A Tommy Pham Fantasy Focus on Fangraphs

After much deliberation, the author has decided that this Deep League Waiver Wire piece will not include any puns involving Tommy Pham’s last name.

Last week, an errant Mike Montgomery fastball sent Matt Holliday to the DL opening up left field in St. Louis. Assuming no surgery is required (and we can expect an answer on that this week), Holliday is likely to miss up to 5 weeks with a broken thumb. The day before, the Buschmen placed Matt Adams on the DL with left-shoulder inflammation leaving a void at first base. Over the weekend, the Cards were linked to Carlos Gomez, a logical replacement for Holliday should John Mozeliak land him. But until then, it looks like St. Louis is kickin’ it with an amorphous blob of defensive versatility and one perfectly suitable in-house alternate, Tommy Pham (2% Yahoo, 1.6% ESPN, 5% CBS).

The 28-year old Pham is slashing .250/.348/.500 with 8 homers in just under 140 plate appearances, good for a 127 wRC+. While his strikeouts have inched over the 30% threshold, his walks are up too; Pham is taking the free pass 11.5% of the time. Even in piecemeal playing time, he’s been remarkably hot, sporting an OBP-fueled 1.069 OPS and 2.33 BB/K ratio in 27 August plate appearances.

Pham appears to be making some minor adjustments at the plate, chasing less and swinging at strikes more, which we like to see. However, he offsets these improvements with a tanking contact rate, whiffing 12% of the time which is in no doubt contributing to one of the highest strikeout rates of his professional career.

Pham’s heatmaps suggest it’s actually been fastballs giving him the most trouble:

Pham Contact rate_FB_2015Pham Contact rate_FB_2016

 

That’s Pham’s 2015 contact rate on fastballs on the left and his contact rate on those same pitches this season on the right. Notice how his plate coverage on fastballs seems to have evaporated, particularly at the edges of the zone. Now, that’s an important distinction – whiffing on pitcher’s pitches, especially ones that would be called for strikes anyway, isn’t necessarily a bad thing, provided you’re not doing it in two-strike counts. I’d rather whiff to swing again than roll over weakly for a routine out.

But the most interesting thing going on here is that Pham is actually swinging at better fastballs. Despite his whiffs, Pham is eschewing fastballs up-and-in for those over the heart of the plate. One would think that by swinging at better pitches, better contact rates would follow but counterintuitively that hasn’t been the case, at least not against fastballs. Improved selectivity and plate discipline are unequivocally good things yet his lack of contact is puzzling.

So let’s take a look at what Pham is doing on breaking pitches:

Pham Contact rate_breaking balls_2015Pham Contact rate_breaking balls_2016

 

Again, that’s 2015 on the left and 2016 on the right. Look at how he’s both shifted and widened his plate coverage so that he now covers the entire strike zone as opposed to just the inner half. As a result, Pham has seemingly become an excellent breaking ball hitter.

Pham ISO_breaking balls_2015Pham ISO_breaking balls_2016

 

Now we’re looking at his ISO against breaking pitches. Pham has significantly improved at recognizing both ripe fastballs and breaking balls but while he punishes the soft stuff, he struggles to catch up to the heat.

Still just 28, Pham has lived the life of a much older player. He’s suffered through a litany of wrist, shoulder, and lower body injuries and most recently started the season rehabbing an oblique. That could explain why, despite his increased selectivity on fastballs, Pham’s missing them badly. Or perhaps his newfound ability to clobber breaking stuff simply provides the luxury to look off-speed making him late on fastballs. That might elucidate both the poor contact% on fastballs and the sudden shift in his batted ball distribution. This season, Pham owns one of the most even spray charts in baseball.

Shift That
Pull Center Oppo
2015 30.1% 43.4% 26.5%
2016 30.3% 32.9% 36.8%

Regardless, he kills it when he makes contact, leading the league in average exit velocity on breaking pitches. And despite his issues with heat, Pham remains at the top of the Statcast leaderboard on fastballs too.

Statcast Darling, Tommy Pham
League Avg Exit Velo Avg Exit Velo League Rank (min. 300 pitches) Launch Angle
Fastballs 89.12 93.1 27 8.5
Breaking Balls 86.29 98.6 1 12.2

So perhaps you might look at his aforementioned batted ball distribution and Statcast data and think they explain his healthy .328 BABIP. Great, let’s move on. But what if I told you his BABIP might actually be understated? Perhaps even significantly so? Alex Chamberlain’s xBABIP equation considers line drive rate, hard hit percentage, opposite field percentage, speed score, and derivatives of pop-up rate and fly ball rate. And this year, wouldn’t you know it, he’s improved across the three most significant components that comprise xBABIP: True IFFB%, LD%, and Hard%. So his .376 expected BABIP, nearly 50 points higher than his actual, hints at some significant upside.

Now, no such sorcery exists to rationalize Pham’s HR/FB%. It’s over 36% despite an average home run distance of 395 feet, good for 215th out of 393 batters with 60 or more balls in-play. In other words, he’s basically average in that department. ESPN Home Run tracker classifies 5 of his 8 homers this season as Just Enough (although to be fair, one of those came in Marlins Park where apparently balls hit off the bat at 108 mph and travelling 424’ barely clear the fence).

Pham_marlins park_hr

Ridiculous. But my point is that we should expect some HR/FB% regression. Busch Stadium isn’t exactly a haven for power hitters and Pham seems more likely to post a league average HR/FB% with a healthy dose of doubles than he is to go all Mo “Athleisure Suit” Vaughn on us. Still, that plays in leagues of all sizes but particularly deep ones.

So let’s summarize, shall we? Pham’s puzzling contact rates on hard stuff, perhaps the result of a change in approach or a sign of premature aging, are offset by better selectivity, encouraging exit velocities, and just demonstrably smacking the living bejeezus out of breaking balls. If anything, Pham’s expected BABIP hints at batting average upside and the walks play well in OBP leagues. On the down side, we can reasonably expect his 32-homer pace to regress while rumors of an acquisition and his checkered injury past cloud his medium and long-term playing-time projections. While intuitively, his increased selectivity on fastballs should translate into better contact rates, he hasn’t yet shown the ability to cut his whiffs. And despite Pham’s impressive exit velocity, he’s susceptible to pitchers with big fastballs.

Still, if you’re looking for some late season category juice, and who isn’t, Tommy Pham is on a tear. He’s made some interesting adjustments at the plate that in the short term should earn him playing time and may prove enough to keep him in the lineup down the stretch. My suggestion is that you pick him up off the wire and see how the next couple of weeks shake out. While you do that, I’m going to go grab a bite to eat. I’m phamished.





Rylan writes for Fangraphs and The Hardball Times. Look for his weekly Deep League Waiver Wire and The Chacon Zone columns this season.

newest oldest most voted
CJ03
Member
CJ03

“phamished” *groan*