Tommy Pham’s Value May Dip, But Not Because He’s a Padre

The Rays agreed to trade Tommy Pham, along with two-way prospect Jake Cronenworth, to the Padres for Hunter Renfroe and middle infield prospect Xavier Edwards on Thursday night, but this isn’t exactly a trade impact piece. I don’t see the deal having much of an impact on the fantasy value of any of the players involved, or at least not enough of an impact that the changes of scenery are likely to affect my 2020 rankings.

In sizing up how the trade might affect Pham’s fantasy value, I noticed something odd in his month-by-month trends from 2019. He had never recorded a BABIP below .333 in any of his four previous seasons, and through the end of May, Pham had a .346 BABIP that looked quite normal for him. Then, all of a sudden, he stopped BABIPing. Pham’s rates for the next three months were .288. ,265 and .303, though he did rebound for a .338 BABIP in September. His .299 BABIP over those four months combined is normal for most hitters but unusually low for him.

Much of Pham’s fantasy appeal comes from having recorded two 20-20 seasons over the last three years, but his ability to help with batting average or OBP adds to his value. Pham was a top 30 outfielder in 5×5 Roto value in 2019, and especially with the premium many fantasy owners place on players who can steal 20-plus bases, he figures to get taken among the top 20 or 25 outfielders in many 2020 drafts. If he bats close to the .258 mark that he had over the final four months of the 2019 season, it’s questionable that he could rank as a top 30 outfielder.

Much of Pham’s success with batting average and OBP has to do with his ability to get hits on ground balls. In 2017 and 2018, the combined batting average of all major leaguers on grounders was .241 and .236, respectively, and Pham exceeded those norms by a wide margin in both seasons. After putting up a GB Avg of .289 in 2017 and .267 in 2018, he started off 2019 with a GB Avg of .323 through the end of May in 2019. Pham’s speed, as indicated by an average sprint speed just below 29.0 ft./sec. in each of the last three seasons, has aided him in this regard. In 2018 in particular, he was also helped by making exceedingly hard contact on grounders. Of 186 hitters who had at least 300 batted balls, only Matt Chapman and Nelson Cruz had a higher average exit velocity on grounders (EV GB) than Pham’s 91.4 mph.

Between 2017 and 2019, there was a statistically significant positive relationship between EV GB and GB Avg (at the p < .04 level, min. 100 ground balls and 1,500 pitches) for hitters with sprint speeds below 29.0 ft./sec. (Including the speediest hitters eliminates the relationship almost entirely, thanks to low-exit velocity hitters like Delino DeShields and Billy Hamilton who have hit well on grounders.) So it’s not too surprising to see that Pham became an ordinary hitter on ground balls over the latter two-thirds of 2019 once he started hitting grounders with an ordinary degree of exit velocity.

Batting Average and Exit Velocity Data for Tommy Pham, 2017-2019
Time Period EV GB (mph) GB Avg GB xBA Overall Avg
2017 85.6 0.289 0.273 0.306
2018 91.4 0.267 0.301 0.275
2019, through May 31 91.1 0.323 0.289 0.300
2019, after May 31 86.3 0.234 0.233 0.258
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Zooming in on the last two seasons creates the appearance that Pham had this skill of hitting grounders hard, and then he lost it. Yet including 2017 — his first season with more than 200 plate appearances — in the analysis complicates the story. He batted a career-high .306 that year with a GB Avg of .289, even though his EV GB was even lower than it was for the last four months of 2019. Some of his high batting average can be chalked up to overachievement, as his GB xBA was just .273, which was more than 15 points below his GB xBA for both 2018 and the first two months of 2019.

If we figure we can’t count on Pham to be elite at hitting grounders with high exit velocity going forward, we should probably count on some dropoff in his batting average on grounders. Whether it’s in the .270s, as his 2017 GB xBA suggests, or in the .230s, as his Avg and xBA on grounders from the latter part of 2019 suggest, is not clear. His ground ball pull rate has been steady across the the time periods used in the above table, so without further research that explains the gap between 2017 and mid-to-late 2019, we are best off accepting that there could be a lot of variance in Pham’s batting average.

It is probably premature to assume that Pham won’t approach his previous levels of exit velocity on grounders ever again, but his dramatic drop covering the bulk of the 2019 season is a red flag nonetheless. When Alex Chamberlain ran year-to-year correlations for a bevy of Statcast measures for the years spanning 2015 and 2018, GB EV turned up as one that had a statistically-significant correlation from season to season. If Pham did lose the skill of hitting hard grounders, he could be more of a .250s hitter going forward — especially if he regresses from an 18.8 percent K% back towards the 24.6 percent K% he had in 2018. Playing for the Padres may not change his fortunes much, but weaker contact on grounders could wind up hurting Pham’s batting average, on-base percentage, run production and stolen base total, not to mention his status as a top 30 outfielder.

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Al Melchior has been writing about Fantasy baseball and sim games since 2000, and his work has appeared at CBSSports.com, BaseballHQ, Ron Shandler's Baseball Forecaster and FanRagSports. He has also participated in Tout Wars' mixed auction league since 2013. You can follow Al on Twitter @almelchiorbb and find more of his work at almelchior.com.

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Jonathan Sher
Member

I think the change in BABIP is overstated. Pham has only played three somewhat full seasons, as his first two years he netted 173 and 183 at-bats, and dicing those already-small sample sizes can produce enough variation that one can’t derive much of meaning from 2015 or 2016.

In 2017, Pham did maintain a high BABIP each month (he logged 128 games).
In 2018, in the months of May and June, Pham had BABIPs of .220 and .235.
That he had thee below average months in 2019 — but all much better than his worst two months in 2018 – does not suggest to me a change of statistical significance.

I also wonder if you were to correct to rely upon the correlation between exit velocity on grounders and BABIP when that previous work only examined the correlation for pitchers – the only reporting about hitters was between factors like EV and power measure, not BABIP.