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Cards Trade Tommy Pham: Sorry To See Him Go. Blame It On the Numbers

Technically and factually, the Cardinals on Tuesday traded veteran outfielder Tommy Pham to Tampa Bay in return for three prospects.

But in reality this deal was more about trading Pham to Tampa Bay in exchange for opening expanded opportunities to Harrison Bader (age 24), Tyler O’Neill (23) and other St. Louis outfield prospects to be named later.

I’ll get to the Tampa Bay prospects later on, but the Cardinals are receiving mostly favorable reviews for their Pham return package of outfielder Justin Williams, LH starting pitcher Genesis Cabrera, and RH reliever Roel Ramirez.

Wrote Keith Law of ESPN.com: “The Cardinals did well here for Pham, given his age and lack of track record.”

The deal came as a surprise at first. But when we took the time to think it through, it wasn’t really surprising at all. Given the Cardinals’ overflow of outfielders, the front office made an obvious, pragmatic trade.

Blame it on the numbers.

Many types of numbers.

Pham’s declining numbers offensively and defensively.

Dexter Fowler’s contract numbers.

The large number of young outfield prospects that are moving closer to St. Louis.

Another number: 16 Defensive Runs Saved by Bader this season.

A final number: A stunning home run ratio of one big fly every 8.6 at-bats for Tyler O’Neill at Triple A Memphis this season.

1. It was important for president of baseball operations John Mozeliak and GM Michael Girsch to begin decreasing the population of MLB-ready (or almost) outfielders. It’s the most overcrowded area of their system. As a secondary concern, the Cardinals needed to add LH bats to the outfield mix and did that with two transactions Tuesday.

2. As much as I like and respect Pham, he was expendable. Pham is 30 years old, has degenerative issue in one eye, plus an extensive history of injuries. And after putting up a remarkable career-peak year in 2017, Pham leveled off this season.

2a. Pham was stuck in a severe downslide at the time of the trade. Since May 12, among the 98 MLB hitters with at least 250 plate appearances, Pham ranked 97th in batting average (.206), 93rd in OBP (.273), 97th in slugging (.313) and last with a .586 OPS.

There’s no question that awful batted-ball luck is a  factor in Pham’s free fall over the last 11-plus weeks. He’s been hitting the ball with authority, with a hard-contract rate of 49.1%. Usually that means his statistics should be better than they are. But you’ll have to excuse me for declining to just fall back on the luck factor here. Pham has a chance to rebound, and I hope he does. But he’ll need to fix a few things that have little or nothing to do with luck.

2b. Such as …. 

A) An inflated strikeout rate and noticeable drop in contact rate over his last 66 games. Pham’s plate discipline is out of whack. From the start of last season through the first six weeks of the 2018 schedule, Pham walked 14% of the time with a strikeout rate of 21.3%. Over his last 66 games the corresponding numbers are 7.8% and 27.3%. And his contact rate went from 80.2 percent to 77%.

B) A pull-crazy approach that jacked his pull rate to nearly 43% over the last 66 games and 267 PA, compared to his previous hit-to-all-fields style that produced a 37.3% pull rate, 35.6% center rate, and 27.2% opposite field rate. For example: Pham has pulled down-and-away pitches at a rate of 73% this season, the third highest by an MLB hitter. And the league average is 49%.

C) A ground-ball rate that spiked to just under 57% over the last 66 games — compared to a more reasonable 49% GB rate during his peak-performance period.

Pham’s been pulling just a massive percentage of non-fastballs all season — even those offered on the outside edge, or low and away. This has driven up his ground ball rate, and suppressed his slugging percentage. This season Pham is slugging only  .357 against starting pitchers, the eighth worst slug vs. starting pitchers by an MLB hitter this season. And that’s nearly 100 points lower than the league average .455.

And that low slug, combined with a diminishing walk rate, has generated a .669 OPS for Pham vs. starting pitchers. That’s the eighth worst by a hitter against starting pitchers this season and 103 points below league average.

That isn’t bad luck.  It’s a bad hitting approach.

I’m a Pham fan. But he must fix this.

