The Mets’ Outfield Looked Crowded, but There Was a Tommy Pham-Shaped Hole

Brian Fluharty-USA TODAY Sports

Tommy Pham has only played in nine major league seasons, accruing a little more than seven and a half seasons’ worth of service time. It feels like it should be more. This man has drifted to so many ports, made headlines for conduct meritorious, ignobleand points in between. He has lived and died a hundred times in a baseball uniform, and every one of those lives has been fascinating. Pham is as close as you’ll get among millennials to one of those old-timey ballplayers with an unbelievable backstory, like Dazzy Vance or Turkey Mike Donlin. Now he’s in New York Metsigned to a one-year, $6 million deal with another $2 million possible in incentives.

I’ll leave the fantasy football jokes to the comment section, but I will mention what Andy Martino of SNY noted as the news broke:

There’s nothing remotely unreasonable in that tweet. The thing most people remember about Pham isn’t the .385 OPB (Three! Eighty! Five!) he posted for two very good Rays teams in 2018-19. It’s that he slapped another ballplayer on the field before a game because of a fantasy football dispute. The man-bites-dog quality of that story will probably give it greater staying power than anything Pham does for the rest of his career. Given that he also had an acrimonious exit from St. Louis, the Mets were right to take a long look at whether Pham would disturb their team chemistry. And there’s no obvious reason to distrust what Martino was told: Pham gets along with his teammates just fine.

“The man he slapped was on a different ballclub, after all,” is, however, one of the funniest ways one could get that point across, even if it’s relevant. You probably don’t want to make a habit of slapping opponents, but it’d be far more deleterious to team chemistry if he’d been slapping his teammates.

Anyway.

Pham, who will turn 35 during spring training, was one of the best outfielders in baseball not too long ago. He was an on-base machine with 20-homer power and 20-steal speed, capable of playing center field in a pinch. In 2017, his first full season in the majors, Pham hit .306/.411/.520 with 23 dingers and 25 stolen bases, and finished 11th in NL MVP voting. What’s a player like that worth? Well, according to the Mets and Brandon Nimmowho’s never reached that level of power or those base-stealing numbers, somewhere north of $162 million over eight years.

Now? Less so. Pham’s bat has slipped since his stellar run in Tampa Bay. In December 2019, he was offloaded to San Diego in the Slapdick Prospect trade. (Jake Cronenworth was also in that deal, for those of you who have forgotten.) If anything, that incident should support the thesis that Pham is a well-liked teammate. Shortly after referring to Xavier Edwards as “a slapstick prospect,” Blake Snell apologized for overreacting and insulting Edwards. He was merely upset over losing Pham. “Tommy’s the man, bro,” Snell explained in characteristic fashion. Surely Snell would not have said such a thing if Pham were not, in fact, “the man, bro.”

Pham had to pick up and move cross-country in the wake of an excellent year and change in Tampa Bay, and just as he was coming off a postseason in which he’d gone 9-for-25 with two home runs in six games . Then came the pandemic, and a month into the 2020 season came a broken hamate bone. And as Pham got into his mid-30s, minor injuries piled up as he drifted further from the competitive environments he’d grown accustomed to in St. Louis and St. Petersburg.

Pham split his 2022 season across the Reds and Red Sox. And despite playing 144 games and logging the second-highest plate appearance total of his career (622), he was hardly impressive: .236/.312/.374, with 17 home runs but only eight steals. He registered just 0.6 WAR in a full season.

Looking at the totality of Pham’s 2022 performance does him a disservice, I think, because that’s not how he’s going to be used in New York. For most teams, $6 million would insinuate some kind of regular starting role, but looking at the Mets’ outfield situation — Mark Canha, Starling MarsNimmo — no such role is immediately apparent.

Nimmo is a few years younger than Pham, but Canha and Marte are at about the same stage in their careers. And besides, all three are in either the first or second season of a multi-year deal worth between $11.5 million and $20.25 million per season. Even the Mets expect you to start in that situation. And there’s not really a stylistic advantage to Pham over the incumbents: All four are OBP-over-power, home run totals in the teens type hitters.

So where is Pham going to play? Well, he’s injury insurance for the starting outfielders. Not only is there a perpetual risk of a tweaked muscle for an aging athlete, all three of the starters are absolute magnets for pitched baseballs.

Until that happens, Pham makes a perfect DH platoon partner for Daniel Vogelbach. Darin Ruf was supposed to be that guy when the Mets traded for him and Vogelbach at last season’s deadline, but New York got absolutely snookered in that trade. JD Davis went the other way in the exchange of large right-handed sluggers, and Ruf slugged .197 in 74 plate appearances for New York. He still has one year left on his contract, and is owed $3 million this year and mostly likely $250,000 more to buy out his 2024 team option, but the Mets would probably just as soon offload him at the earliest possible convenience.

Pham, a right-handed hitter who’s always had a sizable platoon split, might not be suitable for a full-time role anymore. In fact, his lackluster 2022 numbers are mostly an artifact of taking 74.9% of his plate appearances against righties, who held him to a wRC+ of 81. Shield Pham and Vogelbach from same-handed pitching, and the Mets have quite a powerhouse on their hands:

2022 Stats, Mets OF/DH, Plus One Other Guy Just For Fun

HR/650PA BB% K% AVG OBP extension SLG wRC+
Vogelbach vs. RHP extension 31 16.4 24.7 .261 .382 .497 150
Pham vs. LHP extension 46 9.1 24.0 .273 .338 .446 115
Mars 21 5.1 19.2 .292 .347 .468 136
Nimmo 15 10.5 17.2 .274 .367 .433 134
Canha 16 8.9 17.9 .266 .367 .403 128
Shohei Ohtani 33 10.8 24.2 .273 .356 .519 142

And that’s just if he platoons and performs the same as he did last year. The holy grail for Pham is to put the ball in the air more. Even as his results he suffered in 2022, he finished in the 93rd percentile for average exit velocity and 89th percentile for HardHit%. He was knocking the laces off the ball, but he was beating it straight into the ground. In 2022, Pham posted the lowest GB% and GB/FB ratio of any full season in his career, but he was still 27th out of 130 qualified hitters in the former category and 21st in the latter. He finished 18th in HardHit% but 92nd xSLG. Worse, he was 117th in actual SLG.

But Pham’s ability to draw walks and make hard contact — even if too much of it is on the ground — makes him a valuable offensive player even if he can’t convert more of that hard contact into line drives and fly balls.

Is $6 million a lot to pay for a fourth outfielder and platoon bat? Not to the Mets. Besides, that’s like half of what you’d expect to pay a decent free agent starting outfielder, maybe a little more. Pham might not bat 550 or 600 times in 2023, but let’s say he gets to the plate 200 times in a DH platoon, maybe one start a week in the outfield, plus pinch-hitting appearances, and we’re well over 300 plate appearances even if Marte, Canha, or Nimmo doesn’t land on the IL at all this year. There’s enough playing time out there to make it worth while for the Mets to sign a player like Pham. He should be quite a valuable secondary piece for them this year, and very exciting to follow.

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