Tommy Pham is Erasing His Slow Start

He's quickly digging himself out of an early-season hole.

Since becoming a San Diego Padre before the 2020 season, it seems like Tommy Pham has yet to just get fully going and re-establish himself as the player that he was with the Cardinals in 2017 and then with the Rays in 2018 and 2019. Last year was a mess for baseball all around, but even more so for Pham. He had a delayed start to the season due to a bout with COVID-19, and then later in the year, an injured hamate bone cost him about a month. Even after returning, he still didn’t seem quite 100% as he slumped down the stretch, getting just six hits in those final 30 at-bats in that span. He had surgery on that wrist in the offseason, and to make things even tougher, Pham was a victim of a stabbing attack in October, which required further surgery and rehab. It is definitely great to see him back on the field after all of what he went through in the span of a few months. However, all of those factors look to have not done him many favors on the field, which is perhaps to be expected when again considering how tough of an offseason it was.

In what is an important season for Pham, his final one before hitting free agency, he hasn’t gotten off to the hottest of starts. His overall slash line of .221/.351/.318 actually translates to an about-average 98 wRC+, which maybe says more about the state of offense in the league this season. Still, to be fair to Pham, his outstanding on-base skills are definitely valuable considering he is the team’s leadoff hitter and sets the table for their bigger boppers in the middle of the order. More specifically, though, Pham had just an absolutely terrible first month or so of the season (his words, not mine). Through May 9th, Pham had a slash line of just .190/.307/.202 (58 wRC+), which, even with great on-base skills, it’s hard to keep those numbers in the lineup every day. The Padres mostly did stick with him and keep confidence in him, as getting him going was going to be key, and a Pham in the lineup at his best would make the team all the better. Even still, after starting the year hitting in the top-third of the Padres’ batting order, he quickly found himself in the bottom-third as he was going through his slow start.

The one thing that has been constant for Pham even through his rocky, short tenure with the Padres has been his outstanding plate discipline, referenced earlier. Even during his rough first month or so of the season, Pham’s plate discipline remained superb, with a 12.9% walk rate in that span. Overall this year, Pham has been one of the game’s best in terms of plate discipline. He just doesn’t swing at many bad pitches. We can show this by looking at Statcast’s Swing/Take Leaderboard—specifically, the Take portion of the leaderboard. Looking just at the leaders in terms of Take runs, Pham is sitting pretty in the top-ten with a total of 15 take runs.

Again, this isn’t a new phenomenon for Pham. He’s always been good in terms of Take runs, but this looks like a different level for him, even compared to his strong 2017-2019 seasons. We’re just about two months done with this season, and yet, Pham isn’t all that far off from his full-season totals in those years:

Tommy Pham: Take Runs 2017-2021

What the difference has been for Pham this season really comes down to takes in the chase zone. Pham has already eclipsed last year’s mark, and with a run value of 11 when it comes to takes in the chase zone, Pham ranks tied for third in the league to this point. It’s all really just a fancy way of saying that Pham just doesn’t chase. He has somehow improved his chase rate this season down to 15.6% from 20.3% last season and from his 2017-2019 average of around 17%. Overall, Pham’s chase rate is one of the top ten best in baseball:

Lowest Chase% – 2021 Season (min. 100 PA)

It really is a sight to see. Especially considering how good pitchers’ stuff is these days, along with the extra emphasis on catcher framing, Pham is really doing a good job taking some tough pitches. I mean, seriously, I’m not sure how a hitter takes such tough pitches like this on such a consistent basis:

But, for all of the good that Pham has done this season in terms of Take runs and chasing less, the difference between 2017-2019 Pham and this season has been that he has regressed on the swing runs side. This season, in particular, Pham’s 15 take runs have nearly all been wiped away by a -14 swing run value.

Whereas Pham in the past combined excellent take ability and plate discipline with good results on the pitches he actually does swing at, it looks like that has been less of the case for him the last two seasons. Let’s take a closer look at Pham on the batted-ball side to see what has kept him from taking off in that department this season.

The big thing that immediately jumps out about Pham’s batted-ball profile is an elevated groundball rate at 49.5%. Now, this isn’t exactly a new thing for Pham, as he’s consistently run groundball rates at near 50% for most of his career. Even going back to his peak from 2017-2019, Pham had high groundball rates, with his single-season low in that span being 48.2% in 2018. It seems like that’s just part of who Pham is naturally as a hitter. Seeing Pham with a rate this season that is right in line with past seasons isn’t concerning on its own—in fact, this is a big improvement over the unusually high 62.2% rate he had last season. We know that Pham can have a good batted-ball profile despite the higher groundball rate, but the margin for error in this department is low. Meaning, Pham will pretty much need to get the most out of his non-groundballs.

However, when looking at Pham’s air-ball metrics in the first month or so of the season, I’m not so sure that all that much was different from previous seasons. We can break this down in two ways—first by looking at his results on line drives in the early going and comparing them to other years, and then doing the same for his fly balls. First up, a look at his line drives:

Tommy Pham: Line Drives Results by Year

Overall, to open the season, Pham was hitting his line drives just as hard, if not harder, than in the past. He was still (relatively speaking as compared to his total stats) getting good results and even better expected results in that department and looked to be doing a good job of maximizing his results there. Unlucky, maybe, but he still looks good. If you were looking at this table on May 9th, nothing would strike you as outlandish. It would likely just be viewed as bad luck and would be expected to come back to normal over the following months.

