Sunday Notes: Vision and Data Fuel Opportunity for Tommy Pham

A few weeks ago, colleague Jeff Sullivan wrote that Tommy Pham is the best player on the Cardinals. It’s hard to argue. With a month to go in what has been a breakout season, the 29-year-old outfielder is slashing .311/.407/.522, and he has 19 home runs in 431 plate appearances. He attributes his success to two things.

“Vision,” said Pham. “I got my contacts squared away this year, and that’s helped me improve tremendously. I’d say we could start there. The other thing is that I’ve put myself in a position to where I’m playing every day. In previous years I played for stretches, but then I’d sit on the bench. Last year I had an .870 OPS in the middle of August, then I basically became a designated pinch hitter. In 2015, I had an .824 OPS in my rookie season. I’ve always produced. It’s just that I’m playing every day now, so you get to see more.”

His production has never been better, and seeing the ball better is clearly helping.

“Just look at the numbers, man — I was striking out 38% last year,” stated Pham, who elaborated that depth perception was the issue. “Now I’m striking out 15% less. That means I’m putting more balls in play, which means I’m going to have better results.”

He’s well-versed in more than just probability. The Las Vegas native is a big believer in using any and all data to his advantage. Pham — an affirmed FanGraphs reader — studies his stat page to see which aspects of his game need improvement. If data shows that he’s a negative in a specific area, he strives to turn it into a positive.

Matt Bowman is as analytically-inclined as anyone on the Cardinals roster. I asked Pham if he talks to his Princeton-educated teammate about stats-related matters.

“Why would I talk to Bowman?,” responded Pham. “He’s a pitcher. I don’t know how much he knows about defense, base running, and hitting, but I would assume he doesn’t know more than me.”

Playing devil’s advocate, I suggested that Bowman would know how pitchers approach certain types of hitters.

“That doesn’t matter to me,” answered Pham. “I keep my approach the same. I just swing at strikes. That’s it. I don’t look at certain zones. If it’s a strike, I’m going to swing. Of course, there are times it might be a strike but I didn’t see it well — I saw it late —so I don’t swing.”

Circling back to my original question, I echoed that the keys to his season have been improved eyesight and increased playing time.

“Vision and opportunity,” confirmed Pham. “The opportunity I created myself.”

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Zach Britton is savvy about spin. When it comes to his signature sinker, the Baltimore Orioles closer — battling through an injury-marred season — knows that less is more.

“My two-seam spin rate is higher this year,” Britton told me recently. “It’s gotten closer to normal in August, but for awhile it was around 2,100 and I’d never been above 2,000 before. Last year, when I had the highest ground-ball rate of my career, it was around 1,900. That’s not a huge, glaring difference, but it’s enough to impact movement.”

The forearm strain that landed him on the disabled list has played a role.

“My release point was different when I came back,” explained the southpaw. “What I want is to be on top and driving the ball down, and I was lowering my arm slot and kind of pushing the baseball. The velocity has been about the same, but the spin rate is a little bit higher, and the movement is a little less. That could be from the lack of innings, or it could be the injury.

“One thing about my sinker is that I don’t manipulate it. I just grip it and throw it, so what I have to ask myself is, ‘Why is it spinning more?’ Again, the velocity is the same, so I think it goes back to my delivery. Where is my arm slot? Am I taller in my delivery? Am I lower in my delivery? Whatever happens over the mound affects what happens at the plate.”

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Mike Bolsinger gained some notoriety a few years ago thanks to the high spin rate on his curveball. The right-hander was pitching for the Dodgers at the time, and he’s since moved on to the Blue Jays, where he’s bounced between Toronto and Triple-A.

Shortly after this year’s All-Star break, I talked to Bolsinger about spin — and about his career ups and downs — prior to a game at Fenway Park. As fate would have it, I proceeded to lose the audio file (yes, these things happen). Undeterred, I was able to revisit the conversation with him in late August, this time in Pawtucket.

“The spin rate thing is interesting,” mused an obliging Bolsinger. “I don’t know how much I do trust it and now much I don’t. A lot of times the first thing that comes out of people’s mouth is, ‘Hey, what’s your spin rate?’ I mean, I know it’s there; it’s just something I can’t fully wrap my head around.”

He does know that his curveball isn’t ordinary when it’s at its best.

“I’ve had people tell me that when my curveball comes into the zone, it seems to get faster,” said Bolsinger. “Instead of maintaining the same speed, it kind of speeds up. Maybe that has something to do with spin rate? I do know that when I throw it a little harder, it’s better. Once it starts getting a little bit slower, it’s a little more of a loopy pitch. It isn’t as tight.”

Inconsistent and sporadic usage has hindered the 29-year-old hurler. According to Bolsinger, his velocity and spin rate dropped markedly prior to his most-recent demotion to Triple-A. Once he started getting more consistent work, both began to climb.

