If I woke up tomorrow and were suddenly a Major League Baseball player, I think I’d play a lot like Tommy Pham. Now, the reason for this is pretty simple–I’m a terrible baseball player, even by the standards of a beer league player, and I would have no choice but to play like Tommy Pham, lest I be exposed as the complete fraud that I am. Tommy Pham, traded along with international bonus money yesterday to the Tampa Bay Rays for three minor leaguers, played every game for the St. Louis Cardinals like he was on the verge of being cut.
While he was certainly brash at times, famously declaring himself “the best mother****** on this team” in a 2014 phone call with scouting director Gary LaRocque, as famously retold in a Sports Illustrated feature in April, in Tommy Pham’s eyes (I promise this wasn’t written as a poorly-constructed keratoconus joke), he was the only person who saw the full truth. Was Tommy Pham arrogant? Perhaps, but it was this arrogance that drove him Tommy Pham to become what he became. In the end, this is what drove him to become, despite the countless obstacles in his way, a legitimate Major League Baseball player.
Not everybody has this killer instinct–I know I sure don’t. I’ve declared before that if I could be any professional baseball player, I’d be Eric Hosmer. I’m the kind of person (and, whether you want to admit it or not, many of you are too) who would love to be wildly overpaid–Hosmer is on a $144 million contract (for those unfamiliar with Hosmer’s statistics, here’s a career comparison to two names Cardinals fans might know a little better–Matt Adams and Jon Jay). I’d love to live in relative anonymity, in San Diego, taking my guaranteed money to the beach and getting fat off IPAs and Mexican food. Of course, this is why I’m not a professional athlete (and why Hosmer is–he might be the most overrated player in baseball but he has only missed five total games in the last two seasons and is a hard-working person).
Tommy Pham plays baseball like somebody who is furious that Eric Hosmer exists. He plays like somebody who resented the first-round picks and acclaimed international signings who leapfrogged him in the Cardinals outfield hierarchy during his minor league career, such as Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Oscar Taveras. It may not have been fair to those guys but it worked for Pham and that’s what mattered.
Unsurprisingly, Tommy Pham was the last remaining member of the Cardinals’ 2006 draft class remaining in the organization (not counting Luke Gregerson, who left and came back). A 16th round pick as a high school shortstop, drafted after eight players who never made it to the big leagues at all, Pham rose through the minors as an outfielder, reaching the AA Springfield Cardinals in his age-22 season of 2010. But then the injuries started to pile up. Between 2011 and 2012, Pham played in a total of 52 games in Springfield. He made it to AAA in 2013, but still played just 75 games. By the beginning of 2014, Pham was 26 years old and viewed more as organizational depth than as anything special.
Pham had a 132 wRC+ with AAA Memphis in 2014, while his MLB appearances were limited to two (2) plate appearances. He struck out both times. Even after Allen Craig was traded, there was a surplus of outfielders on the roster. In 2014, Mike Trout fully entrenched himself as the supreme overlord of baseball, unanimously winning the AL MVP award. Trout is nearly 3 1/2 years younger than Pham. Oscar Taveras (over four years younger than Pham) and Randal Grichuk (essentially the exact same age as Trout) had firmly surpassed Pham in the pecking order of the depth chart. Perhaps Tommy Pham could find his way onto a big league roster as a fourth or fifth outfielder, but it appeared the window of opportunity had closed on Pham ever being special.
And then in 2015, something amazing happened–after a 141 wRC+ stint in Memphis, Pham joined the big-league club and had a 126 wRC+ in St. Louis. The Cardinals had a very productive outfield–Jason Heyward, Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, Matt Holliday when healthy, Brandon Moss after the trade deadline–and Pham still found ways onto the field. Including during Game 1 of the 2015 NLDS.
In a just world, Tommy Pham finds himself in the 2016 outfield rotation and lives happily ever after. But instead, in the first game of the season, Tommy Pham was hit by a pitch and went to the Disabled List. This was the same season in which Pham was diagnosed with keratoconus, a degenerative eye condition which caused his strikeout rate to skyrocket. He alternated between AAA and MLB. In 2017, he began the season in AAA while Matt Adams got time in the outfield.
But then, when Tommy Pham did make it back to the Majors, something incredible happened–he was great. His wRC+ of 148 was the highest mark from a qualified Cardinals hitter since 2011. He was a valuable fielder, mostly in left field but occasionally in center. At 29, Tommy Pham began the season in Memphis and ended it with an 11th place finish in NL MVP voting.
It was unsurprising that Tommy Pham regressed in 2018, and while the degree of this regression was certainly disappointing, his pure results (he probably got a bit unlucky, but let’s set that aside for a moment) had him as a slightly above-average hitter while capable of playing across the outfield. That Tommy Pham could perform ably in Major League Baseball in 2018 seemed inconceivable half a decade ago.
I do not understand how anyone could not love Tommy Pham, just on a personal level. I dislike the trade which sent him to Tampa Bay because while I don’t follow prospects closely, particularly those of other teams, those who do seem to agree that the return for a player with Pham’s potential is a bit light, and even if Tyler O’Neill and Harrison Bader are as good as Pham is at this point (entirely possible), I would rather have more good players than fewer. But that’s really beside the point.
That Tommy Pham became what he became, that a 16th round pick could emerge from the minor leagues eleven years later and warrant down-ballot MVP consideration and that he could revert to average-ish a few months later and be seen by anybody as a disappointment is staggering. We should all appreciate what Tommy Pham brought to the Cardinals and wish him the best of luck with the Rays, where he will surely continue with the focused insanity of his Cardinals career.