For some, Tommy Pham came out of nowhere to have a great season. For those who have read this site for quite some time or generally followed the Cardinals minor leaguers, Pham’s season was a year where everyone saw many hoped he would be able to do for quite some time.
Tommy Pham always had great tools, flashing very good outfield defense, a patient approach at the plate and a blend of power and speed that doesn’t come around often. Unfortunately, injuries impeded Pham’s progress and climb to the majors. Pham reached High-A in 2008, but it would take him until 2013 to jump up two levels to Triple-A.
A big season in Triple-A in 2014 got him a cup of coffee, and a big season in Triple-A in 2015 got him some playing time in the majors, where he put up a 126 wRC+. He didn’t perform as well in 2016, either in the majors or the minors as his eye condition prevented him from seeing the ball well. Still, he showed good power and a high walk rate even as his strikeout rate ballooned to a nearly unplayable 39%.
We know what happens next. Eye problem solved, Pham tears up in Triple-A for a month then he destroys MLB pitching the rest of the season. Despite not getting a full season, Pham puts up a great 5.9 fWAR and 6.4 bWAR. Since baseball was integrated more than 70 years ago, that 5.9 fWAR ranks 27th among outfielders in their age-29 seasons.
That might be too many qualifiers for your liking, but consider that the five players directly above him on that list are Reggie Jackson, Roberto Clemente, Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, and Reggie Smith. The five players directly below him are Devon White, Vladimir Guerrero, Carl Yastrzemski, Charlie Maxwell, and Ichiro Suzuki.
For the most part, that list encompasses players who had great careers both before and after their age-29 seasons. Jackson, Clemente, and Yastrzemski are in the Hall of Fame. Guerrero will be shortly. Ichiro is gonna make it someday. Jones and Smith have good cases. Bonds is Bonds. Of the 26 outfielders with a better WAR than Pham at the same age, nine are in the Hall of Fame. Last year was a pretty special year.
As we turn our focus to 2018, it is hard to say what Pham will bring to the table. Pham put up a 148 wRC+ last season, but the projection systems are a bit more conservative with Steamer putting him at 113 and ZiPS at 115. It is hard to project Pham because what he’s doing has very little precedent. Projection systems are conservative by nature so factoring in Pham’s age and his lack of MLB time, they see a good player, but not the great one we saw last year.
Pham’s baseline is already good, but I thought I’d check to see if there were any precedent’s for greatness. I looked back at the 29-year-old seasons for all outfielders since 1947 and picked out the ones with a WAR between five and seven. There were 48 players total with Pham ranking in the top half at 17th.
Then, I looked at those same players’ careers prior to that 29-year-old season. Half of the players had already put up 20 career WAR. One third of the players had put up 30 WAR with Barry Bonds, Andruw Jones, Frank Robinson, Rickey Henderson, and Al Kaline topping 50 WAR. I was less interested in that end of the table and more interested in the opposite end, the players who had yet to be big major league successes.
Of those players, no player had fewer than Pham’s 358 plate appearances before their great seasons. Only two players had a lower WAR than Pham’s 1.6 entering last year: Charlie Maxwell and Jose Bautista. There were only seven other players, including Brian Jordan and Yoenis Cespedes, who had a WAR under 10 through age 28, and those two were already above-average major leaguers by 29.
Only three players joined Pham in having a WAR lower than five before the breakout year at 29 years old. Bautista and Maxwell are mentioned above, and former Cardinals player Ryan Ludwick provides the only other apt comparison. Pham is the only one in this group to produce an above-average hitting line with Maxwell and Bautista solidly below average and Ludwick close.
As for what these players did the next year, Ludwick had the most disappointing season as his 106 wRC+ in over 500 PA was worth a bit over two wins. Charlie Maxwell—read more about him here—had a great season for the 1956 Detroit Tigers, and followed it up with a season nearly equally as impressive. In 1957 at the age of 30, Maxwell put up a 132 wRC+ which didn’t quite meet his 148 wRC+ from the year before, but he still hit with patience and power and put up a five-win season.
Jose Bautista, at age-29, put up a great 6.4 WAR season on the strength of a 165 wRC+ over a full season. He followed that up with a 181 wRC+ and an eight-win season. He would continue mashing baseballs for another four years after that before dipping down a bit in 2016 and tumbling hard last season.
We don’t know what Tommy Pham will do in 2018, and while it is easy to project some regression next season, it wouldn’t be fair to say an improvement is impossible. Jose Bautista improved on his fantastic late-20s breakout, and if Pham can follow that blueprint, he just might be next year’s MVP.