Tommy Pham had an outstanding 2017 season. He hit .306/.411/.520 with 23 home runs, 73 RBI, 95 runs scored, and 25 stolen bases in 530 plate appearances. That, combined with his outstanding defense, gave him 6.4 Wins Above Replacement per Baseball Reference. He ranked 10th across baseball in that category, tied with Mookie Betts. All in his first full season as a major leaguer.
The fact that 2017 was his first full season as a major leaguer still sticks in Pham’s craw. He talked about it at length and with surprising candor to Jack Dickey of Sports Illustrated recently, telling Dickey that he contemplated quitting baseball entirely when the Cards sent him down to begin the 2017 season despite all that he had done in the minors and in his brief stints in the big leagues between 2014 and 2016.
“We’re two weeks in, and I’m raking,” he says. “I’m hitting like .400. The big league team was 3–9, and all three outfielders were hitting .200. They tried [Matt] Adams out there, and he’s a great hitter, but he just couldn’t play the outfield. So I’m like, They’re getting the reports every day, they know I’m raking. What the f—-? When are they gonna call me up? And then we’re three weeks in. The guys are still struggling, Grichuk, Dex [Dexter Fowler], Piscotty. And I’m still balling! So finally I said, They’re not gonna f——-’ call me up, f—- it, and I zoned out in Triple A. Every day I was just like, F—- this. I’ve made it to the big leagues, f—- it.”
Pham experienced similar frustration in earlier seasons when he felt he was stepped over in favor of other, more highly-touted prospects like Randal Grichuck and Stephen Piscotty:
“You can’t bitch about it, because if you bitch about it, you f—- up the team,” Pham says. “But I put up an .824 OPS and a 1.4 WAR in 150 at bats. Times that by four—if anybody did that their rookie year, baseball goes crazy over them. But when I did it, they say, Oh, he’s just the backup. In 2016, I had an .870 OPS before I stopped playing every day. An .870 OPS in the big leagues? That plays. But I never got the recognition. I put up better numbers than these other guys in the minor leagues and the major leagues. And I was a better athlete than these mother———-. I run faster than ’em, I’m stronger than ’em. But when a team puts some money in a player, they’re gonna talk ’em up.”
There’s a certain politics to the minor league game. If you’re a high draft pick or distinguish yourself as a prospect early, you’re going to get more looks and more chances. Pham was a 16th round pick, taken by the previous general manager. Grichuk and Piscotty were first rounders, taken by the current regime. It’s also the case that Pham struggled in his first four years in the minors. He took a step forward in 2010, but then suffered three injury-plagued years. Once he showed he was healthy again he was getting looks at the big league level.
Was Pham given long enough looks? Was he given the benefit of the doubt that others who did what he did with his cups of coffee with the big club might’ve gotten? No, I don’t think so. But it’s also understandable if the Cardinals weren’t entirely sure what they had him. It’s not an organization that has a reputation for sitting on prospects or not advancing talent that can help the club. I suspect Pham was overlooked to some degree based on his pedigree as a prospect and then, as Piscotty, Grichuk, Matt Adams, Matt Holliday and others crowded the St. Louis outfield, there just wasn’t space for him.
Given Pham’s fantastic 2017 and trades shedding the Cardinals of those other outfielders, Pham is now a fixture. One who, regrettably for his earning potential, got a late start — he just turned 30 — but one who overcame hurdles a lot of other players may not have and now stands out as one of the game’s best. If Pham needs some anger at the past to motivate him to keep doing what he’s been doing, I’m sure the Cardinals are OK with taking some jabs like the ones he throws in this article.