Tommy Pham reached a milestone in yesterday’s game against the Chicago White Sox. It is not a particularly acclaimed milestone. It’s not one the announcers take the time to point out, like when Matt Carpenter and Dexter Fowler both hit their 100th career home runs. But it is a milestone to be celebrated. Especially for Tommy Pham. Yesterday, Pham recorded his 1,000th career MLB plate appearance.
Pham has suffered through an enormous amount of injuries in his career playing professional baseball. He broke his wrist in 2010. He tore a ligament trying to rob a homer in 2011. His 2012 season was derailed when he tried to play through a torn labrum - which the doctors misdiagnosed as not serious at first - and then missed the rest of the season when they figured it out. He tore his other labrum in 2013 while in Memphis. He missed the first two months of 2015, suffering from a quadriceps injury. In 2016, he made the Opening Day roster, but injured his oblique on the very first plate appearance of his season. He suffers from keratoconus, a rare degenerative eye condition that causes vision problems. I’ve probably even missed an injury or two in this paragraph.
Despite all these injuries, and from suffering the indignity of being in AAA while Matt Adams was getting starts in LF, Pham has played enough to earn 1,000 plate appearances. In celebration of this milestone - and it is truly a milestone for someone who’s had to fight through so many injuries - I’m going to highlight just how good he’s been in those plate appearances.
Conveniently for my sake, Pham became a full-time starter on May 5 last year. It’s convenient because Fangraphs offers a “last calendar year” option when looking at the leaderboards. In the last calendar year, Pham is the 6th most valuable player in the MLB. Amongst hitters only, he’s only behind Aaron Judge and Jose Altuve. Yes, that means that Pham has been the most valuable hitter in the National League in the last calendar year. Max Scherzer has 7.8 WAR to Pham’s 7.6, but usually they only go with the pitcher if there are no viable hitting options. So it’s probably not a controversial statement to say he may have won the MVP award if the last calendar year fell under one year.
He achieved this feat mostly through his hitting and baserunning. Pham had the 7th highest wRC+ in the MLB. Despite his reputation for getting thrown out on the basepaths, his aggressiveness seems to be a net positive according to BsR. According to BsR, he has gained 6.2 runs due to his baserunning. The majority of the people ahead of him are known for their speed, such as Byron Buxton, Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, and Trea Turner.
Pham’s defense can’t be knocked either, though the sample size we’re dealing with is quite small. I can’t really judge his defense by the last calendar year. You need over 3,000 innings. His career is also too small a sample, but what the numbers say so far is positive. In just under 1,000 career innings in LF, he’s been a +10.4 fielder. In about the same amount of innings in center, he has been almost exactly average. Given the numbers so far, I’d expect him to be a +2 fielder in CF, or essentially average. That sounds low, but if Pham’s bat is anywhere near what it’s been in his career (139 wRC+), that is an extremely valuable player.
In terms of Cardinals history, Pham ranks 84th amongst hitters in fWAR. That doesn’t sound that impressive on the surface, but remember that the Cardinals have been around for over 100 years and they haven’t lacked for great players. To give some context for his placement in Cardinals history, his 9.5 career WAR places just below Jon Jay. Jay went to the plate 1,667 more times than Pham has so far. In fact, nobody above Pham has less than his 1,002 plate appearances.
In terms of what Pham has done with the opportunities he’s been given - he ranks 9th among Cardinals hitters in WAR per plate appearance. Now this kind of stat naturally favors people still in their prime, and who haven’t had to play on the Cardinals in their decline phase. I’m just illustrating just how good he has been. If you’re wondering, he’s behind the following players: Stan Musial, Rogers Hornsby, Albert Pujols, Jim Edmonds, Johnny Mize, Scott Rolen, Mark McGwire, and Jesse Burkett. So that’s four Hall-of-Famers, one will-be Hall of Famer (Pujols), and three that really should be in the Hall.
Pham is tied for the 12th highest wRC+ among Cardinals hitters with at least 1,000 plate appearances. He’s tied with Reggie Smith, who was only on the Cards for about 35 more games than Pham. The 11 players ahead of him include all eight of the above players excluding Rolen. In addition to Smith, Jack Clark, a 19th century baseball player named Tip O’Neill, and Matt Holliday were all better hitters than Pham has been as well. Again, the sample size here for Pham in comparison to the others is peanuts so this entire post is just for fun.
Here’s how rapid Pham’s rise has been the past calendar year. When ZiPS released the 2017 projections, Pham’s OPS+ was projected to be 98. His rest of the season projection is now 121. Honestly, if Pham is a 121 wRC+ hitter with average defense in CF, that’s still a damn good player! Remember that projections are conservative estimates. Plus, the longer he keeps this going, the higher that will rise.
If you could take one lesson from this post, it’s that Tommy Pham has been absurdly good. He is essential to a team that looks like it could make the playoffs and if things break right, win the NL Central. I wouldn’t expect Pham to continue being this good to be honest. But if there’s one player you probably shouldn’t bet against, it’s Tommy Pham.