The Best Player on the Cardinals

I don’t think many people expected the NL Central to be very close, but here we are, with four teams within four games of the divisional lead. Although the Cubs, as expected, have risen to sit in first, their closest rivals now are the Cardinals, but one single game behind. For those Cardinals, it’s been a pretty ordinary season, and it’s been a pretty weird one.

The best player on the Cardinals, by Wins Above Replacement, leads the team by a margin of one full win. The best player on the Cardinals didn’t crack the opening-day roster. As a consequence of that, the best player on the Cardinals gave serious thought to calling it quits. The best player on the Cardinals is a 29-year-old who came into the year with a half-season’s worth of major-league experience. The best player on the Cardinals has himself an extended injury history, and the best player on the Cardinals has also had to manage a degenerative eye condition, called keratoconus. The best player on the Cardinals probably isn’t supposed to be the best player on the Cardinals.

And still, at least statistically, the best player on the Cardinals has been Tommy Pham. It’s been fun for me to watch Mike Trout glide up the WAR leaderboard since his return to the bigs. As I write this, he’s tied with Paul Goldschmidt for third place, as hitters go. Pham is no Trout — he’s down there in 22nd, among position players. But that’s 22nd out of a sample a lot bigger than 22 players. That’s 22nd even though Pham hasn’t been up all year. That’s 22nd, which puts Pham above guys like Michael Conforto, Travis Shaw, and Andrew McCutchen.

Watch Tommy Pham hit a dinger. I don’t know what purpose this clip serves, but, who doesn’t want to watch a dinger? It’s a visual break from the wall of text.

Pham’s personal story is far too deep, complex, and interesting for a short blog post. I’d recommend reading this feature, or this one, or this one. Pham’s dealt with adversity from nearly the start of his life, and that’s for reasons even beyond his compromised vision. But just from a baseball perspective: Can you imagine trying to hit with compromised vision? This is an excerpt from the first of those links.

Pham said he is legally blind in his left eye due to keratoconus.

At present, Pham is able to play and perform through careful management of special contact lenses. I’ve already mentioned that Pham looks excellent according to WAR. He’s gotten there by being an all-around contributor. This is the kind of thing I’ve called attention to before when talking about Anthony Rendon. I looked at a spreadsheet of this year’s players with at least 250 plate appearances. I narrowed the pool down to only those players who’ve been at least average by K-BB%, ISO, BABIP, baserunning, and defense. The group includes only nine players. Rendon, yeah. Pham, too. Pham’s been solid across the board. He’s even cleaned up his biggest on-field weakness.

This right here is probably the highlight of this entry. We’ve got some plate-discipline data stretching back more than a decade and a half. I looked at every single player over that span to bat at least 100 times in consecutive seasons. Here are the 10 biggest year-to-year improvements in contact rate:

Top 10 Contact Improvements, 2002 – 2017
Player Year 1 Year 2 Y1 Contact% Y2 Contact% Change
Tommy Pham 2016 2017 66.1% 79.9% 13.8%
Anthony Rizzo 2011 2012 68.7% 80.9% 12.2%
Laynce Nix 2004 2005 69.6% 81.4% 11.8%
Chris Davis 2009 2010 63.1% 74.8% 11.7%
Nick Franklin 2015 2016 66.8% 78.3% 11.5%
Alex Bregman 2016 2017 74.7% 85.7% 11.0%
Freddie Bynum 2007 2008 66.7% 77.7% 11.0%
Alex Escobar 2003 2004 64.0% 74.9% 10.9%
Bill Hall 2004 2005 69.0% 79.7% 10.7%
Jason LaRue 2007 2008 67.1% 77.6% 10.5%
Minimum 100 plate appearances in each season.

That’s a hard thing to pull off by accident. As a result, Pham has trimmed his strikeout rate by an unbelievable 15 percentage points, and although Pham now just looks pretty similar to what he was as a part-time player in 2015, he’s doing it now over greater playing time. And so Pham is now a player with a career WAR/600 of 4.5.

The St. Louis outfield remains crowded. Pham remains an objectively risky player, or at least a player with a higher degree of volatility. I don’t know to what extent the Cardinals actually trust him, but that trust has to be a lot stronger than it was a few months ago, and, if it weren’t for Pham, the Cardinals wouldn’t be where they are today in the standings. The best player on the Cardinals is a miracle. I don’t think I’m even exaggerating.

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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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I didn’t know any of that about Pham. Just to be on a team, dealing with all that, would be an achievement. To be performing as he is, that’s something else!