Tommy Pham Validating Fantasy Star Status

The fantasy community was split on Tommy Pham coming into 2018 and for good reason. You had a 29-year-old career minor leaguer coming off monster 6.1 WAR season per FanGraphs when his previous most valuable season was 2016 with a 1.6 WAR. Pham has been plagued by injuries, vision, and just plain poor performance in the past, so the skepticism was valid. I was on the side leaning on the optimistic side mostly due to the correction in his vision evidenced by his plate discipline improvements I’ll highlight later, but also due to his immense tools.

In 2017, his plate discipline improvements were a direct result and confirmation that his vision issues were in the past. Take his O-Swing (swings outside the zone) of 19.0% in 2017 which is 11% lower than league average. His swing strike rate was nearly cut in half from the previous season down to a career-best 7.6% (league average is around 10%). I suppose injuries are still a concern and the inflated HR/FB rate which sat at 26.7% in 2017 seemed unsustainable, which I did agree with. So, the skeptics remained firm on their assessment of Pham as they searched for other outliers such as the .368 BABIP. Surely that comes down and he won’t hit .300 again.

So far in 2018, Pham’s BABIP sits at .386! His career BABIP in the majors is a robust .360 in just over 1000 plate appearances. I think it’s safe to say that Pham is going to carry and sustain an elevated BABIP throughout the season. How though? Well, he hits a lot of ground balls and his average sprint speed is 28.5MPH which is in the top 14% of the league. In addition, Pham has a knack for hitting a high quantity of balls that fall within the low drive (LD%) and high drive (HD%) per xStats. As you can see, these batted ball types are by far the most valuable in terms of batting average but also in terms of SLG, wOBA, etc for high drives. In 2018, Pham has hit an incredible 40% of his batted balls within these two categories (LD+HD). The league average is 28.0%. This justifies not only his ability to yield an elevated BABIP but to also provide solid power numbers despite a low fly ball rate.

Simply put, Pham squares up a lot of baseballs. I mentioned his low launch angle previously which currently sits at 6.9 degrees which is up 0.4 degrees from 2017; that’s almost negligible. Most players that have that average launch angle are hitters with low power numbers. Checking BaseballSavant, his expected batting average is .318, and his expected slugging is amazing .611! Compare that to Christian Yelich who also has a low launch angle but hits the ball extremely hard. His expected slugging is currently a still solid .496 but still over 100 points lower than Pham. Essentially, Pham is a beast. His current wOBA is .417 but Statcast thinks that’s low as his xwOBA currently sits at .443 AKA Mike Trout territory. 

The last skill Pham possesses, is his ability to avoid chasing pitches out of the zone and smoke balls inside the zone. His O-swing (or chase rate) is 21% while his zone contact is nearly 92%! This has led to a career-low swinging strike rate of only 7.4% (league average is about 10%). To me, this verifies that his vision issues are behind him as they were last year as well. His 20% strikeout rate would also be a career low and his 17.5% walk rate would be a career high.

Unfortunately, the injuries continue to pop up as Pham has currently missed a couple of games due to a groin injury this week. Which is a shame of course because I’d love to see a full season of health from Pham. Maybe he can get through these minor injuries and find his way to 145+ games in 2018. If that happens, you may be looking at a top 20 fantasy player at year’s end to the tune of something like .300 BA, 25 HR, 30 steals while scoring 100 runs hitting in the two-hole for the Cardinals. I’m going to have to back off in terms of stolen bases because of the groin issue, but a 25-20 season is well within reach for Pham. It starts and ends with health.