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Tommy Pham is still improving

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This is Tommy’s time.

St. Louis Cardinals v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Joe Robbins/Getty Images

Hi there Cardinal fans. Say what you want about the 2017 St. Louis Cardinals, but there’s one thing you just can’t deny: It’s late September and the Cards are still playing very meaningful games. No, they’re probably not going to be a team you tell your grandkids about. Maybe they play some postseason baseball this year, maybe not. They’re right in the thick of things though, and that’s not bad for a down year.

That might not be the case if not for an incredible season from Tommy Pham. According to Fangraphs.com, he’s been worth 5 12 wins this year, 12th best in baseball. Baseball-Reference.com also has him at 5 12 wins. Oh, and that’s in less than 500 plate appearances, meaning he’s performed at an MVP level when he has played. Take five wins from the team’s record and well, you’re probably quite a bit less interested in Cardinals games right now.

The interesting thing is, this isn’t the case of a hot streak carrying the rest of the season, like Aledmys Diaz’s April 2016. At the plate at least, he’s been better in the second half than the first:

Tommy Pham 2017 half splits

Tommy Pham PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
Tommy Pham PA BB% K% ISO BABIP wRC+
1st Half 236 11.0 % 25.4 % .211 .370 137
2nd Half 256 14.8 % 19.5 % .213 .382 160

Back in June, I shared some reasons to be optimistic about him going forward, just 93 plate appearances in. He was producing Randal Grichuk-level contact quality without all the baggage of Randal’s complete lack of plate discipline. I wondered though if MLB pitchers would do what they are prone to do: find hitters’ weaknesses and exploit them. About 400 plate appearances have passed since then, and to say he’s still thriving would be an understatement.

He’s cut down on strikeouts and increased his walks while maintaining the same results when making contact. That 160 second-half wRC+ ranks as the 5th best among qualfied hitters, and his 3.2 second-half WAR ranks 4th.

We shouldn’t expect him to keep this pace up. Expecting this from any player not named “Mike Trout” is setting one up for disappointment. Statcast gives us reason to believe some regression. Pham’s xwOBA over this time frame - which is informed by the Statcast metrics Exit Velocity and Launch Angle - is .047 points lower than his actual wOBA. Among 120 players with 200 at bats since the All-Star break, that’s the 19th biggest negative difference.

That’s the bad news. Here’s the good news: That’s still really good. Among those same 120 players, his .373 xwOBA still ranks 18th best. It’s also up from .354 in the second half. And that’s not including the fact that his speed dictates about .009 more points of wOBA. Sure, Tommy’s probably not an annual MVP candidate now, but it’s still reasonable to see him as a great hitter who contributes positively on the bases and in the field. That’s quite the asset, especially for a team commonly said to possess only average to above-average players and no high-end talent.

So rather than succumb to the ultimate game of adjustments, Pham has improved in the second half, largely through limiting strikeouts and increasing his walk rate. A look at his plate discipline stats at Fangraphs.com shows why.

For one, pitchers are being more careful with him. His Zone% (the rate at which pitchers throw in the zone) has dropped from 47.9% in the first half to 45.3% in the second. That might not sound like much, but it’s actually the 21st biggest decrease among 140 players with more than 200 plate appearances in both halves of the season. With the 5th lowest O-Swing rate in the majors (the percentage of pitches out of the zone that are swung at), this has naturally meant more walks for Pham.

As an aside, this might be a timely moment to mention that Matt Carpenter has the 14th biggest increase in Zone% from the first to the second half. It appears pitchers are noticing the fact that he’s pushing his patience to new highs, or they’re just not as afraid of him and his decreased batted ball authority due to his compromised shoulder. Really, it’s almost certainly a combination of both.

Back to Tommy. There’s an even bigger reason for this newfound second half success: a much improved contact rate. Pham maintained a 77.5% contact rate in the first half of the season, essentially league average. That was fine, considering the many pluses elsewhere in his game.

He’s stepped in up in the second half of the year though, with a 82.7% contact rate. Going back to those 140 players with 200 plate appearances each in the first and second half, that’s the 12th biggest increase.

In general, these types of gains are seen as more sustainable. Contact rate (and O-Swing%) is a much more stable stat than those based on results on-contact. A player can have a hot half of a season in terms of homers and balls in play, only to see that evaporate going forward. That Pham continues to do so well in the non-contact portions of hitting is perhaps the biggest reason to expect him to continue to succeed in the majors.

Unintentional walks, strikeouts, and hit-by-pitches make up the non-contact portion of wOBA. Using those three along with Fangraphs’ linear weights, we can calculate his non-contact wOBA. Using his non-contact% (the percentage of his plate appearances that end in a non-contact situations) and his xwOBA, we can use some algebra to figure out his xwOBA on-contact. Here are those things:

Pham contact and non-contact split

Tommy Pham uBB SO HBP nc wOBA xwOBA nc% xwOBA on-contact
Tommy Pham uBB SO HBP nc wOBA xwOBA nc% xwOBA on-contact
First half 26 60 4 .232 .354 38.1% .429
Second half 36 49 5 .317 .373 36.0% .404

According to Statcast, Pham’s contact quality has declined a little in the second half. He’s still comfortably above the league average xwOBA on-contact of .370 though. It’s certainly not hurting his game, but it’s his walk and strikeout numbers that are fueling the gains.

The average non-contact wOBA is .200, so Pham was already above average in the first half. He’s just took that to new heights in the second half. OK, one more time we’ll bring up those 140 players with 200 plate appearances in both halves of the season. Pham has the 15th best non-contact wOBA among them in the second half. Despite already posting an above-average mark in the first half, that makes for the 8th biggest gain in the sample.

With Tommy Pham, there will always be the question of health. His 492 plate appearances just at the MLB level this year tops any season total in his 12 year career as a professional baseball player. He doesn’t even need the 106 plate appearances at Triple-A added on. It’s only the third time he’s reached the 400 PA mark, and that’s not because he was riding the bench.

When he is healthy though, there’s increasingly little reason not to believe he’s a great player. Now let’s all cross our fingers and hope he can avoid the D.L. for a few years.