Tommy Pham is struggling in 2018 after his breakout season in 2017. However, Pham’s ability to make hard contact may help him end his slump.
Until last year, not many baseball fans outside of St. Louis knew who Tommy Pham was.
A native of Las Vegas, Nevada, Pham was drafted in the 16th round by the St. Louis Cardinals in the 2006 amateur draft. His road to the big leagues encompassed nine tough years, and he had to overcome numerous injuries and visual impairments related to keratoconus in order to get there.
In 2017, Pham, at 29, broke out and became a popular player in St. Louis. He became the first Cardinal batter since 1900 to record at least a .300 batting average, 20 home runs, 20 doubles, and 20 stolen bases in the same season.
After his breakout season, it was expected that Pham would become a fixture in the Cardinals’ outfield for the coming years while the team tried to remain competitive during the tail end of Yadier Molina’s career. However, Pham’s success in 2017 has not resulted in a memorable 2018 campaign.
Pham’s offensive production is down this year, batting .244/.332/.393 with 14 home runs in 100 games. His down year, along with the rise of youngsters Harrison Bader and Tyler O’Neill, made Pham go from being an important component in the Cardinals’ outfield to being an expendable pawn at the Trade Deadline.
So the main question now is: Did the Rays get the 2017 Pham, the 2018 Pham, or a player somewhere in the middle?
Despite Tommy Pham’s down year, there are multiple signs that reveal that he can rebound. In 2017, Pham’s BABIP was .368, which is above-average. In 2018, Pham’s BABIP is down to .296. This could partially be the result of unfortunate luck, but Pham’s issue this year is bigger than that.
Ever since he entered the major leagues, Pham has always profiled as a hitter that was very good at making hard contact. As a result, Pham’s exit velocity on batted balls is one of the highest in the major leagues both this year and in 2017. Last year, Pham’s exit velocity was 89.2 mph. In 2018, Pham’s exit velocity has increased to 92.7, good for ninth in the MLB.
His substantial decrease in most major offensive categories aside, Pham is making good, hard contact. So it can be assumed that his keratoconus is not impacting his ability to make good contact. The Rays can also look at his exit velocity and be optimistic that sooner rather than later more of these hard hit balls are going to fall for hits.
Despite the rise in exit velocity, this is not correlating to more power. In 2017, Pham became known for his power-hitting, slugging 23 home runs and 22 doubles over 128 games. In 2018, however, Pham has seen a correlation between a decrease in his slugging percentage and his percentage of fly balls that go for home runs:
What Pham’s HR/FB% tell us is that Pham is not driving the ball as far as he did in 2017. As a result, more of his would-be home runs are becoming fly ball outs instead. A possible explanation for this can be found by looking at Pham’s launch angle by season. As the graph displays below, Pham’s average launch angle has dipped significantly this season:
His dip in his launch angle has correlated with his decline in exit velocity since May 20th. Although Pham started the year with an exit velocity of 98.1 miles an hour, that number has dipped to 86.8. Part of the reason for this dip is due to Pham’s struggles against balls high in the strike zone.
The chart below from Baseball Savant allows us to visualize Pham’s contact by displaying Pham’s batted balls on elevated pitches with outs being represented by black dots and hits by green dots:
Considering that certain exit velocity and launch angle pairings are more effective than others, it can be concluded that Pham’s decrease in both exit velocity and launch angle have resulted in more outs and less quality hits. As a result, Pham’s slugging percentage has dropped significantly. At the beginning of 2018, Pham was slugging 1.300 on pitches up in the zone. At the end of July before his trade to the Rays, Pham was only slugging .500 on pitches up in the zone.
Due to Pham’s struggles, the data shows that he has become increasingly selective when it comes to swinging at pitches high in the zone. The issue is that it has not led to Pham making better contact on these swings. Per SB Nation, Viva El Birdos:
Pham’s decrease in his launch angle highlights this ongoing problem. His adjustments at the plate are currently not resulting in more power. He is being less aggressive but also less effective on squaring up on pitches he usually demolishes.
So the Rays are getting a player who still shows flashes that he can be a top-five center fielder in the league but is currently performing like a mediocre one. Although sometimes a change of scenery could benefit a player, Pham’s change in home ballpark venue is unlikely to contribute to that change. The chart below shows that the change in venue should not help or hurt Pham’s current offensive value.
A look comparing Busch Stadium and Tropicana Field reveals that both parks are incredibly similar. Busch Stadium is slightly more favorable to right-handed hitters for singles and doubles, but the Trop has seen more righties hit triples. Considering that Pham only has seven triples in his entire career, it does not mean that much.
However, Pham will get a chance, once he comes off of the disabled list, to play every day and show that he can rebound from his underwhelming 2018 season thus far. How well he plays will determine how good of a trade this was for the Rays.
All statistics and information originated from ESPN.com, FanGraphs.com, or Baseball-Reference.com, unless otherwise stated.
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