As a fan of the Chicago Cubs, the 2018 trade deadline made me happy. No, I’m not going to be the dude who says he was super psyched for the Cole Hamels deal and thought the lefty was going to revert to his form as one of the best pitchers of the 2010s. Rather, I was happy when the St. Louis Cardinals traded Tommy Pham to the Tampa Bay Rays. I was even happier to discover the Cardinals had traded Pham for next to nothing. The move made no sense to me then, and at this point, I wonder if everyone has forgotten how good the erstwhile Cardinal is on the baseball field?
I say this because I don’t hear much about Pham these days. It’s understandable that most of the Rays talk would center around the pitching dominance of Blake Snell, Tyler Glasnow, and José Alvarado or the emergence of Austin Meadows and Brandon Lowe as potential position player stars. Even then, it’s the Rays we’re talking about, so talk of them remains minimal at best. Pham, on the other hand, isn’t talked about to the point where he feels more like a baseball afterthought than someone who remains one of the better hitters in Major League Baseball.
When Pham left the Cardinals it was with some amount of acrimony. It’s not often that players want out of the Cardinals organization. It’s even scarcer to find an elite player who wants out so badly that he comes across in all his interviews like he’s begging for a trade. Pham wanted out though, and he wanted out of St. Louis badly. When he was finally dealt to Tampa it wasn’t on the best of terms, but he had gotten his wish and followed the Arch all the way to Tropicana Field.
It seems like almost instantly Pham disappeared from the baseball landscape. He went from a burgeoning superstar with the Cardinals to unseen with the Rays. All this despite ending 2018 slashing .343/.448/.622 with 7 home runs and a DRC+ of 121 in 39 games with the Rays. All told his 2018 bWAR between the Cardinals and Rays was 3.2. 2018 saw a bit of regression from his bursting onto the scene in 2017 4.3 bWAR. Still, his 3.2 bWAR was enough to place him just outside the top 50 position players in MLB last year.
2019 is shaping up to be similar for the former 16th round draft pick. He currently sits at 0.5 bWAR and is projected by PECOTA to finish with 2.2 on the season. While I’m sure that some regression will hit Pham, he’s also made changes to his approach at the plate that should allow him to make up for his expected regression. Notably, he is walking more and striking out less. In his stellar 2017, Pham had a K% of 22.1 and a BB% of 13.4. Both are well within the realm of average, and about what you’d expect from a power hitting outfielder. Yet, in 2019 through 40 games Pham has bucked his expected path with a career-low K% of 16.4 and career-high BB% of 15.8. Pham is also hitting the ball harder, his Hard Hit% of 52.4 is the best he’s ever posted and among the top 4% in the entire league.
That’s not to say there aren’t some concerns, especially when it comes to where Pham is sending his hard hit balls. Throughout his career, Pham has kept his Launch Angle around the 6.0 mark, but in 2019 he has sunk all the way down to 2.1. That may explain why Pham isn’t slugging the ball as much, and why he has changed his approach at the plate. Taking more walks, and swinging less to maximize the contact he is making would help to make up for his low Launch Angle and xSLG. The real question will be if Pham is able to adjust once the league figures out the changes he has made?
In the relative obscurity of St. Petersburg, Florida Pham continues to do his thing. He’s not quite the elite player we witnessed in 2017, but he is still an above average outfielder. I can think of any number of teams who would love to have an outfielder with a DRC+ of 117 on their roster. The Rays are a team that will contend until the very end, and Tommy Pham will be a large reason why they will be in the mix all year long. The baseball world at large may have forgotten about Pham, but his new approach at the plate should be able to jog plenty of memories as the Rays march towards the playoffs.
Lead photo courtesy of Dale Zanine – USA Today