3. If you want to argue that Pham was superior to Fowler, then you’ll have to debate yourself. There is absolutely nothing to argue about here. Here’s the reality: the Cardinals are tied up with Fowler in a five-year, $82.5 million contract. After this season, Fowler has three years remaining on the deal at a guaranteed $49.5 million. Management isn’t ready to terminate the investment, eat tens of millions of dollars and give up on Fowler this soon. And given Fowler’s low-ebb 2018, he has no trade value at this time. So in STL’s quest to move an outfielder, Pham offered the least complicated option.  There were no entanglements. Pham had trade value … trade value that was on the wane. So they made the move before Pham lost even more value. Fowler? He has no trade value at this time. Not with the burdensome contract, a .179 average, weak .301 slug and a .575 OPS that ranks  166th  among 168 MLB hitters with a minimum of 320 plate appearances.

3a. This isn’t the end of the Fowler discussion, however. I’m not defending the Cardinals for trying to salvage their investment. I do understand that they had to try, and that means playing Fowler regularly to see if it’s possible for a reawakening on offense. And when interim manager Mike Shildt took over on July 15 and committed to plugging  Fowler into the lineup, Fowler responded with positive results at first. But this is where we are as of Tuesday afternoon: Fowler is 2 for his last 14, with four strikeouts and a walk and no extra base hits. Since Shildt became manager, Fowler is hitting .205 with a .294 OBP and .386 slugging pct. Fowler flashed some power at first, with two doubles and two homers, but his ground-ball rate is 53 percent over 51 plate appearances since moving back into the lineup.

3b. The question, of course, is this: How long will the Cardinals travel down a road to nowhere with Fowler if the results don’t come? I understand the financial considerations involved here. But if the Cardinals are willing to move Pham to clear a path for younger outfielders, they can’t have Fowler blocking the same gateway just because the team is paying him $16.5 million per season. At some point, job performance must take priority over payroll politics.

4. The Cardinals weren’t inclined to deal left fielder Marcell Ozuna away, either. Not after shipping four prospects to Miami for him last offseason. Not when he’s finally starting to jolt baseballs with his overdue power. Not when Ozune will enter his so-called walk year in 2019. He’ll be completely amped to put up huge power numbers to take into the free-agent market place in advance of 2020.

5. So make room for the younger birds. Let’s start with Bader. After performing well for the Cardinals this season, Bader warrants more playing time — especially if management is serious about improving the team’s defense.

Bader ranks third among MLB outfielders this season with 16 Defensive Runs Saved. That includes 8 DRS in center field, where Pham has struggled with minus 5 DRS. (Translated: Bader has saved Cardinals’ pitchers eight runs with his defense; Pham has cost them five runs. That’s a difference of 13 runs between the Bader and Pham defense.

Bader, who bats right, will have to prove he can hit RH pitching in the majors. And the early returns aren’t encouraging; Bader has a .612 OPS and 30% strikeout rate vs. right-handers. But even though we’re talking about only 100 plate appearances, Bader has crushed big-league left-handed pitching for a .380 OBP, .556 slugging percentage and .936 OPS.

And that’s the most prominent question regarding Bader’s future: Even with the wonderful defense can he start 120, 130 games per season if he’s overmatched by RH pitching? I don’t think so. Not unless the Cardinals have the benefit of monster-mashing bats in left field and right field … and then it’s OK to sacrifice offense for defense.

6. There is nothing more for O’Neill to do at Triple A Memphis. It’s time to get “Bam Bam” up here … to stay. In 260 PA and 225 at-bats for Memphis this season, O’Neill has muscled 26 homers and thundered to a .711 slugging percentage. He’s launched homers at a ridiculous rate in the Pacific Coast League this season, hitting one every 8.6 at-bats. The Cardinals told O’Neill to work on his plate discipline, so he’s fulfilled the request by upping his walk rate to 11.1%, and lowering his strikeout rate to 23.8%. He can play all three outfield positions. According to statcast tracking, only Bader runs faster than O’Neill among St. Louis outfielders.

