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The Curious Case of Tommy Pham

With an absolute dearth of St. Louis Cardinals information from which to glean new information - besides statistics based around epidemiology - I wanted to turn my eyes towards a former Cardinal that is leading the league in stolen bases, currently. One Tommy Pham.

When Tommy Pham was a St. Louis Cardinal, he showed glimpses of potential MVP futures. In 2017, he hit .306/.411/.520/.931 over 530 plate appearances in 128 games played. Why, he was downright phenomenal. His average was top 16 in baseball. His OBP was top 5 in baseball. His SLG was top 30 in baseball. His 95 runs scored were top 25 in the entire league. His 71 walks showed patience. His 25 steals showed speed. His .520 slugging and .214 ISO showed power. His .306 average showing contact. He really showed it all that year at 27 years old, in his first full season in the majors.

Without getting caught up too much in the back story, Pham had always shown prodigious talent in the minors, at everything except for his injury history. In 2018, he put up 6 triples in Tampa Bay after being traded in July - so basically in two months. In 2019, his .369 OBP was top 30 in all of baseball - buoyed by 81 walks. He also had 33 doubles and 21 homers to go along with 25 stolen bases.

So far in 2020, he leads the league in steals with 5 through just 10 games. He's got 44 plate appearances and has been on base 19 times. So he's stolen a base over 1/4 of the time he's been on. His great BB rate has been shown again by his 7 BBs (to just 6 Ks) in those 10 games. What's really lacking in 2020 so far is his slugging percentage. You see, he has a line of .306/.432/.417/.848. What's curious to me is that he has an expected slugging percentage (xSLG) of .687 this year - top 8% in the league - and an expected batting average (xBA) of .351 - top 10% in the league.

It's probably about his launch angle (LA), which is just an average of 2 degrees this year. Pham has always had one of the lower launch angles in the game, sitting at 6.2 degrees in his career, compared to a league average of 11.9 degrees in that time. But even when he is hitting a ball as he should to get a higher SLG, it's just not coming to him like you'd think. Take this double for instance:

Pham hits it 111 mph at a LA of 21.7 degrees. He rightly thought that he had a home run here, as 88.5% of balls hit like that had been home runs in the past in major league baseball. In fact, Pham has only hit a ball like that 3 times in the major leagues, twice in 2017 with the Cardinals in his impressive season that we discussed earlier. Both of those balls went for home runs. That one was a double and was just the third time he's done it.

The second, fourth, and sixth hardest balls he's hit this year have been hit at launch angles of 6.4, 0.7, and -2.5 degrees. Those three balls aren't going to give you much in terms of a slugging percentage, with two going for singles and one going for a ground out. His third hardest hit ball of the year was a line out on a great catch by David Peralta of the Diamondbacks.

Pham hit it 106.7 mph at a launch angle of 18.4 degrees. That ball had an xBA of .740 and was expected to be an extra base hit 65.3% of the time. (In Pham's past, he was 2-3 with 2 doubles on similarly hit balls.)

Not only that, but his fifth hardest hit ball of the year was another lineout at 106 mph but at only 14.4 degrees off of the bat.

That out had an xBA of .683 and was expected to be an extra base hit 37.6 percent of the time. (In Pham's past, he was 2-4 with 1 double and 1 triple on similarly hit balls.) That one in 2020 was hit to right field, too. If it skips by Charlie Blackmon, it might be a triple with Pham's speed.

In fact, 14 of Pham's 29 balls in play (BIP) this year have been hit at 95 mph or harder (what's known as a "hard hit" ball by Statcast (found at Baseball Savant). He has just 3 singles, a double, and a homer on those 14 BIP. That's a .357/.357/.643/1.000 line on his hard hit balls. Those 14 balls have an xBA of .591 (so it would be expected that 8 of them should have fallen in for a hit) and an xSLG of 1.339 (on those 8 hits, you'd expect 19 total bases). We're talking something like Pham being robbed of a double and two homers OR two triples and a homer in just 10 games so far in 2020.

All that above is to say that Tommy Pham's 2020 - were it to continue on despite the looming threat of COVID shutting everything down growing greater and greater by the moment - could very well see an upturn quite quickly if he continues to hit the ball the way he has thus far. According to Fangraphs, Pham is pulling the ball more than ever, which when combined with his ground ball rate it suggests that he could very well be a prime candidate to see a shift against him, even as a right-hander. In fact, Pham has already seen shifts at a larger rate (7.1%) than in any other season. His wOBA against the shift in this small sample is lower than in any other season as well. He typically has seen a shift just over 5% of the time in 2018-19, so it has gone up nearly 40% already this season. I foresee that number going up a lot more if Pham keeps hitting it like he has. If that's the case, maybe his numbers above will not grow very much at all.

Thanks for reading. See you all again soon!


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