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Injuries impacted the offensive potential of several Rays

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Tommy Pham and Brandon Lowe could have had insane seasons

MLB: OCT 08 ALDS - Astros at Rays Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

In a Friday article, we explained that by most statistical measures, Austin Meadows was the Rays best hitter of 2019. But for those watching all season, there were other powerhouses at the plate who seemed like more likely candidates for that title. Specifically Tommy Pham and Brandon Lowe, whose seasons were hampered by injury, which changed the trajectory of their offensive onslaught.

Because both were injured in July — July 2 for Lowe, July 28 for Pham — we’re going to take a look at their first half numbers to project how their seasons could have been different if they’d been able to stay on the field and healthy. Pham, of course, continued to play in spite of broken bones, but there’s no doubt the pain was a big factor in what he was able to accomplish.

Brandon Lowe

Had Brandon Lowe remained healthy the entire season, his potential for claiming the Rookie of the Year title would be much more open to debate. He’s still a finalist for the nod, but it’s far more likely we’ll see Houston Astros’ Yordan Alvarez take the title. Alvarez really heated up in the latter half but had a relatively lackluster first half, where Lowe tells the opposite story.

From March through to the July break, the months that made Lowe an All-Star, he hit for a .276 average, knocking in 16 home runs. An interesting comparison of a Rays player who stayed healthier longer, is Avisail Garcia. Which Garcia did have a brief stint on the IL he still managed almost 500 plate appearances for the season, and his first half average was identical to Lowe’s.

In the latter half of the season, Garcia saw fewer plate appearances, but performed to incredible numbers, especially in September and October. It is interesting to note with Garcia that his home runs decreased but he extra base hits increased, suggesting there might have been a slight loss of power in the latter half, though it did not ultimately damage his numbers.

Using the Projected Season Home Runs Calculator, based on Lowe’s 76 first half games and 16 early home runs, he was on pace to hit 34 home runs in 2019, right above the number actually achieved by Meadows. Since he only played 6 games in the second half and only got one more home run, this was obviously not what he achieved.

It’s also valuable to look at the monthly declines Lowe was showing even early in the season. He started March/April with a .289 average, in May it was .268, and in June it was .256. His hits were pretty consistent, but his home run numbers dropped by one each month. Even if that trend continued, Lowe would have hit roughly 20 home runs on the season. If we average that with the 34 the calculator estimated, he would have hit 27 home runs which is still pretty solid for a rookie season, and would have been good enough for second overall on the team.

Tommy Pham

Pham in interesting in this discussion, because in spite of the fact that he had a broken hand, he did not miss any significant play time in the second half of the season, and in fact had more plate appearance in 2019 than any other player on the team with 654. He also had the second highest overall WAR at 3.3, had the third highest overall BA at .273, and tied with Ji-Man Choi for the second highest wRC+ at 121. Pham also appeared to have an additional injury late in the season and into the postseason that relegated him to DH appearances, but the Rays never clearer stated the nature of the problem (possibly shoulder) and it’s not clear when that injury occurred.

All this to say that Tommy Pham was still a vital and powerful part of the Rays 2019 offense. He ranked 57th in all of baseball on the FanGraphs batters leaderboard. He was incredible.

And he did it all with a broken hand.

So let’s take a moment to briefly consider how things might have been different if he hadn’t had to play hurt — which is not to suggest he was forced to play with a broken hand, he was not — and what he season could have looked like if he’d been completely healthy.

The same home run calculator above had him projected for 25 home runs, taking only his first half numbers into consideration. Pham actually hit 21 home runs for the season, so 25 actually feels like a realistic, if even safe estimate. Had his power hits not stagnated in September and October, where he had only a single home run, it’s likely he would have hit or surpassed 25.

He didn’t show any marked declines in power — he didn’t hit any triples in the second half, though his doubles took a slight uptick — which is all the more impressive if we consider just how much pain he must have been experiencing with each swing. Likewise, his monthly averages started to climb after the break, with a .267 in August and a .281 in September and October.

There are not many places the numbers suggest Pham got worse in the latter half, but in acknowledging his injury I think we must also recognize that if he was staying as good with broken bones, he could have been even better without them.

If we look at Austin Meadows, he had the toughest months in Jun (.206) and Aug (.221), but a monster September/October (.378) really helped bolster his season numbers. I think it’s safe to suggest that had Pham been in peak shape, he could have given Meadows a run for his money in most of the hitting stats, with the exception, perhaps, of ISO. Pham struggled with Isolated Power, and though he had a decent number of home runs, he rarely hit triples and even doubles were rare, meaning it was harder for him to boost his ISO and even his wRC+ numbers, which add weight to those extra bases.

Ultimately it’s impossible to know if Pham or Lowe would have had a better season than Meadows at the plate, but it’s easy to imagine how avoiding injury could have changed the season, potentially added more wins, and certainly made things even more fun to watch down the stretch.