Our recurring list of the twenty-five greatest Cardinals of the last twenty-five years will run daily leading up to Opening Day 2021. In case you missed it, here are the prior entries.
25. Todd Stottlemyre
24. David Freese
23. Andy Benes
22. Lance Lynn
21. Paul DeJong
When he played for the St. Louis Cardinals, David Eckstein was rather popular. His popularity in St. Louis was exaggerated by a certain type of optics-obsessed Online baseball fan, but he was undeniably well-liked. And at its core, for as much as his unimposing physique is cited as a reason for his popularity, the primary reason behind the Cult of Eckstein, to the extent that one existed, was that his intense desire to win was always readily apparent. In truth, David Eckstein probably didn’t give an especially large nor small amount of effort compared to the average Major League Baseball player, but he seemed like he did.
But there is something endearing about a player looking like he cares more than anyone else. And that was what made Tommy Pham so special.
Occasionally, somebody would label Tommy Pham as “cool”, a designation with which I respectfully disagree. Cool is Ken Griffey Jr.’s effortless home run swing. Cool is Fernando Tatis Jr.’s casual bat flips and propensity for spectacular defensive plays. Tommy Pham was, in its most literal sense, the complete opposite of cool–a high-energy competitor who seems like he was always on the verge of exploding. Like with Eckstein a decade before him, there may have been something a little bit performative about it, but if you didn’t overthink it, Tommy Pham played with the intensity that fans tell themselves they would exude if they ever got the chance to play in the big leagues.
Part of the reason that Tommy Pham managed to maintain his intensity is surely that whether he would ever play in the Majors, much less play in the Majors for a prolonged period of time, was a matter of doubt several times in his professional baseball career. A sixteenth-round draft pick in 2006, Pham’s outstanding commitment to play college baseball at Cal-State Fullerton and somewhat inflated signing bonus demands likely factored into when he was selected, but the 496th player selected in an amateur draft is inevitably, regardless of the specifics, not a player assumed for Major League greatness.
Pham rose slowly through the Cardinals’ minor league system and had his breakout season in 2010, when he split time with high-A Palm Beach and double-A Springfield. At 23, he was slightly old for the level, but he was showing enough skill development to be typically ranked in the teens on Cardinals prospect lists. He was productive in 2011, as well, this time spending his full season in Springfield, but Pham’s season was hampered by injuries, which would soon become a trend. After 166 plate appearances in 2011, he had just 43 in 2012, and his 301 plate appearances in 2013, while unreservedly an improvement, were still not reflective of a player who had demonstrated an ability to hold up over a full professional baseball season. And he would be 26 years old by the next season’s beginning, without ever having made his Major League debut.
2014 was Pham’s first full season in AAA, and he produced at the plate, with an .886 OPS in 390 plate appearances. And following the conclusion of the Memphis Redbirds’ season, the Cardinals promoted Tommy Pham to the big leagues. The 2014 Cardinals were a team overflowing with outfielders, and Pham was largely relegated to pinch-running and defensive substitutions, but it was a start.
While Pham opened the 2015 season once again in Memphis, injuries and ineffectiveness at the big league level resulted in the 27 year-old Pham getting his first extended look in St. Louis, and he thrived. While dueling rookies Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty got disproportionate attention for their offensive production, Pham was a better hitter by wRC+ than Matt Holliday or Jason Heyward. And in his first career postseason plate appearance, Pham hit a game-sealing home run against the Chicago Cubs.
Tommy Pham had a promising 2015, but given his age, he was seemingly running out of chances. He was given one in 2016, when he started in left field for the Cardinals on Opening Day, but his tenure as the team’s left fielder lasted one at-bat. Pham strained his oblique and didn’t appear again at the Major League level until June 18. And while Pham was hardly terrible over his 183 MLB plate appearances in 2016, he had clearly taken a step back. The 2015 version of Pham looked like a potential star and certainly a potential starter, but in 2016, Pham struck out in 38.8% of his plate appearances and his previously solid defense took a nosedive. He exhibited enough power and speed to still be serviceable, but more in an interchangeable, tweener type of way. He would still enter 2017 Spring Training as a favorite to make the roster, but as a 29 year-old, to make the roster as a utility outfielder is hardly indicative of one of the best players of the last quarter-century of a franchise as successful as the St. Louis Cardinals.
And then he didn’t even do that.
Instead, it was José Martínez who cracked the roster, with Pham beginning the year in AAA once again. Pham did not take the news well, famously liking FanGraphs links to articles maligning the team’s dalliances with Matt Adams in left field. But while Pham was openly unhappy about how the team was handling their outfield, his resentment translated to on-field production–in his 106 AAA plate appearances, Pham posted an .871 OPS. By May 5, Pham earned a spot back with the Cardinals. And despite his late start, Pham produced one of the best seasons of the decade for a Cardinal. Only four position players had a better season by FanGraphs Wins Above Replacement than Pham’s 2017. By wRC+, he had the best offensive season for a Cardinal since 2011. With 25 steals, he was a superb base runner, and while Pham played primarily in left field, he was superior in center field as well.
Pham’s improvement wasn’t purely coincidental. In 2016, Pham was diagnosed with keratoconus, a rare and degenerative eye condition. Luckily, the condition was treatable, and his dramatic uptick in strikeouts was not a permanent hole in his game. But while many still wanted Tommy Pham on the Cardinals to begin the 2017 season, what he would become was unfathomable. A solid MLB player? Sure. An MVP candidate who was easily the team’s most valuable player despite his late start? This was unrealistic. And yet it actually happened.
Pham could not have been reasonably expected to repeat his 2017 season in 2018, and he didn’t. But in 396 plate appearances prior to the 2018 trade deadline, he was still an above-average hitter with good speed. And then came one of the most stunning deadline moves of the last quarter-century: Pham was traded to the Tampa Bay Rays for three middling prospects. Nominally, Pham’s exit meant that there was an opening for Harrison Bader in center field, but Pham had just put up a monster 2017 season playing primarily in a corner outfield position. The trade was confusing, and when the 2018 Cardinals missed the postseason by just three games following a two-month stretch in which Tommy Pham had a 192 wRC+, it never became very popular. The prospects the Cardinals received back remain prospects–Génesis Cabrera has demonstrated some potential in the bullpen, for instance–but the loss of the fiery competitor Pham is still one felt by the Cardinals.
Tommy Pham hasn’t replicated his 2017 or even his 2018. He was a good but not MVP-caliber player in 2019 and he was sub-Replacement Level in 2020. But even if Pham, who will be 33 by Opening Day 2021, has seen his Major League moment pass, he sure did have a moment. And nobody can question that he made the moment count as much as he possibly could.