One of the strangest things about sports is the way it changes how we perceive age relative to value in the “workplace.”
For instance, when I was watching the recent NBA playoff series between the San Antonio Spurs and Golden State Warriors, I was struck by how people were talking about Manu Ginóbili, a 16-year veteran of the league. It was somewhere between mild shock and feigned amusement. “He’s so old! How is he keeping the Spurs alive against one of the great teams in the past 20 years?”
Now, by all non-sports standards, Manu Ginóbili is not old. He’s 40 – which by Mike Gundy’s standards makes him a man – and would still have a good decade or two in a career doing anything other than playing a monetized game. But by the sports calendar, Manu is ancient. And in a sporting culture focused on specializing young athletes to dominate at such an early age, it’s not uncommon to hear about players in the mid-to-late 30’s considered “old” in most of the major sports.
I’m sorry I made you sit through both an NBA and a college football metaphor. Let’s get to baseball.
It’s generally agreed upon that baseball players hit their prime in their late 20’s. That’s not a hard and fast rule, as some players will play peak baseball into their 30’s. In a recent example,
former All-Star outfielder minor league third baseman Jose Bautista once put up 8.1 fWAR in his age 30 season, 3 years before posting a 6.2 fWAR at 33.
Still, the late 20’s make a whole lot of narrative sense as the prime time for an athlete’s playing career. A lot of players at that age haven’t been playing the grueling 162-game schedule for too many years and, along with being in great physical shape, are still young enough to where deterioration hasn’t set in quite yet.
This scenario presents a bit of a problem for Cardinal fans and, more specifically, Tommy Pham fans. As is well known, it took everyone’s favorite brash outfielder more than a decade to stick at the major league level, partly due to injury and vision issues, and partially due to an organizational insistence on playing Matt Adams out of position. Thus, Tommy Pham had his breakout season at age 29, meaning he is now, at 30-years-old, technically past his prime.
Whether or not this scenario plays out for Pham is unknown. At the moment, it may even look unlikely. Pham is currently the ninth most valuable player in the league (and the fifth most valuable outfielder) by fWAR (1.5). He’s running an unsustainable .403 BABIP, but the regression shouldn’t be as steep as one might expect; his combination of power and speed will always keep that number higher than average. But with the way his season has started – and with his unfathomable motor – there’s reason to be cautiously optimistic that he’ll be a very good player for at least the next handful of years.
Still, it’s a brain-tickling exercise to wonder what Tommy Pham’s career would’ve looked like if his career path had been more traditional.
What if his eyes and his many broken body parts hadn’t held him back until age 29 and he breaks out at age…let’s say 26 instead? He’d be joining a team fresh off a World Series appearance starting Matt Holliday, Jon Jay, and Allen Craig in the outfield. So yeah, I think there would be room for him.
We’ll tackle this year by year, first looking at what kind of year Pham might’ve had and how it could’ve impacted the team’s success.
Before we start, a tree-part disclaimer:
- Obviously a lot of this will be based on educated guesses and presumption, so bear with me on some of the wilder guess work, sideways math, and quick ventures into the multiverse.
- In part two, I’m going to redo the 2017 season. If Pham had broken out three years earlier, he wouldn’t be starting the year in AAA.
- I’m going to try and guess how Pham’s emergence would have affected personnel decisions as best I can. Obviously, there will be a few key differences.
Let’s say Tommy Pham had shown enough in his time in the minors to cement himself as a Major League candidate for the 2014 season. One of the Cardinals biggest acquisitions this offseason was Peter Bourjos, who was brought in to improve on the defense (and maybe even offense) of the solid, but not great, Jon Jay.
Anyone following the Cardinals during Bourjos’ ill-fated time in St. Louis know how that worked out. So let’s safely assume the presence of Pham, himself a speedy outfielder with an encouraging offensive profile, would negate the need for Bourjos in the first place. Let’s also say the trade is still made, just maybe Grichuk-for-Freese straight up. That means Pham is presumably being brought up to compete with Jon Jay for the job of starting center fielder.
