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Tommy Pham is for real

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Tommy Pham was a breakout star in 2017, but that doesn’t mean he was an illusion.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at San Diego Padres Jake Roth-USA TODAY Sports

On October 9, 2015, the St. Louis Cardinals defeated the Chicago Cubs in Game 1 of the National League Division Series, in what is to date the last victory earned by the Cardinals in postseason play. It was a game characterized mostly by the starting pitching—Cardinals starter John Lackey was dominant, not surrendering a base hit until the sixth inning, and Jon Lester was nearly as good for the Cubs, allowing a first inning run but allowing no more scoring in the game’s next six frames. Through seven, Lester struck out nine batters and only allowed four hits to go with zero walks.

Entering the bottom of the eighth, Lester was still rolling. The Cardinals had a 1-0 lead—better than nothing, but hardly in a spot of great comfort. The first batter of the half-frame, Kolten Wong, grounded out to second, and with reliever Kevin Siegrist due up to the plate, the Cardinals called upon a 27 year-old utility outfielder to try to do something.

No reasonable fan could have been too disappointed had Tommy Pham failed. After all, the lineup which helped guide the Cardinals to a 100-win season looked mostly helpless against the veteran Cubs lefty. But instead of joining the herd of Cardinals players to look helpless against Lester, Pham did this.

Ultimately, the Cardinals did not need the insurance run, and three games later, the most successful Cardinals season by regular season record in a decade came to a screeching halt. But it was an exclamation point on a successful rookie season for Tommy Pham.

In 2017, Tommy Pham was the best player on the Cardinals, and one of the better players in baseball. He finished 11th in National League Most Valuable Player voting, and arguably should have finished higher. Some argued that Pham was the biggest surprise in baseball last season, and considering he began the season with the AAA Memphis Redbirds internal screaming so that Matt Adams could serve as the backup in left field, it was unexpected that Pham would even get the opportunity to be so valuable. But that does not mean that Tommy Pham was a fluke.

“Regression” is a common, probably overused term in baseball analysis, and predicting that Tommy Pham will regress in 2018 is a safer prognostication than most making it would like to admit—while the projection systems expect that Tommy Pham will be less productive in 2018 than in 2017, these systems are typically rather conservative and do not project many players to post a higher wRC+ than Pham’s 2017 mark of 148. Steamer only projects three MLB hitters—Mike Trout, Giancarlo Stanton, and Bryce Harper—to exceed Pham’s 2017 production in 2018. ZiPS has only Trout and Stanton clearing the mark. It’s probably unfair to expect 2017 Tommy Pham offensive production from 2018 Tommy Pham if we aren’t even expecting it from 2018 Joey Votto.

But Tommy Pham’s production can fall quite a ways before crashing back to Earth, and his non-2017 results suggest that while 2017 may have been his peak, he was not in that far over his head. Pham made his MLB debut in 2014, striking out twice in his first two MLB plate appearances, and through 2016, Pham was an above-average hitter. In 358 plate appearances, Pham batted .245, with a .333 on-base percentage and a .455 slugging percentage, good for a 114 wRC+. It was in far fewer plate appearances, granted, but this mark put him on equal terms with well-regarded hitters such as Todd Frazier and Lorenzo Cain.

Pham showed an impressive eye at the plate, walking in 10.9% of plate appearances, despite the fact that Pham’s eyes were literally failing him. In 2016, the degenerative effects of the optical disease keratoconus from which Pham suffers worsened. In addition, while Pham was in the Opening Day lineup, he left that game due to oblique tightness and never regained a spot as a regular starter that season. And yet despite these physical setbacks, Pham was still an above-average hitter, with a 106 wRC+ despite a 38.8% strikeout rate which exceeded any rate Pham had at any other point in his professional baseball career.

Pham’s 126 wRC+ in 2015, a season in which Pham was relatively healthy, was on par with Francisco Lindor. Among Cardinals hitters, only Matt Carpenter, Randal Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty were superior by wRC+ in as many plate appearances as Pham. Pham (who, it’s worth reminding, was not nearly as good in 2015 as he was in 2017) was a more productive hitter on a rate basis than Matt Holliday or Jason Heyward.

It may seem unfair to ignore Pham’s 2016 results, so let’s consider those. But let’s also weigh Pham’s 2017. Why shouldn’t we? If we can incorporate Tommy Pham’s 183 plate appearances while dealing with a degenerative eye condition, why shouldn’t we incorporate his 530 more recent plate appearances? Since 2014, Pham has a 134 wRC+ in 888 plate appearances. Of the 330 hitters with at least 850 plate appearances in that time (a group which self-selects hitters good enough to warrant so many plate appearances), Pham ranks 21st. He ranks ahead of names such as George Springer, Adrian Beltre, Daniel Murphy, and Yoenis Cespedes.

Health was always a primary concern for Pham throughout his minor league career, but when he did play, he was frequently an above-average hitter. Exempting a 2012 season in which injuries kept Pham to only 43 plate appearances, Pham’s wRC+ marks in AA Springfield from 2010 through 2013 were 169, 135, and 157. In 2014 at Memphis, Pham had a 132 wRC+ in 390 plate appearances, and in 196 plate appearances in 2015 at Memphis, his wRC+ was 141.

Tommy Pham had a .368 batting average on balls in play in 2017, and this is a bit high, but it is not as though he did not still deserve to be a very productive hitter. Pham’s .361 xwOBA, while lower than his actual wOBA of .398, equaled the xwOBA marks of Colorado Rockies MVP candidates Charlie Blackmon and Nolan Arenado.

Tommy Pham’s health has always been a concern, and it will remain one even coming off a mostly healthy 2017. But when he has been given the opportunity, Tommy Pham has been a productive hitter. He has, at the Major League level, been a 5-win player per 600 plate appearances, including at times in which he had vision issues which appear to have been mostly solved, or at least substantially mitigated. 2018 Tommy Pham may not be as productive as 2017 Tommy Pham, but that does not mean 2017 was purely an illusion. Tommy Pham is for real.