On the fly ball side, though, Pham similarly looked to be getting unlucky, but at what looked to be an even greater rate than his line drives:

Tommy Pham: Fly Ball Results by Year

Looking at this in full, two things should stand out. First, not all that much looks different in terms of average exit velocity. He was actually hitting more fly balls over 95 miles-per-hour at a greater rate than in seasons past, but he wasn’t getting good results. Second, just as last season, Pham didn’t record a single hit on a fly ball in what was a similar amount of fly balls hit (12 total fly balls in 2020, 13 in this span from 2021). However, last season that seemed a lot more deserved, as Pham didn’t hit many hard at all, and that shows up in the average distance as well as the xwOBACON numbers.

While things are not as strong in the average distance or exit velocity marks as they once were, those figures really don’t support such brutal results in any way, and some more context is key. After all, the ball this season is not as lively as the 2017-2019 juiced ball that saw home run totals skyrocket. The ball this year is carrying less, so that could explain why Pham’s average fly ball distance is down, despite hitting them just as hard as he normally does. Even with less average distance, Pham still ranked in the top-30% of hitters in that early span in terms of average fly ball distance, so it’s not as if he’s super behind the pack in that regard. Pham also hit slightly more fly balls in the early going at 30.8%, which would normally be a good thing, but as we saw, even with the extra amount of fly balls, they just weren’t falling in for hits them generally being hit well. It just seemed to happen right from the very beginning of the season too. Here are two examples of Pham crushing the ball in the air, only to have them get caught on the warning track. Coincidentally, these both came on Opening Day:

Those are just two examples of many that could have been picked, but it just so happens that they both came on the first game of the season. Right off the get-go, Pham was getting unlucky. Those two batted-balls go for home runs around 50% of the time, so it’s hard to blame Pham when looking at things this way. They just didn’t land beyond the fence.

So, while we can reference the difference between Pham’s expected and actual stats or point to his low .246 BABIP in that span and say that things generally should have been better, it is still not simply all bad luck that got Pham there. For instance, Pham did have a higher infield fly ball rate of 15%, which is quite high for him—it’s more than double his career rate—and Pham was making more soft contact in general, most notably on his groundballs. While groundballs are not things that we usually like to see all that much, they can be effective when hit hard, and especially for a hitter such as Pham, who does a good job spraying balls all over the field. To start the year, though, Pham wasn’t doing that so much, and his results looked more deserved here:

Tommy Pham: Ground Ball Results by Year

More grounders being hit weakly would translate to easier outs on the ground, especially with a higher groundball rate, which is definitely not ideal. So, it seems like, for this first portion of the season, there looked to be a combination of poor luck on the air balls side, and then a greater rate of easier outs due to a higher rate of pop-ups and weaker groundballs, and all of that led to a dismal start to the year for Pham.

However, since that rough stretch, Pham has been playing much better. From May 10th onwards, Pham has been on fire at the plate, as he is quickly making many forget about those early-season woes. With a .258/.410/.470 slash line and 149 wRC+, the results are night and day, as Pham has been one of the game’s best hitters in that span.

So, what’s different now? Well, it’s not a super-satisfying answer from an analysis point of view to simply just say that the actual results look to be catching up to the expected ones, but that is what looks to be happening for Pham. However, there are still some things that look different, too. For instance, in the time since, Pham’s groundball rate looks much better at 41%, although that may not last and just be random fluctuation in a small sample, but still, it’s encouraging nonetheless. Additionally, Pham hasn’t hit a single pop-up, helping his infield fly ball rate trend back down to 8.6% for the season, which is right in line with where it was in the last full season of 2019.

As it is, though, Pham just looks to be better maximizing his air balls. He was hitting his line drives very well to start the season, but he has managed to hit them even better more recently, and this time he’s getting the good results to go along with it:

Tommy Pham: Line Drive Splits

And it is a similar story for what was the biggest culprit for Pham earlier in the year—the fly balls:

Tommy Pham: Fly Ball Splits

Pham looks to have gotten results that are more in line with his 2019 season when it comes to fly balls. Not only has he started to actually get hits on fly balls during this hot stretch, but also home runs. After going homerless for over a month to start the season, Pham has popped three of them in a span of just under three weeks, with a HR/FB rate of 18.8%—not far off of his 2019 mark of 19.1%.

Now, some of this is likely just the result of a small sample. I doubt that Pham continues to scorch fly balls and line drives like this for the remainder of the season, but it is still good to see things starting to break right for him after a dreadful start to the season and what looked like terrible luck. To go along with the better batted-ball results, Pham’s plate discipline continues to impress, with a whopping 20.5% walk rate in this stretch, behind only three other hitters in that span.

As of late, Pham looks more and more like the power-plate discipline specialist that the Padres had hoped he would be when they acquired him before the 2020 season. We also shouldn’t forget about the speed either, as Pham has contributed four stolen bases in this hot stretch as well.

Without a doubt, Pham has been doing much better at the plate overall in the last few weeks after a period to open the year where it looked like nothing could go right. It does remain to be seen if he’ll be able to make these good results last for the remainder of the season, but things certainly do look great right now. Pham had quite the hole to dig himself out of after a slow April, but right now, he looks to be doing all he can to try and erase it. It’s certainly likely that Pham would need some more time to recover and get back up to speed after an injury-plagued season last year in which he just never seemed to get fully going or comfortable, and things weren’t made any easier after suffering a stabbing in the offseason. A bad start was the last thing he needed, but he’s quickly making people forget all about it, as he is settling in as an important piece in one of baseball’s best and most exciting lineups.

Photo by Joe Robbins/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Aaron Polcare

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at UAlbany, is a Yankee fan, and writes for Pitcher List and Rotoballer where he can work with even more numbers to analyze baseball players, which is a lot more fun.

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