Jon Jay had a very Jon Jayish season in 2014, and Mike Matheny’s infatuation with him probably wouldn’t have afforded Pham much of an opportunity to win the job short of a breakout like last year. So while Pham probably isn’t getting the Bourjos treatment (shy of 300 plate appearances), he’s probably not getting Jay’s numbers either. Let’s conservatively put Pham’s PA number at 350 for the 2014 season.
Also, to be fair in this hypothetical universe, Tommy Pham is probably performing well enough to make the major league roster, but maybe not as well as he is right now… maybe closer to 2015 Pham than 2017. I like to think these last two seasons haven’t only been fueled by his skill, but also his righteous indignation at languishing in the minors for so long.
So tracking all that out, here’s a hypothetical stat line for this universe’s 2014 version of Tommy Pham.
It would take much longer than I have to track this out into a more accurate WAR figure, but based on this fun little calculator I found (and some assumptions I made as to Pham’s defense and baserunning skill) this sort of line would roughly equal about a 2.9 WAR season. This other calculator I found estimates him a little higher, around 3.1 WAR if you list him as a center fielder. That makes Pham the team’s second best outfielder on a part-time basis, and the team’s fifth best position player overall.
How does it affect the season: The Cardinals won the NL Central with a 90-72 record this year, and Pham at least doubles Bourjos’ WAR total, so the Cardinals numerically add another win. I don’t really see it making a difference in the playoffs though, as the Cardinals easily dispatched the Dodgers and were basically swept by the Giants. Thanks , Matheny!
Tommy Pham is officially coming out of his “breakout” season as the Cardinals second best outfielder and has likely locked up a spot in the next year’s outfield.
Now we have a personnel problem that needs addressing. The Cardinals added Jason Heyward in the ’14-’15 offseason, while Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty got their first tastes of major league ball in 2015 as well. The Cardinals are still probably making the Heyward trade to improve the corner outfield after the death of Oscar Tavares, but the Cardinals are probably shipping Jon Jay out to make room for Pham in center. I’ll guess Grichuk probably still sees a lot of time in the outfield – though likely not as much – and Piscotty gets left in the lurch.
A lot of aging curves show ages 27 and 28 as the prime of a position player’s career, but as we’ve noted earlier, it’s hard to determine exactly what Pham’s “prime” is because (a) he’s really damn good right now (b) his first full season came at age 29. I’m going to continue to play it conservative (and, let’s be honest, easy) here and say Pham roughly averages his same rates as before.
I can hear some of you (correctly!) pointing out, “But Josh, didn’t you just say that 27 is the one of the two prime years? Wouldn’t Pham look more like he did in our reality’s version of 2017?” Fair point, but in this new reality, Pham broke into the majors at 26, about a year older than the average age of MLB rookies. On top of the fact that (in our world) Pham already put up a better year than I’m about to hypothesize at age 29, I’ll guess he reaches prime production a year later than everyone. Also, didn’t you read the disclaimer? Stop questioning my methods.
I’ll say – with both opponent adjustments and improved plate discipline – Pham probably strikes out a few percentage points more (24% as opposed to 21%) and also walks more (13% from 11%). As a starter with regular off days and probably a trip to the DL – this is Tommy Pham, after all – let’s say he gets 560 plate appearances. So what does that season look like?
That’s a good looking year, especially coming from the starting center fielder. By the same rudimentary calculator I used before, Pham comes up with a 5.2 WAR season, which is likely good for third on the team behind Heyward and Carpenter. The second calculator rates him about the same at 5.3 WAR.
How does it affect the season: Probably a little more so than the past year. The Cardinals won 100 games this year, and would likely add two or three more with Pham in the lineup as opposed to any combination of Bourjos/Jay/Grichuk. It’s debatable that Pham’s presence is enough to get the Cardinals over the hump against the Cubs, but there’s certainly an argument to be made that an extra bat would have made it easier.
However, even if the Cardinals get through the Mets, it’s hard to see them beating the Royals in a rematch of the I-70 Series. If you believe in destiny, it certainly seemed like it was on the Royals’ side that year.
This thing is getting close to 1,700 words, so we’re going to put a cap on it for now.
In part two, I’ll take a look at the hypothetical 2016 and 2017 seasons, where Pham’s career takes a turn from starter to STARter. (Ugh, what a horrible line to end on.)