Through 71 games, Tommy Pham has been the St. Louis Cardinals best hitter. To gauge players offensively, I prefer to use wRC+ (weighted runs created plus). Pham’s 132 wRC+ is 32% better than league average (100) and 8% better than Matt Carpenter. His .375 wOBA (weighted on-base average) is the Cardinals best. His 514 slugging percentage and .885 OPS lead the team. He also has six stolen bases. Most on the team.
This isn’t Pham’s first successful run, either. Even before this year, his career wRC+ stood at 113 and included multiple streaks where he posted near a 150 mark or better. Given that he’s seemingly been carrying the team lately, I decided to look into his offensive profile to see how he’s producing and if it’s sustainable.
There are two main ways to analyze a hitter’s performance: on-contact (batted balls) and non-contact (walks and strikeouts) events. While Tommy Pham has a higher-than-average strikeout rate of 24.6%, his 10.8% walk rate makes up for it. In fact, his 0.44 BB/K ratio is slightly above average.
Supporting Pham’s strong BB/K ratio are arguably the best plate discipline statistics of his career. His chase rate (O-Swing%) of 22.6% is nearly three points lower than his career mark. He’s also swinging at a career low 55.6% of pitches in the strike zone (Z-Swing%), indicating he’s being more selective at the plate.
Additionally, Tommy Pham currently owns a career best Contact% of 78.4%. It’s actually the first time his contact rate has been above MLB average, even if only slightly. Plate discipline metrics generally stabilize fairly quickly, so it’s fair to conclude that Pham has been both better at making contact and more disciplined so far this year.
Of course, sometimes making more contact means making a sacrifice in contact quality. Pham, however, has kept up a strong batted ball profile.
While average exit velocity and average launch angle might seem like good places to start, both exit velocity and launch angle are better viewed as a distribution. Baseball Savant now divides batted balls into six categories. Three categories are good for the hitter (barrels, solid contact, and flares/burners) and three are good for the pitcher (topped, hit under, weak). One way to visualize this concept is through Baseball Savant’s radial charts.
To better gauge Pham’s batted ball profile, we can look at the differences in frequency and results of each type of batted ball and compare to league average. For a more in depth explanation of the contact categories, I’ll defer to this piece by Ben Markham on Viva El Birdos.
The first thing that jumps out is Pham’s barreled and solid contact rate. Solid contact is what you get when just missing a barrel. The league generates barrels and solid contact at a similar rate. This year, though, Pham has nearly an 8% gap. That doesn’t really seem sustainable, and if he starts hitting more solid contact and less barrels, his wOBAcon (wOBA on-contact) may drop.
However, while an 11.4% barrel rate might seem likely to regress, it’s actually in line with Pham’s career norm. Back in 2015, Pham had an 11.5% rate. Last year, Pham had a 15.7% rate. It’s his solid contact that’s lagging more than anything, down from 7.1% in 2015 and 10.1% in 2016. Additionally, we should expect his wOBAcon on both barrels and solid contact to regress toward the MLB average. If Pham started hitting less barrels in exchange for more solid contact, but his wOBAcon on each type of batted ball regressed toward MLB average, we probably wouldn’t notice much of a difference.
The drop in solid contact this year has been mostly replaced by a jump in topped balls, up from about 37% to 41%. While that’s not a great sign, topping the ball is better than hitting under, especially for a player with Pham’s speed. Additionally, he’s hit more than a few of these topped balls plenty hard and just missed flares/burners on a number of them. While that doesn’t help the expected results, with a little luck he’ll turn a few topped balls into more productive contact in the future.
Putting it all together, Statcast has Pham with an xwOBAcon (expected wOBA on-contact) of .433 and actual wOBAcon of .466 this year compared to the MLB average of .362 and .378, respectively. It’s the third straight year that Pham has outperformed the MLB averages on-contact. Put another way, since 2015, Pham has the 25th best xwOBAcon and 19th best wOBAcon among 437 players with at least 200 batted balls.
Last year, Pham’s downfall was his 38.8% strikeout rate. At one point, his 15 game K% reached 66.7%. He was striking out in two of every three plate appearances. It’s no secret, though, that Pham has struggled with vision issues for his entire career, and those issues likely played a factor in his slump last season. Derrick Goold reported this spring that Pham may have finally found a solution that worked for his eyes, and so far it’s held up.
If Pham can keep his strikeout rate in check, we have every reason to buy into his performance this year. While Steamer and ZiPS projections see him putting together a rest-of-season wRC+ of approximately 105, he could outperform that if his vision stays strong and he stays healthy. Those projection systems see him finishing with approximately 2.0 WAR in about 400 plate appearances. There is certainly some injury risk, but Pham looks like an above-average player with some upside.
In a season filled with plenty of downs for the St. Louis Cardinals, Tommy Pham has been a bright spot and a spark. Here’s hoping he can stay healthy and continue to carve out a bigger role for himself.