7. Other young outfielders soon will circle the runway at Lambert Field. Adolis Garcia, Randy Arozarena, and perhaps the latest emerging power prospect, Lane Thomas. After that there’s another set of outfielders that can be found on the Cardinals’ Top 30 list at the MLB Pipeline: Dylan Carson (No. 13), Jonatan Machado (No. 18), Wadye Infante (No. 24). By the way: O’Neill is No. 2, Arozarena is No. 7 and Orlando Mercado was No. 10 before being swapped to Cleveland on Tuesday for two younger outfield prospects. Conner Capel, the more prominent of the two, bats left-handed — which will help balance the organization’s dense supply of RH-hitting outfielders. Williams, the outfield prospect who came over from Tampa Bay, also swings from the left side.

8. If you think Pham was traded because he slammed the Cardinals with harsh words and curse words in a primal scream of an interview with SI this past spring, here’s a question: Do you think Pham would have been traded Tuesday if he was hitting .306 with a .411 OBP and .520 slug — as he did last season? Do you think Pham would be packing for Tampa Bay if he was still pounding fastballs thrown 94+ miles per hour?

Take a look at this please:

2017 vs. fastballs of 94+ mph: .366 average, fourth best in MLB; .610 slug, 14th best; 1.107 OPS; fifth best in majors.

2018 vs. fastballs of 94+ mph: .198 average, 14th worst in MLB; .279 slug, 8th worst; .575 OPS, 8th worst in majors. (Plus a 59% ground ball rate.)

I don’t think Pham helped his cause of securing a lengthy future with the Cardinals by going off in that interview, but that isn’t why he was traded. He was traded because of performance (his) and the outfield prospect glut. Numbers.

9. Last season, the Cardinals’ outfielders with the most plate appearances were, in order: Pham, Fowler, Randal Grichuk and Stephen Piscotty. Three are gone.

10.  In an instantly updated Top 30 list for the Cardinals, MLB Pipeline put two of the former Tampa Bay prospects on the St. Louis board. And one of the former Cleveland prospects made it as well. All three are among the top 14 on the revised St. Louis rankings.

The outfielder, Williams, is the Cards’ No. 9 prospect. Capel, the young outfielder from Cleveland, is slotted at No. 10. And the exquisitely named Genesis Cabrera, the lefty starter who was included in the Pham deal, enters the Cards’ board at No. 14.  By the way: two other pitchers acquired during the pre-deadline dealing are included in the reordered St. Louis 30. RH reliever Seth Elledge (traded by Seattle for relief pitcher Sam Tuivailala) is No. 22. And RH Giovanny Gallegos, part of the trade that sent 1B Luke Voit to the Yankees, is No. 23.

Keith Law’s analysis is a subscription-service piece, but here are a couple of small excerpts:

On Cabrera: “Lefty Genesis Cabrera is a clear starter for me as long as he stays healthy, working at 93-96 with a plus changeup, often plus cutter, and show-me curveball … he has a No. 2 starter ceiling.”

On Williams: “A down year in Triple A (this season) after producing at every level below that, the 22-year-old was known for his big power in high school, but throughout pro ball he’s been a high-contact, ground-ball hitter never hitting more than 14 homers in a season. … if ever there were a player to work with on launch angle, Williams is it.”

Now, let’s look at what Baseball America had to say:

Baseball America on Williams: “He’s always hinted at potential through a series of loud tools, but it’s never quite come together all at once. His best tools are his plus or better throwing arm as well as above-average raw power that hasn’t manifested itself in games. … he will need to add lift to his swing to begin tapping into his power potential. If it all comes together, he has the makings of an everyday corner bat. If not, he could still have a role as a backup in the major leagues.”

Baseball America on Cabrera, age 21: “Although he still has a ground to make up as far as control and command are concerned, Cabrera was still the owner of one of the Rays’ system’s most electric arms. He brings a low-to mid-90s fastball with riding life from the left side and couples the pitch with a slider that has flashed plus this year. His 124 strikeouts in 113.2 innings are second in the Southern League. Scouts are split on Cabrera’s future, with some seeing a late-game reliever while others see a pitcher with the upside of a mid-rotation starter if everything comes together.”

Baseball America on RH reliever Roel Ramirez, age 23: “The third player in the Cardinals’ return is a relief-only prospect, but one who brings an explosive, mid-90s fastball to the table. He couples a fastball with a slider and split-fingered fastball, neither of which is average at this point.”

Thanks for reading …

–Bernie

More: Insider Saxon Says Pham-Cardinals Friction Never Really Went Away