“I never used to think a lack of a consistent routine was a big thing,” said Bolsinger. “I’ve changed my mind.”

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In a recent edition of FanGraphs Audio, esteemed colleagues Carson Cistulli and Eric Longenhagen weighed in on the restructuring of the Houston Astros scouting department, and the future of scouting as a whole. That brought to mind comments made by Gus Quattlebaum at last month’s Saber Seminar, in Boston

“We encourage our scouts to focus on the fastball quality, instead of just the velocity,” said the Red Sox VP, professional scouting. “With all the data we have at our disposal, at some point we’re just going to be able to automate that, and not have to scout, and grade out, the velocity.… We have our scouts focusing on, ‘How does that fastball play?’ They give a fastball-quality grade. We started that about five years ago.”

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Back in late February, we ran an interview titled Amiel Sawdaye on Arizona’s New Boston Culture. The Diamondbacks assistant GM discussed how the club’s leadership, which includes multiple people with Red Sox backgrounds, was going about building a winner. He closed with the following:

“I believe these guys have a chance to kind of tell their own story, and create… it would be unfair to compare it to what happened in Boston in 2013, but in some ways I believe the ability is there to bounce back and prove people wrong. We have a lot of talented players.”

Six months later, the comparison is anything but unfair. After going a dismal 69-93 in 2012, the 2013 Red Sox rebounded to go 97-65. The Diamondbacks, meanwhile, are following up a 69-93 season with nearly the same level of success. Heading into Saturday night’s game they had a record of 77-58, while the 2013 Red Sox were 81-56 going into September.

Boston backslid following their resurgent season, finishing last in the AL East in both 2014 and 2015. Torey Lovullo saw it firsthand — he was Boston’s bench coach at the time — and wants to avoid that fate in Arizona.

“We expect to win here, and we also want to sustain winning,” said the D-Backs first-year skipper. “We don’t want to have a highlight year, and then not be able do it the next year. We believe we’re going to get to that level.”

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Not included in Wednesday’s interview with Chad Green was his response to being asked if he ever wakes up in the morning and thinks about where life has taken him — not only wearing a big-league uniform, but putting up sick numbers.

“All the time,” admitted the New York Yankees reliever. “I’m from a small town — Effingham, Illinois — and it’s always been my dream to be here. I absolutely think about it.”

———

Great Lakes Loons outfielder Cody Thomas has a degree in business management from the University of Oklahoma. He also has a football background. Prior to being drafted by the Dodgers last year in the 13th round, Thomas was a backup quarterback for the Sooners. In two collegiate seasons, he completed 31 of 69 passes, and rushed 23 times for 141 yards.

As you’d expect, the 6-foot-4 native of Colleyville, Texas possesses a football mentality. But while many define that term as hard-nosed aggression, Thomas thinks of it more as studious preparation and attention to detail.

“That’s probably the biggest part of it, honestly,” said Thomas. “More than the physical toughness, a quarterback has to learn every position on the field, and the defenses, as well. The things you go through — the situations you’re put in — transition into baseball. The situations are different, but the mentality is much the same — things like playing every play, and taking it one play at a time.”

Thomas explained that gridiron game prep is more extensive — “we watched a lot of film” — whereas “baseball is a game you can sometimes overthink, so you don’t study nearly as much.” Not that he isn’t learning as much as he can in what is now his primary sport. As he put it, “Anything that can create an edge, you’re going to take advantage of.”

Having not gotten an opportunity to take full advantage of his quarterback skills, Thomas opted out of the Oklahoma football program rather than return for a third season. He tried out for the baseball team — with whom he’d had a dozen at bats in his freshman year — and proceeded to play himself into a professional contract. That hadn’t been his initial plan. With football eligibility remaining, Thomas was planning to transfer to a school where he could be a starting quarterback.

In his mind, that probably should have been the case at Oklahoma.

“I’m not going to say I was stuck behind someone better,” Thomas told me. “But I wasn’t getting an opportunity to play, so I was going to venture somewhere else to get that opportunity. Instead, I ended up playing baseball.”

Despite his lack of experience, he’s playing it reasonably well. Playing in his first full season, Thomas has a .699 OPS, and 20 home runs in 499 plate appearances.

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AUGUST-SEPTEMBER TIDBITS

Last weekend, the Cleveland Indians threw three consecutive shutouts (all combined) for the first time since Herb Score, Mike Garcia, and Bob Lemon did so in 1956.

With his win on Friday, Clayton Kershaw has won a career-high 12 straight decisions. That’s the longest active streak in MLB, and the longest for a Dodger since Burt Hooton won 12 straight in 1975.

Of the 19 qualified players with negative WAR this season, seven have 20 or more home runs. Only five have fewer than 10 home runs.

