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Tommy Pham is a dark-horse MVP candidate for 2019

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In the words of JP: “It could happen.”

MLB: Tampa Bay Rays-Media Day Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

History tells us dark-horse candidates win MVP awards more often than you might think.

Dustin Pedroia went from a 3.7 WAR season in 2007 to a 6.4 WAR season in 2008 to win the award. In 2010, Joey Votto went from 4.6 WAR to 6.9 WAR to win it. In 2011, Josh Hamilton’s potential materialized all at once to accumulate 8.5 WAR and run away with the trophy, while NL winner Ryan Braun went from a 3.7 WAR guy to a 7.1 WAR monster. Neither Boston’s Mookie Betts or Milwaukee’s Christian Yelich were projected to be front runners for the MVP in 2018. Good luck predicting who will be next.

This year, it’s pretty easy to dream about how epic the American League Most Valuable Player Award race could be. Mike Trout. Mookie Betts. Jose Altuve. Alex Bregman. Aaron Judge. Giancarlo Stanton. Jose Ramirez.

It’s easy to choose from any of those superstars to win MVP. But what if none of them do?

What if, like 2018, a dark-horse candidate breaks out and wins the dang thing again?

Tommy Pham is that dude

After posting a 6.1 WAR season in 2017, Pham didn’t perform like St. Louis hoped in 2018. In 98 games with the Cardinals last year, Pham hit .248/.331/.399, with a .320 wOBA and 101 wRC+ and 24.5 K%.

The Cardinals, clearing up an outfield logjam and making way for others after some headbutting with the player, traded him in July, and something amazing happened: Pham was even better for Tampa Bay than he was for St. Louis in ‘17, putting up a .343/.448/.622 line with a video-game-like .447 wOBA and 191 wRC+ in 39 games (DL stints forced him out for several weeks).

That accounted to 2.5 WAR, which, extrapolated to a healthy 155 games in a season, is 9.9 WAR!

Basically, the Rays got Mike Trout for the last two months of the season, helping them reach 90 wins for the first time in what felt like ages. While that level of performance is not reasonable to expect from Pham for all of 2019, those 39 games were a reminder that this guy can mash among the best of them.

Remember, Pham hit .306/.411/.520 with 6.2 WAR in 2017, and that season he was voted 6th for the MVP. There’s an MVP-caliber performer in there, and 2019 could be his year.

In an excellent, in-depth, and thought-provoking write up on Tommy Pham last October, DRaysBay’s Mister Lizzie noted 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 and a bargain rate of $4.1 million this year (an amount Pham had to fight for in arbitration).

Pham, a late-bloomer, is now the offensive face of a talented young Rays team looking to reach the postseason for the first time since 2013. As he goes, the Rays offense will go. Accruing a high WAR means he stayed healthy -- a near must to have a shot at baseball’s most prestigious individual award.

MLB: Spring Training-Toronto Blue Jays at Tampa Bay Rays Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

What does Pham need to receive MVP consideration?

For Pham to receive consideration for MVP at the end of the season, two things must happen: 1) Accrue 7.5+ WAR (based on previous award trends) and 2) the Rays must take another step forward and reach the postseason.

You don’t have to squint to see that these two things go hand in hand.

Unless you’re 2012 Miguel Cabrera (6.4 WAR, 5th overall), 2010 Albert Pujols (6.7 WAR), or 2006 winners Justin Morneau (3.8 WAR and a victim of the position penalty and bad glove penalty) and Ryan Howard (5.9 WAR), accumulating more than seven WAR is needed to be considered a serious contender. Those four names are the exceptions, not the rule. This is especially true today, where as time progresses and analytics are higher valued, WAR is the leading stat in MVP voting.

And as for the postseason requirement, it’s clear that the voters are swayed by the team’s overall performance no matter the voting category.

Still, even if those two things did occur, that wouldn’t make him a lock by any means. Five players in the American League alone accounted for 7.5+ WAR last year, all of them were in the playoffs; only one could win. Nevertheless, such a performance would put him in the conversation and, we should note, automatically vault Pham among the greatest players to ever put on a Rays jersey.

While this shouldn’t be expected it, we know, from past history, Pham is capable.

The Rays certainly looking forward to having Tommy Pham in their lineup for a full season as he has now been one of the better players in baseball over the past two years.

Pham has put up 10.1 fWAR over that timeframe, good for the 14th highest in the majors, despite being injured for the much of the 2018 season, and now 2019 is upon us. There’s nothing left but to sit back and enjoy the ride.

Rays fans (phans?), get ready to embrace the team’s best left fielder since Carl Crawford, and let’s all hope for the best.