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Tommy Pham’s 2019 struggles with the slider

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He’s still been very good; he could be even better

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

Eno Sarris had an interesting article the other day. Shocking, I know. You should read the whole article, but our focus here at DRB is on a chart Sarris included, in particular four of the top six names on that chart.

Of the players to see the biggest increase in sliders+cutters this season from last, four of the top six are Rays: Willy Adames (2nd), Tommy Pham (3rd), Brandon Lowe (5th), Yandy Diaz (6th).

It is early enough that I am not here to say that this is something pitchers, writ large, are doing more often in their attack against Rays hitters. At this stage of the season, it’s more than likely a schedule fluke.

But writing off every single development because it’s May would make for a very boring website. So let’s hit that SSS caveat; use this more as a “put it on your radar” type article; and focus on one of those four hitters in particular.

First: a couple brief asides before we start with Pham:

  • Diaz has killed sliders throughout his career, so the fact that he is seeing more of them this year is the best proof the slider increase is a SSS fluke.
  • Lowe has made vast improvements against the pitch from 2018 to 2019, but we’re talking about a total sample of fewer than 250 sliders, so it’s hard to say that anything meaningful has occured.
  • Adames has struggled the most against the pitch, and this is not new. If the trend continues further into the season, it will demand an article of its own.
  • On to Tommy.

Almost Pham-ous

Coming into the 2019 season, expectations were sky high for Pham. He was fresh off a 39-game cameo with the Rays in 2018 in which he slashed .343/.448/.622/194 (BA/OBP/SLG/OPS+) and led the Rays to a 27-12 record in that month and a half.

Through nearly the exact same stint in 2019 (43 games after the weekend series against New York), he has been excellent but not quite the same Thanos-level world destroyer. He is slashing .279/.394/.418/124, with notable decreases in runs scored (35 to 17) and ISO (.280 to .139). Part of that is that no player (non-Trout) division can be expected to post a 194 OPS+, but his 124 OPS+ this season is still just a hair off where many would have hoped for him in 2019.

One area that may be holding Mr. Pham back just a bit? His production against that notable increase in sliders faced reference in Mr. Sarris’ findings above. Per Brooks Baseball, Pham has faced 206 sliders this season, second only to the number of four-seam fastballs among all pitches listed—and by a good margin. While baseball as a whole is seeing more sliders in recent seasons (the overarching theme to Sarris’ piece), that increase is even more notable for Pham.

What is even more pertinent to Pham in 2019 is that against those 189 sliders, Pham is mustering just a .139 batting average, and an identical (and even more depressing) .139 slugging percentage. He hasn’t collected a single extra-base hit against a slider all season, and he has just five hits in total.

Compare this to his production against the other pitches broken down by Brooks Baseball:

2019 Tommy Pham breakdown by pitch

Pitch Count 1B XBH BAA SLG
Pitch Count 1B XBH BAA SLG
Fourseam 287 17 7 .436 .691
Sinker 108 5 1 .194 .226
Change 46 1 1 .250 .375
Slider 206 5 0 .139 .139
Curve 60 5 2 .500 .929
Cutter 69 2 1 .167 .330
Splitter 16 0 0 .000 .000

Despite facing the slider the second most of any pitch, he has more extra-base hits against every other pitch except splitters, of which he has seen a total of 16. Against curveballs, a different breaking pitch, but breaking all the same, he is MASHING, with a .500 average and .929 slugging percentage.

Of course, this calls to mind the possible caveat we suggested at the start of the article: this could well be the product of the season still being in mid-May. Here is Pham’s career production by pitch breakdown:

Career Tommy Pham breakdown by pitch

Pitch Count 1B XBH BAA SLG
Pitch Count 1B XBH BAA SLG
Fourseam 2450 94 60 .310 .555
Sinker 1208 71 19 .288 .390
Change 429 17 12 .305 .558
Slider 1285 39 25 .228 .402
Curve 724 17 7 .211 .342
Cutter 387 18 9 .294 .565
Splitter 79 0 1 .063 .250
Knuckle 10 1 1 .500 1.250
Slow curve 3 0 1 1.000 2.000

Zooming out to his career, he has hit .228 against sliders, which isn’t anything special (especially compared to .310 against fastballs), but his slugging percentage of .402 begins to look a lot better. His jump in ISO (.000 in 2019 compared to 174) is maybe most notable, as the lack of power was what really stood out against sliders in 2019, so far.

Looking at his swing rates against sliders, it doesn’t appear he’s expanding the zone too much, either. Here’s his swing rate against sliders for his career (notice especially below the strike zone where sliders whiff rates can be extensive):

Versus 2019:

He’s going out of the zone less frequently, and attacking in the zone more frequently. That’s typically a recipe for success. He also isn’t seeing faster sliders (actually down about a mile per hour, per FanGraphs), and again, we’re barely over a quarter of the way through the season.

So to review:

  • Tommy Pham is seeing more sliders than he has previously in his career, and the increase in slider percentage is one of the largest in all of baseball.
  • In the past, he’s done okay against sliders (but not as well as he has, say fastballs, as should be expected).
  • Judging by what he swings at, it seems like Pham is seeing the sliders better. He’s spitting on them below the zone, and swinging at them in the zone.
  • But the results against sliders have been much worse.
  • Huh.

For now, file this away under “something to watch, but not something to worry about.”