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Tommy Pham’s new skill

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Aside from walk-off home runs, Pham has also learned to hit the ball to the opposite field

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

A few weeks ago, I wrote an article about Tommy Pham's changeup problem. It was based on a discovered trend that showed his average decreasing when pitchers threw him more changeups. It seemed to suggest an adjustment Pham had not been making consistently enough to have success against the off-speed pitch. Further, I argued that the Cardinals’s 2017 MVP would see considerable regression, unable to sustain his current level of play.

Fast forward almost three full weeks and Pham has continued to produce. Granted, his numbers are a little lower than they were towards the beginning of August, but I wouldn’t go so far as to say he has regressed. Conversely, I also wouldn’t posit that a sample of 15 games is enough to draw even a single concrete conclusion. Still, I noticed an interesting and very positive development in Pham’s hitting profile, especially over the second half of the season: his ability to go the other way.

Many of you will probably remember Pham’s huge home run in Pittsburgh on the 17th. The one that landed in the upper deck and, to quote Dan McLaughlin, was “one of the longest we’ve ever seen at this ballpark.” Watch it below:

BaseballSavant

The impressive part of this moonshot is the distance. The pitch was middle-in and the right handed Pham pulled the ball, which is what you would expect from that combination.

After that homer in the 9th, Pham hit another one in his very next at-bat—in the first inning of the next game. Here is that one:

BaseballSavant

This first-inning home run in Pittsburgh, straight down the right filed line, is impressive for another reason. Notice that the pitch is in virtually the same location as the first home run: middle-in. Yet, Pham was able to take this one to right field—not a combination you usually see. Certainly not on a home run.

Given that this home run was off a right-handed pitcher, he had less time and was unable to “turn” on the second ball like he did on the first one. The significant aspect here is Pham’s ability to go the other way on an inside pitch. Often times, when a right-handed hitter goes to the opposite field on an inside pitch, it’s a pop-up or a bloop single. For Pham, the ball didn’t hit the ground or a player’s glove. It cleared the fence.

Over his entire career, Pham’s batted ball numbers break down as follows:

Tommy Pham Batted Ball Numbers (2015-2017)

Pull% Center% Oppo%
Pull% Center% Oppo%
36.6 34.7 28.6
Fangraphs

These numbers also reflect, for the most part, Pham’s performance this year with little deviation. What’s noticeable about 2017 is his growing ability to go the other way—a skill that has seemingly developed slowly over the course of this season. Take a look at his spray heatmap for the first half of the year:

BaseballSavant

Nothing here appears to be extraordinary—its a fairly typical heatmap. However, when you compare this with the heat map from the second half of the season, you can see a trend.

BasebalSavant

Pham has started to hit the ball more frequently to right field. This was most evident in July when he hit the ball to the opposite field 35% of the time, but it is also visible in a larger sample when comparing first and second half numbers: first half—27%, second half—30% (Fangraphs).

While three percentage points may not seem like much, it is a very real indicator of a developing skill. Now, I wouldn't put Pham in the “old dog” category for that saying about old dogs and new tricks, but it is nice to see a player who, despite being 29 years old, is still developing new skills.

As always, credit to Fangraphs.com and BaseballSavant.com for the data, images, and GIFs used in this post.