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Tommy Pham’s NL MVP case

Tommy Pham won’t win MVP. Tommy Pham maybe shouldn’t win MVP. But there is a reasonable case for it.

MLB: Cincinnati Reds at St. Louis Cardinals Scott Kane-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve been trying for about a month to figure out how to justify St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham as a National League Most Valuable Player candidate. My externalized internal monologue was even referenced in a Hunt and Peck post a month ago today.

Ultimately, when it came time to actually construct an NL MVP ballot, I listed Tommy Pham on my ballot, though I did not list him first. While listing Tommy Pham as my MVP would certainly be the exciting choice, particularly as somebody who, you know, writes for a St. Louis Cardinals blog, I ranked him fourth.

This is, in defense of my homerism, higher than I expect him to finish in actual MVP balloting. But in first place, I put Cincinnati Reds first baseman Joey Votto: I am not especially beholden to selecting players on playoff contenders, and the walk machine was the National League’s best hitter, producing a 165 wRC+ eclipsed in Major League Baseball only by Mike Trout and Aaron Judge among qualified hitters.

In second place, I listed Miami Marlins right fielder Giancarlo Stanton, whose 59 home runs and torrid second half captivated even the most neutral of baseball fans. In third place, I had Washington Nationals third baseman Anthony Rendon, less ballyhooed than Votto or Stanton but one of baseball’s most valuable fielders in 2017 who tied with Stanton for the FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement lead among National League players. While the 6.9 fWAR duo certainly had nice seasons, I ultimately chose Votto because I have such faith in his offensive prowess—he drew walks at a MLB-leading 19% clip because opponents are aware of what a threat Joey Votto can be if he is given pitches to hit inside the strike zone.

And this post is about the ways in which I am wrong and in which Tommy Pham should actually win the National League MVP award.

Which isn’t actually to say he actually should. But a reasonable argument exists. A reasonable argument also exists to vote Votto (best hitter), Stanton (59 home runs; kept the Marlins in playoff contention much longer than most expected), or Rendon (best fielder), but this particular post is Tommy Pham’s time to shine.

Among National League position players, Tommy Pham ranks sixth in FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement. With 530 plate appearances, Pham had the fewest of any player in the top ten among position players, with only Los Angeles Dodgers third baseman Justin Turner coming close (543 plate appearances, but also 0.4 fewer wins). The five batters ahead of Pham easily outpaced him in terms of opportunities to hit.

  1. Anthony Rendon: 6.9 fWAR, 605 PA
  2. Giancarlo Stanton, 6.9 fWAR, 692 PA
  3. Kris Bryant, 6.7 fWAR, 665 PA
  4. Joey Votto, 6.6 fWAR, 707 PA
  5. Charlie Blackmon, 6.5 fWAR, 725 PA
  6. Tommy Pham, 5.9 fWAR, 530 PA

The reason Tommy Pham ranks so lowly in plate appearances, of course, is because the 29 year-old outfielder has been susceptible to injuries throughout his career, and 2017 was no exception, with Pham missing a solid chunk of the season due to a stra...nah I’m just kidding it’s because Matt Adams began 2017 ahead of Tommy Pham on the outfield depth chart.

You remember Matt Adams in left field, right?

Look, whatever, I’m over complaining about this. I find it humorous, actually. I’m laughing right now about it. But the point is that Tommy Pham stacks up even better as an MVP candidate (on raw production, he already belongs on a ten-man ballot) when looking at players on a rate basis. An extremely simple way to look at production on a rate basis is to divide fWAR by plate appearances. Since this is not very aesthetically pleasing, for you or for me, I’ll look at the top six players in fWAR per 725 plate appearances, the highest number accumulated by one of these players (Blackmon).

  1. Anthony Rendon, 8.268595 fWAR
  2. Giancarlo Stanton, 7.299046 fWAR
  3. Kris Bryant, 7.304511 fWAR
  4. Joey Votto, 6.768034 fWAR
  5. Charlie Blackmon, 6.5 fWAR
  6. Tommy Pham, 8.070755 fWAR

Suddenly, Tommy Pham is within spitting distance of first place, but if this were the sole metric you used, Rendon would still be at the top. But what Tommy Pham offered was something which was not offered by Anthony Rendon—versatility.

While Anthony Rendon has played second base in the past, his production in 2017 in the field was limited to the hot corner. And while he was superb at fielding the position, he was limited to third base. He had a spot forged for him, and he played well in it, but there is some extra value to being able to accommodate a position rather than having the position accommodate you.

That said, Rendon still has a clear defensive advantage over Joey Votto or Giancarlo Stanton, who played 100% of their defensive innings at first base and right field, respectively. Neither is a particularly significant defensive position (though Stanton has the slight edge here) and neither played it beyond adequately. Meanwhile, Tommy Pham’s versatility made him an important asset for the Cardinals. When Randal Grichuk and Matt Adams struggled? Put him in left field. When Dexter Fowler went to the Disabled List? Put him in center field, as the Cardinals did for 281 1/3 innings in 2017. And he was above-average defensively at both spots.

And Tommy Pham had this value in the field while tearing the cover off of baseballs throughout the season. Among qualified hitters, only four players in the NL had a higher wRC+: Votto, Stanton, Freddie Freeman, and Justin Turner. And Tommy Pham was the best defensively by Defensive Runs Above Average and the best at running the bases by FanGraphs Baserunning Runs among this group.

Twelve players in the NL stole 20 or more bases in 2017. Four of them were above-average hitters: Wil Myers (109 wRC+), Trea Turner (105 wRC+), and A.J. Pollock (103 wRC+) were three of them. And Tommy Pham, at 148, was the fourth.

Everything about 2017 Tommy Pham seemed surreal. And perhaps he will not be able to sustain his success in future seasons. But in 2017, he was a truly special player—a player worthy of serious MVP consideration.