 136. That means he’s created 36 percent more runs than the league-average hitter. He’s much too productive at the plate to be on the bench. The trouble then becomes getting both him and Fowler in the lineup.

The Cardinals signed Fowler in hopes of improving their outfield defensively. That was really the point: upgrade from Matt Holliday in left to Fowler in center. Push the speedy and reliable Randal Grichuk over to left and you’ve got yourself an outfield that’s pretty well covered from corner to corner.

"You watch guys move in the outfield, it's exciting — very athletic, which has been kind of a go-to word for us all spring and all winter but you see it in the way these guys move in the [outfield.]”

Admittedly, Pham has gotten this hot before but tapered off and soon begun to decline. Are we finally seeing the real Tommy Pham on a consistent basis? That’s still going to take some time to answer, but Matheny said, “We have to evaluate, very honestly, every night what we see.” And every night, Pham keeps making good plays. Almost every night, he’s getting on base. He has “honestly” hit his way into the lineup, but why do I believe he should start in center field over Fowler? Because he is better.

He has seven assists, more than all other Cardinals outfielders combined. Stephen Piscotty and Dexter Fowler, the players with the most outfield innings on the Cardinals roster this season, each have two outfield assists. Randal Grichuk has one and José Martinez has none.

Tommy Pham has made 98.9 percent of the “routine” plays, according to Fangraphs’ Inside Edge fielding data. He made all of the “routine” plays in center field, and also made two of the three plays labeled “unlikely.”

When comparing Dexter Fowler and Tommy Pham defensively, I lean on Defensive Runs Saved, or DRS. It provides a slightly more holistic view of a player’s ability to prevent the opposition from scoring runs. Which is, after all, the point of having a defense. But there is one factor of DRS I feel is very important:

“Whether an outfielder makes a routine catch because he was positioned well or he had to sprint twice as hard because he got a poor read of the ball off the bat, the out still counts the same.”

For the purposes of DRS, an out is an out. It is all about the result and not how pretty the fielder looked on his way there. I like that because it focuses on production, and when it comes to Tommy Pham, Matheny is all about recent production.

Pham, when you look at Defensive Runs Saved, is not only one of the best Cardinals defensively, but he’s one of the best outfielders in the game right now. He has saved ten runs thus far, which is second in the National League. (Only Jason Heyward has more.) When widened to include all of baseball, Tommy Pham is ranked sixth among all outfielders with at least 400 innings played. Dexter Fowler, on the other hand, has a DRS of -9. In center field he has cost the Cardinals nine runs. Over the past three seasons, Fowler has a total DRS of -20.

I’m not the only one who has noticed Tommy Pham is kicking butt in center field. Now that Dexter is back, he had some firm words about his outfield placement:

I kind of understand where he’s coming from. The center fielder is supposed to have the most control and has more opportunities to make plays. It’s like the premium of the outfield. Left field is where you stick the Matt Hollidays and Jayson Werths of the world who aren’t all that fast and whose value is primarily at the plate. That’s not the player Dexter Fowler thinks he is. But take a look at the past three seasons in a few defensive categories:

Year Inn A DP UZR DRS Field%
2014 959.0 4 0 -21.8 -20 .980
2015 1324.1 5 0 -1.7 -12 .988
2016 1027.1 6 0 1.0 1 .983
2017 533.2 2 0 -4.3 -9 1.000

Fowler has logged at least 950 innings in center field each season, so we have a large sample to work from. While UZR can fluctuate rather wildly, looking at the data shows that he is consistently in the negative, or below average. Over the past three seasons Fowler averaged a -5 UZR.

With Tommy Pham, we run into the danger of small sample size. He’s at a 2.4 ultimate zone rating in center this season with a career number of -0.5 in 658 innings. Both of which are insignificant enough to basically grind back down to zero (average). On one hand, there is a known quantity who is consistently below average in both zone rating and runs saved. On the other is a small but promising sample from a player with some clear momentum.

Dexter Fowler has not made more than six outfield assists in a season since 2014. Tommy Pham already has seven. Of the three “unlikely” plays listed on Fangraphs’ Inside Edge fielding data, Fowler has made none of them. Which is not to say he’s bad defensively, but all these things are an indication (if not quite validation) that some of the plays Pham can make, Fowler cannot. That -21.8 zone rating two seasons ago is clearly not who Dexter is. He makes all the routine plays, but the numbers say Pham can be, and quite frankly right now he is, better.

Moving a center fielder to a corner spot has produced real benefits for other teams. And not just the teams, but for the individual players whose stats skyrocketed into positive numbers. I wrote about that shift earlier this season at Beyond the Box Score; I compared Adam Eaton’s defensive improvement after his move to right field in 2016, to Marcell Ozuna’s bounceback this season in left.

“Defensive metrics may be difficult to wrangle on a season-by-season basis, but Ozuna had been trending the wrong way. After being reassigned to left field, he’s on the up-and-up again.”

If the goal is to continue to improve the outfield, to keep the athleticism there along with the most productive bats, the Cardinals can make that happen by shifting Fowler to left just like the Marlins did with Ozuna.

Dexter trended upward over the past few seasons. In 2014, he cost the Astros twenty runs. In 2015, his DRS trended upward to -12. That’s still bad, but he was showing improvement. Last season, Fowler pushed his way into the land of natural numbers with a DRS of 1. He finally hit defensive average again! We know he has the ability to be a solid defender. I want Dexter Fowler to succeed and, given what I’ve seen statistically, it seems like he has a better chance to keep that momentum going in a positive direction if he is moved to left field.

The best fielders in the game generally end up with somewhere between fifteen and twenty DRS at the end of a season. Right now, Fowler is nowhere close. Tommy Pham, even after spending almost a month in the minors, has ten defensive runs saved as we hit the All Star break. Assuming Pham keeps this pace, he’d end up with about 20 DRS. There were only three outfielders in baseball last season who met or exceeded that total:

· Mookie Betts (32)

· Kevin Pillar (21)

· Adam Eaton (20)

That’s some nice company. But even if he regresses to be a league-average center fielder, he’s still better than Dexter Fowler’s recent annual average. Shifting Fowler to a corner spot might have significant benefits like it did for other teams. Mike Matheny may be loath to give anyone a title, but Tommy Pham should be the center fielder. Unless they somehow play the Nats in the postseason, in which case my mom would like very much if he was not.

. . .

Audrey Stark is a contributor at Viva El Birdos. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.