The Rays and their fans may be mere October spectators in 2018, but the team’s future looks bright. This is largely thanks to several years of rebuilding the prospect pool, with the Rays recognized as one of the top organizations across baseball.
But if the Rays are successful in 2019 and 2020, it may be thanks to two deadline trades. The trade of Chris Archer to the Pirates, with pitchers Shane Baz and Tyler Glasnow along with outfielder Austin Meadows as the return, was somewhat expected.
Getting outfielder Tommy Pham from the Cardinals (for several well-regarded prospects) was, in contrast, a complete surprise.
It may, however, end up being the transaction that has the greatest impact on the 2019 Rays.
In his 39 games in a Rays uniform (DL stints forced him out for several weeks), Pham slashed .343/.448/.662, good for an OPS of 1.071. Small sample size? Sure, but not that far off from his breakout 2017 performance where his OPS was .931 over a near full season. He also walked in about 14 percent of his plate appearances, and stole five bases in his strong run with the Rays.
In those 39 Rays games, Pham managed seven home runs and six triples. The triples sometimes came about because he seemed to have a knack for smashing the ball about 400 feet, only to find the very deepest part of the park. It was as though Tommy Pham wouldn’t settle for a cheapy into 162 Landing.
Pham has an intensity and seriousness about him that suggests he does not suffer fools. If I were to meet him, I’d call him Mr. Pham.
Mr. Pham takes this game seriously
Our friends at Viva el Birdos were well aware of Tommy Pham’s electric playing style and intense demeanor. In farewell tribute, Benjamin Clemens wrote a paragraph that beautifully captures Pham’s character:
The man is an absolute maniac, and I mean that in the nicest way possible. In interviews, he was the best possible version of that crazy guy at your work who comes in early, stays late, and has a maniacal gleam in his eyes the whole time. He seems like the kind of guy who makes improbable-sounding boasts and then works sixty hours a week to learn how to back them up. There’s something truly impressive about Pham’s singular drive. It’s not a drive that comes without flaws- maybe you wouldn’t want to grab a beer after work with that crazy guy at your office.
When he was first traded to the Rays there had been some speculation that he could share time at DH. Within a day or two, however, reports were that Tommy Pham did not want to DH. Since when, I thought, does a player, especially one that is not really an established star, get to dictate to his new team how he will be used?
Suffice it to say that Tommy Pham did not DH. (Well he did twice, both times as he was coming back from injury). I’ll bet Kevin Cash realized that he was not going to argue with Mr. Pham.
You can see that no-nonsense intensity in any of his on-camera interviews, but this one with Michelle Margaux was particularly striking. I give her credit for continuing the interview after Pham accuses her of jinxing his hitting streak; I would probably have broken down in tears. (And much to everyone’s relief, Pham did get on base the next day.)
Mr. Pham’s Origins
Born in Las Vegas to teenage parents, Pham and his twin sister did not have an easy childhood. Their father, who had been born in Vietnam and came to the US as a child, was incarcerated at the time of their birth, as he was throughout most of their lives. Their mother worked multiple jobs to keep a roof over their heads. For Pham, organized sports was a perfect escape; teammates and youth coaches were important sources of support. His background and its influence are poignantly described in Jack Dickey’s Sports Illustrated profile, which is worth a read. This, a note Pham sent to the author, stands out:
“The question was if I wish I had it easier or came up rich, would I have wanted that? The more I thought about it my answer is no. I played with a lot of guys coming up who came from a wealthy upbringing and what I remembered most about them is how soft they were. When things got harder for them, they always crumbled. I think where I came from helped me persevere through all my injuries in everything bcuz I seen a lot of guys fold, the most successful ppl in the world came from the smallest beginnings which makes me think it’s not about where you’re from or how you come up but where are you going!”
Drafted in 2006 out of high school by the Cardinals, he made his major league debut in 2014 but was up and down between St. Louis and Triple-A Memphis for several seasons, until injuries to Cardinals outfielders opened up a spot for him, and he took full advantage. What took him so long to get to the majors — or took the Cardinals so long to bring him there? Apparently a combination of his ongoing struggles with a degenerative eye disease; some unfortunately timed injuries; and perhaps a Cardinals front office that didn’t fully believe in him, despite his strong performances. It’s clear from Dickey’s article that Pham pushed back against this slow progress and made his unhappiness known, which may have led the Cardinals to see him as a “problem child.” Here is Pham reflecting, as per Dickey, on his first forays into the majors:
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.
From that passage we learn that Pham has felt a bit unappreciated. We also learn that he evaluates his talents not with batting average and dingers but with WAR and OPS.
Mr. Pham, I think we are going to get along.
Flashing Back to the Present
Pham had won a major league job in 2018, but his results in the first half of the year were less impressive than in his stand-out 2017 campaign. Given that he continued to murder baseballs, this might have been a run of bad luck. But the Cardinals were having a number of backstage struggles of their own this past year. They fired long time manager Mike Matheny and two coaches midseason amid reports that Matheny had become a very divisive figure for the team. With a crowded outfield and reports that Pham had been unhappy with management, the Cardinals front office evidently felt they would rather trade Pham and address other team needs. These rumors stemmed, in part, from the Cardinals unwillingness to purchase an requested piece of exercise equipment, and in part because of their renewing his contract for the league minimum of $570,000. Of course, Pham had already turned down a two-year offer from the club, saying he’d rather “bet on himself” after 2018 than accept their offer, but the end result was the same: Pham became available, something that was not lost on the Rays front office.
Mr. Pham off the field
Pham’s Instagram account shows that he does have a lighter side, with family pictures and photos from charity events. Here he is participating the Rays rookie dress up day. Mr. Pham, you will note, is the guy in a suit.
Pham was part of a campaign advocating for public transit use in St. Louis, encouraging fans to take transit to the ballpark and elsewhere. (Hmmm...I can think of another region that could use some help promoting transit use.)
Mr. Pham is part of the Rays future
The Rays have rarely had players with Pham’s offensive tools. He hits the ball hard. Really hard. His hard hit percentage in 2018 was 48.5%, among the highest in the majors, alongside such hitters as Joey Gallo and Christian Yelich. Add to that decent speed and good instincts as well as solid plate discipline and you have — well, you have a guy who can help carry your team to the postseason.
Pham will be arbitration eligible in 2019 and will surely be in line for a bigger contract. At age 30, Pham will have his first big payday as a major leaguer.
Because Pham carries himself with such great intensity and seriousness, his rare smiles seem to be all the more luminous. Tampa Bay Rays, please buy Mr. Pham his exercise equipment, pay him his due, and let’s make 2019 the year that Tommy Pham is smiling all the way to the playoffs.