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Looking at Tommy Pham’s Recent Struggles

A bat that started with a bang has slowed to a crawl

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

There’s no player I root for on a personal level more than Tommy Pham. His story is inspiring, he plays with an edge and tenacity, and he feeds on adversity unlike any other. He brings a personality to this Cardinal team that they’ve needed for quite some time. Though he started the year with a bang, the past two weeks haven’t passed the eye test; Pham has, to me, seemed uncomfortable at the plate and has even shown some difficulty tracking balls in the outfield. He still has a 134 wRC+ on the year. He’s by no means had a poor season. Since May 12, however, he’s posted a .227 wOBA. His xwOBA isn’t much better, at .276. This hasn’t been a case of failing to meet expected results, but it also hasn’t been the Tommy Pham we saw through May 11. What follows isn’t a diagnosis of any approach issue, but just a presentation of some troubling symptoms. This is the Jerry Seinfeld of baseball articles. But it isn’t funny. (Hopefully.)

Plate Discipline

Pham’s been striking out. A lot. In his 15 starts since May 12, he’s recorded at least one strikeout in all but two games. 10 of those games have included multiple Ks, with the May 21 contest against the Royals featuring four plate appearances and four strikeouts. Looking at his 15-game rolling K% dating back over the last three seasons, Pham’s strikeout rate hasn’t been this high since his pre-breakout 2016 season:

Taking a closer look at his plate discipline, it’s pretty easy to see why the Ks are up. Here’s a table comparing his swing and contact rates before and during the current slump, including differentials:

Tommy Pham, Plate Discipline — 2018

CATEGORY 3/29 - 5/11 5/12 - 5/30 DIFFERENTIAL
CATEGORY 3/29 - 5/11 5/12 - 5/30 DIFFERENTIAL
O-Swing% 20.9% 26.3% 5.4%
Z-Swing% 61.9% 63.0% 1.1%
Swing% 38.6% 42.4% 3.8%
O-Contact% 55.9% 50.0% -5.9%
Z-Contact% 92.5% 81.3% -11.2%
Contact% 81.3% 70.4% -10.9%
Zone% 43.2% 43.9% 0.7%
F-Strike% 62.0% 60.9% -1.1%
SwStr% 7.2% 12.6% 5.4%

Pham is swinging more—especially at pitches outside the zone—but making contact at a much weaker rate. His swinging strike rate has reached double digits in that timeframe. What’s perhaps even more troubling is that the changes come against virtually the same approach. The number of pitches Pham sees inside the zone has remained at roughly the same mark. Looking at BrooksBaseball’s hard/breaking/offspeed pitch percentages, the pre-slump 64%/33%/3% split is nearly identical to the current 64%/30%/6% offerings Pham sees. Looking at a pitch heatmap, Tommy is being attacked in roughly the same area, even if the concentration of pitches is a bit lower:

Pham is seeing pitchers, for the most part, take the same approach they have all year, and generating much less contact on more swings.

Batted Ball Metrics

Looking at the pre-slump pull%/center%/oppo% numbers, Pham was sitting at a somewhat balanced 39.3%/38.1%/22.6% — generally in line with his career split of 36.4%/35.7%/27.9%. Since May 12, that split is at 60%/17.1%/22.9%. Never in his career has Pham posted a 15-game rolling pull% that high. That percentage wouldn’t be an issue if there were power behind it; Mookie Betts, José Ramírez, Kris Bryant, they all have pull%s in the low 50s. The difference is that, while over 60% of the aforementioned hitters’ pulled balls are in the air, Pham’s previous 16 games have featured ground balls 60% of the time. Three out of five at-bats. There isn’t much difference in his soft%/med%/hard% splits compared to the first part of the season or even his career norms. He’s still hitting the ball just as hard. It’s solely that Pham can’t seem to elevate the ball when he makes contact, pounding it into the left side of the infield.

The Perfect Storm

Looking at these issues separately, they seem like they wouldn’t be a complete hindrance to performance. There are players who have much worse plate discipline than Pham, even compared to his current slump numbers, who still provide positive value at the plate. There are players who ground out or pull the ball at the same rate (although it’s much harder to find a productive grounder-heavy hitter in today’s game). The problem is that all of these issues in Pham’s game hit at once. Here’s the same 15-game rolling graph used earlier to show K%, but this time with pull%, GB%, and contact% added as well:

There’s a lot to digest here, but what stands out to me is that Pham’s K%, pull% and GB% have generally trended together over the course of the last three seasons. What makes this current slump different than anything we saw in 2017 is just how high the strikeouts are and just how pull-heavy he’s been. Combined with his contact% reaching its lowest levels since early 2017, we’re seeing a Tommy Pham who resembles his 2016 self much more than his 2017 breakout.

I wholeheartedly believe Pham will be fine. He’s proven he’s an excellent player and is skilled at making adjustments during the season. However, the 5/12—5/30 span is now 16 games — roughly one-tenth of the regular season. It’s been a stretch that resembles the pre-2017 Pham much more than last year’s breakout. And, as we’ve seen, an offense that’s relied on Pham as a linchpin struggles to get going consistently without his bat producing. To get back to where he needs to be, it seems something has to give: the plate discipline, or the contact type.