There are two ways to look at the Cardinals season so far. One is that they somehow still haven’t managed to acquire a big bat, and that the offensive malaise is going to ruin a reasonable start. Another is that through 20% of the season, the Cardinals are a half game out of first (pending Monday’s results), which I would have taken if you’d asked me in February. There’s actually a third way to look at the season- TOMMY PHAM. The all caps are necessary, and exclamation marks would be acceptable. One year ago, he was only semi-established as a fill-in while Piscotty and Grichuk dealt with injuries and ineffectiveness. Today, he’s eleventh in the majors in WAR. It’s reasonable to ask whether he’s now the best center fielder in the NL, something that would have seemed pretty silly last May. By most projections, he’s just a hair short of AJ Pollock, but it’s very close, and Steamer over at Fangraphs even has Pham ahead. It’s an exciting time to be a Pham fan, that much is for sure.
You’ll notice that I said best center fielder in the National League, not in the majors. That’s because best in the majors isn’t much of a contest. Mike Trout is so far ahead of everyone else that it’s just a little comical. Still, though, Pham has the same style of all-around game as Trout, albeit with the volume turned down a few notches. Pham has a crazy 16% walk rate and 20% strikeout rate; Trout has an unreal 19% walk rate and 18% strikeout rate. Pham hits for power- a .233 ISO from your center fielder will definitely do. Trout’s ISO is 100 points higher. Pham has seven steals this year- nice! Trout has seven steals without being caught. They’re more comparable on defense, though even there defensive systems prefer Trout by a hair this year, and he’s recorded a faster sprint speed. In short, while Pham has every tool, Trout has all those tools but they’re somehow better.
There’s one skill I didn’t mention above in talking about Trout, though, and I think you could argue that it’s his best skill. You see, Mike Trout wasn’t always the same player he is today. When he came into the league, he was an absolute physical freak who put up 10 WAR right away, but he had holes in his game. He could be pitched to, even. At various points in his career, he’s had weaknesses including high fastballs, his throwing arm, and even a strikeout rate that hit 26% in 2014. Mike Trout’s weaknesses today are… sharks, maybe? I don’t know. It’s not like you’re going to find any baseball ones. Trout has methodically eliminated his shortcomings season by season, remaking himself into a strikingly different but somehow more dominant player than he was in his breathtaking debut season.
Why am I talking about Trout so much? This is a Cardinals blog, after all. Well, Tommy Pham possesses many of Trout’s skills, and I think he might actually share his ability to correct flaws too. The Pham you see today simply doesn’t have the same problems that past Phams have had.
The most obvious example of Pham correcting holes in his game is his strikeout and walk rates. It feels like a lifetime ago, but when he first came up, he had a pretty unremarkable swing rate and fair to poor contact skills. Until 2017, Pham had never been even league-average in contact rate or swinging strike rate, two pretty clear indications that he had a contact problem. It wasn’t unsurmountable by any means, as he was still running a wRC+ over 100 despite that, but it certainly wasn’t ideal. That feels like a long time ago now. Last year he became above average at both skills, seemingly out of nowhere. This drove his strikeout rate down and his walk rate up, and he almost overnight became a high-OBP guy where before he’d been a strikeouts and power guy. Think it was a fluke? He’s upped his walks and cut his strikeouts again this year. In the major leagues, in his age 30 season, Tommy Pham is walking more than he ever has in a full season of baseball. He’s striking out less than he has at any level of the minor leagues. It’s so silly that it’s almost unbelievable. Look:
K, BB% by level
Even as he improved his contact skills, Pham still was pretty bad at one aspect of hitting last year. It was easy to miss in a season where he hit .306/.411/.520, but Pham was awful when behind in the count. How awful, you ask? Well, here’s a representative stat. When he started out ahead 1-0, he ran a 216 wRC+, good for fifth in baseball. The guys ahead of him were Aaron Judge, J.D. Martinez, Josh Donaldson, and Justin Upton (by 1 point). What about 0-1? He fell to an 80 wRC+, 116th out of 351 players with 100 PA or more of 0-1 counts. It only went downhill from there. After 1-2 counts, he put up a 40 wRC+, 135th out of 258. After an 0-2 count, he had an are-you-kidding me wRC+ of NINE. Now, hitting is really hard, and it’s even harder after an 0-2 count, but that’s still NINE. That was good for 97th out of 141. Oof.
wRC+ by count, 2017
To put up a 9 wRC+, you have to do a lot of things pretty badly. A 50% strikeout rate is a start, but the real kicker was a .042 ISO, 126th out of the 141 batters with 100 or more 0-2 PA. In the 106 plate appearances where Pham started out 0-2, a full 20% of his total plate appearances, he managed just one double and one home run. He wasn’t much better after 1-2, with two doubles and three home runs. Put simply, if you got to two strikes on Pham before two balls (or really two strikes at all, as he only went for four doubles and four home runs after a 2-2 count), he was a singles hitter, and a pretty bad one at that.
I didn’t notice this at all last year. I was too busy dreaming about Pham Slams and watching him generally incinerate the league overall to notice that he was essentially donating a full fifth of his at bats. Tommy noticed, though. I don’t have definitive proof of this, but he must have. I don’t know how else to explain the fact that this weakness in his game has totally disappeared. This year, he’s sporting a still excellent 192 wRC+ after 1-0 counts. It’s down slightly from last year, sure, but last year’s .407 BABIP was unlikely to continue, and 192 is still elite. When he’s behind in the count, however, he’s improved across the board. I’m not talking little improvements, either. The sample sizes are still small, but he looks like a completely different player from last year.
wRC+ by count, 2018
|After Count||wRC+||Percentile||Percentile Change|
|After Count||wRC+||Percentile||Percentile Change|
It would be easy to say that this is small sample size theater. To some extent, it probably is. He’s not going to maintain a .556 BABIP after 0-2 counts (only 26 PA so far), though many of the players ahead of him will fall back to earth too. Still, though, these stats are ridiculous. Pham is walking 20% of the time after a 1-2 count. That’s second in baseball this year, behind only walk aficionado Brandon Nimmo and well ahead of Kris Bryant in third place. Only Joey Votto and Mike Trout walked even 15% of the time last year after 1-2 counts. It’s insanity. That low ISO in 2017? It’s a thing of the past. His ISO is higher after 0-1, 1-2, and 0-2. In his 26 plate appearances after an 0-1 count this year, he’s already hit two home runs.
Like I said, these numbers aren’t going to stay this high all year. Literally no one puts up a 144 wRC+ for a whole year. Last year’s leader among players with at least 40 plate appearances was Kurt Suzuki, who managed a 131 wRC+ in 52 times at the plate. If you go up to a 100 PA minimum, only one person even broke 100. Pham’s 0-1 numbers are also crazy. Mike Trout himself was first in baseball last year with a 160 wRC+ after 0-1 counts. Pham, though, doesn’t have to keep up these numbers all season to be a vast improvement over last year. If he’s now roughly a league average hitter in these counts, that works out to roughly a 150 wRC+ hitter overall given how much damage he already does when ahead in the count. The hole in his game, the high-variance first pitch that could turn him from the best hitter in baseball to below average, simply doesn’t seem to exist anymore.
The 2017 version of Tommy Pham was an all-around terror for opponents to handle. He hurt you with his bat, his glove, and his speed; and he wasn’t shy about telling people about it. He could be handled, though. If you could start him off with a strike, you could hope to survive the at-bat. You had the advantage, even. That was then. This is now. Tommy Pham has evolved, and he’s coming for your pitching staff. Mike Trout would approve.