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Is Tommy Pham baseball’s biggest surprise?

Even his most ardent supporters could not have foreseen Tommy Pham arguably being the Cardinals MVP so far in 2017

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Milwaukee Brewers Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports

In limited time with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2015, Tommy Pham was a solidly above-average hitter, hitting at a rate 25% above MLB average by wRC+, supplying good defense and acting as a useful fourth outfielder. He also hit a big home run in the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs. Let’s watch Tommy Pham hitting a big home run in the NLDS against the Chicago Cubs.

In 2016, Pham logged about as much time at the big-league level, but was less exciting. He showed decent power, hitting nine home runs in 183 plate appearances, but his strikeout rate exploded to 38.8%, a concerning trend at least partially explained by his bout with keratoconus. He was still slightly above-average on the whole at the plate, but his poor fielding (probably a byproduct of sampling error more than a reflection on him actually being materially worse at defense than he had been previously) put him in the territory of Replacement Level: he was slightly above it (0.1) by FanGraphs and slightly below it (-0.1) by Baseball Reference.

Pham began 2017 in Memphis, as the Cardinals had opted to back up their starting outfield with Jose Martinez, who has admittedly shown himself to be a perfectly useful MLB corner outfielder if lacking Pham’s ability to play in center, as a backup. They also played Matt Adams in left field, an experiment now underway with the Atlanta Braves as well, for reasons.

While Tommy Pham has shown promise and has long been a cult favorite among Cardinals fans, the 29 year-old outfielder is leading the 2017 team in Wins Above Replacement. And with his playing time seemingly, for the first time in his career, assured at the MLB level, it appears increasingly likely that Pham will finish 2017 as the most valuable Cardinal on the season.

By ZiPS, the projection system created by Dan Szymborski and apparently named after the TV show CHiPs, Tommy Pham was projected as the 19th most productive player on the Cardinals this season. And this is using a retro-fitted list in which players who have switched teams (such as Matt Adams) aren’t included: Jhonny Peralta is among the names ahead of Pham. Nobody saw this coming.

But just how bizarre is Pham’s emergence? Is Tommy Pham the most surprising team WAR leader for 2017?

In order to save your time and mine, I decided to break the team WAR leaders (I used bWAR because it’s the more widely used of the two) into tiers, some of which don’t merit more than a passing glance because they are very, very obviously less surprising than Tommy Pham.

Tier 1: The expected

These are the players who are leading their teams in WAR who were projected by ZiPS to lead their teams in WAR before the season. These are pretty cut and dry. There are ten such players this season: Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado, Corey Seager, Kris Bryant, Joey Votto, Freddie Freeman, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Nola, Max Scherzer, and Corey Kluber.

Tier 2: The not-exactly-a-stretches

These are players who were projected to finish in second, third, or fourth on their team in WAR. There is some variance here of likelihood, but none of these players leading the team, with a few breaks here or there, seems all that absurd. There are nine players in this tier for 2017: Buster Posey, Jacob deGrom, Jose Altuve, Andrelton Simmons, Justin Upton, Lorenzo Cain, Ervin Santana, Chris Sale, and Evan Longoria.

Tier 3: The if-you-squint-well-maybes

All of these players are surprises, but none of these players are shocking. These are players who were highly touted prospects having a breakthrough, formerly All Star-caliber players who regained that form in 2017, or in one case, members of the San Diego Padres, a team that, by definition, has a team WAR leader. I can imagine putting some of these players in a slightly lower tier, but I feel comfortable in saying I’m less surprised by their emergence than I was at Tommy Pham’s. There are six players who fit this criteria: Brad Hand, Josh Harrison, James Paxton, Elvis Andrus, Jonathan Schoop, and Marcus Stroman.

This leaves a fourth tier, full of more surprising candidates, which merit some consideration along with Pham for being baseball’s most unlikely team WAR leader.

  • Travis Shaw, Milwaukee Brewers: Shaw, formerly a middling Boston Red Sox prospect, was traded to Milwaukee in the off-season and has been a revelation. The corner infielder was not expected to be this good, but he was a 2.2 bWAR player in 2016 and some level of improvement was not completely unreasonable to expect. And at 1.7 projected WAR, sandwiched between fairly notable names Ryan Braun and Keon Broxton, I’d still slot him below Pham on the surprise list.
  • Jed Lowrie, Oakland Athletics: Lowrie ranked lower on the A’s list than any other team MVP, ranking 43rd. This was derived mostly from Lowrie’s awful 2016, but unlike Pham, Lowrie does have a track record of full-season success, totaling 4.2 WAR over 2012 and 2013. I’d list Lowrie as the bigger surprise because these sorts of rebounds generally happen a few years earlier than one’s age-33 season, but the argument for Pham, an even more quintessential late bloomer, is solid.
  • Avisail Garcia, Chicago White Sox: At #38, the Sox outfielder, projected to finish below replacement level, is the second-lowest regarded player to be leading his team in 2017. The right fielder entered 2017, his fifth season in Major League Baseball, at just 0.1 career WAR and has been by far the best offensively and defensively that he has been in his career. Pham has been noticeably better, and Garcia benefits from playing for a bad team and thus having an easier time leading his team in WAR, but I’d give the edge to Garcia here.
  • Aaron Judge, New York Yankees: This is more a matter of scale than anything: Judge ranked 10th in projected WAR, and was a top-100 prospect entering 2017, and the Yankees didn’t have a slam-dunk WAR leadership candidate. But Judge is a legitimate choice for this because, as a rookie, he led Major League Baseball in WAR prior to the All-Star break. This probably comes down to taste, but I’m giving the edge to the guy who wasn’t in MLB to begin the season.

It doesn’t seem as though any player is materially more surprising than Tommy Pham. Barring a complete downturn in performance, he is likely to maintain his team lead, which could end up meaning another chapter is added to Cardinals Devil Magic lore, even in a disappointing season.