Seattle’s Nelson Cruz has 70 home runs on the road since the beginning of the 2015 season, the most in the majors.

Per the Elias Sports Bureau, Tim Beckham’s 50 hits in August were the most ever for a player in his first month with a new team in American League. The Orioles acquired Beckham from the Rays on July 31 in exchange for Tobias Myers. A 19-year-old right-hander, Myers has a 3.54 ERA and 73 strikeouts in 56 innings in the New York-Penn League.

Since the beginning of the 2014 season, Colorado’s DJ LeMahieu leads all qualified National League second basemen in hits, runs scored, batting average, OBP, assists, putouts, fielding percentage, and Defensive Runs Saved.

Arizona Diamondbacks prospect Connor Grey threw a perfect game for the Kane County Cougars on Friday night. It was the first perfect game in the Midwest League since 2004.

Indians pitching prospect Triston McKenzie had 186 Ks in 143 regular-season innings for the high-A Lynchburg Hillcats. The 20-year-old right-hander led the minors in strikeouts as of Saturday.

Ike Davis has made six pitching appearances this season and is un-scored upon in five-and-two-thirds innings. The 30-year-old left-hander — and former big-league first baseman — is with the Dodgers rookie-league team in Arizona.

Diamondbacks infielder Daniel Descalso has made three big league pitching performances — two of them this year — and retired all seven batters he’s faced.

Yuki Matsui, the 21-year-old closer for the NPB’s Rakuten Golden Eagles, has allowed one earned run in 46-and-two-third innings. He has 29 saves.

———

Toronto Blue Jays catching prospect Danny Jansen — featured here last week — shared a good line when asked about plate discipline:

“What an old hitting coach said about the high fastball is that it’s chocolate mousse,” Jansen told me. “It looks so good, but it’s so bad for you.”

———

A recent conversation I had with Miguel Montero segued from high fastballs to backup sliders.

“Sometimes pitchers accidentally elevate, and hitters swing through it,” said the Blue Jays backstop. “It’s like the backup slider. That’s something a pitcher accidentally throws, and a lot of hitters can’t hit it. I had that question asked to me this year: ‘What about if you guys throw more backup sliders?’ But it’s something you can’t do; it’s something you can’t teach.”

I told Montero that a few pitchers I’ve spoken to claim to have experimented with a back-up slider.

“If they said they tried, they lied,” responded Montero. “I don’t believe it.”

———

LINKS YOU’LL LIKE

Ace, the Fastest Squirrel in the World, has run his last race in Lake Elsinore. Josh Jackson told us all about it at MiLB.com.

Writing for The Sporting News, Rian Watt told us how Tim Beckham, free of high expectations, is hitting like a star.

Over at The Kansas City Star, Rustin Dodd wrote about how the bottom two batters in the Royals lineup have been historically bad.

Lansing Lugnuts broadcaster Jesse Goldberg-Strassler annually does a live game-recreation — complete with sound effects — and this year’s highlights can be found here on SoundCloud.

Over at Law360, Zachary Zagger informed us that scouts struck out in an MLB wage suit.

Writing for FanRag Sports, John Perrotto suggested that Pirates owner Bob Nutting doesn’t care as much about winning as he does saving money.

RANDOM FACTS AND STATS

Since 2013, Ubaldo Jimenez has a record of 12-2 in the month of September.

On this date in 1975, Bob Gibson gave up the last hit of his Hall of Fame career, a grand slam by Pete LaCock.

Jim Rice hit three home runs in a game twice, and each time it was on August 29 (1977 and 1983). Three of his two-HR games came on August 30 (1976, 1978, 1980).

On September 2, 1996, Mike Greenwell — hitting eighth in the Red Sox lineup — drove in all nine runs as Boston beat Seattle 9-8, in 10 innings.

On September 6, 1950, Don Newcombe of the Brooklyn Dodgers threw a three-hit shutout against the Philadelphia Phillies in the first game of a double-header. He then started the second game and got a no-decision while allowing two runs over seven innings.

Six pitchers in Detroit Tigers franchise history — Hooks Dauss, George Mullin, Mickey Lolich, Hal Newhouser, Jack Morris, and Tommy Bridges — have more wins than Justin Verlander. Combined, they had a record of 16-5 in World Series action while pitching for the Motown nine. Verlander has lost all three of his World Series decisions.

In a three-year stretch from 1915-1917, Philadelphia’s Pete Alexander went 94-35 with a 1.54 ERA and 108 complete games. In December 1917, the Phillies traded “Old Pete” and Bill Killefer to the Chicago Cubs for Pickles Dillhoefer, Mike Prendergast, and $55,000.

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David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from February 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.

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I believe that the abbreviation for the University of Oklahoma is OU.

Anyway, he was competing with some chap by the name of Baker Mayfield. He was almost certainly stuck behind someone better, at least in terms of on-field performance.