Tommy Pham Has Forced His Way Into the St. Louis Cardinals' Future Plans

Tommy Pham came relatively out of nowhere to be one of baseball's best hitters this past season.

To put it lightly, the 2017 season was a dream come true for St. Louis Cardinals outfielder Tommy Pham.

Not only was the 29-year-old easily the most valuable player on his own squad, but he was also one of baseball's best players, evidenced by his 5.9 fWAR. The statistics are a big reason why his year was impressive. However, his journey through the minor leagues takes things up a notch.

A 16th-round pick back in 2006, Pham progressed rather consistently until injuries delayed his progress, starting with an eye condition that needed surgery in 2008. He then suffered a broken wrist, followed by tearing his labrum in each shoulder. The journey finally culminated with a six-game cup of coffee with the Redbirds in 2014, followed by limited playing time the next two seasons.

He proved to be productive at the plate in spots, but none of it compared to his offensive explosion in 2017.

A Breakout Campaign

This was not the first time Pham tasted success at the big league level. This was the first time he had a chance to show what he could do on an every-day basis, though. He took advantage of it, too -- the chart below compares his performance in the majors since 2015.

Year Plate Appearances OPS wRC+ fWAR
2015 173 .824 126 1.6
2016 183 .764 106 0.1
2017 530 .931 148 5.9

He was well above average on offense as a rookie, but regressed in a big way the next year in just about the same number of plate appearances. However, that all seems like a distant memory after seeing what he accomplished in 2017.

Pham slashed .306/.411/.520 with 23 homers, a 13.4% walk rate, and a 22.1% strikeout rate, all of which were easily new personal bests for a single season. His plate-discipline stats were a big reason behind this breakout campaign, and it showed up in his contact numbers.

His 79.9% contact rate settled in four percentage points higher than his previous career high, while his 7.6% swinging-strike rate was more than two percentage points lower than his previous best mark. His 35.5% hard-hit rate doesn't exactly jump off the page -- although it was nearly four percentage points better than the league average -- but it's still solid. And when we combine solid contact with more contact overall, good things are bound to happen.

One of the most impressive -- and potentially underrated -- aspects of his incredible year were the improvements he made on defense. After posting a combined -1 Defensive Runs Saved in his career through 2016, he finished with 11 in 2017 and a 12.9 UZR/150 rating that ranked fifth among qualified outfielders. Even if his offense regresses a little in 2018, his superb defensive play will help him remain awfully valuable to St. Louis.

In Elite Company

For not being on the Cardinals' Opening Day roster last April, he finished the year rubbing elbows with some of baseball's more recognizable names. For instance, his 148 wRC+ was exactly the same as American League MVP finalist Jose Ramirez, while his 5.9 fWAR equaled that of Francisco Lindor (both top-10 marks overall). His .931 OPS only cracked the top 20, but it wasn't too far behind the rest of his production. He still outperformed guys like Nelson Cruz, Marcell Ozuna, and George Springer in that department.

The Cardinals have too many capable outfielders for spots available, so they'll be attempting to improve their squad by leveraging some in trades this winter. Dexter Fowler, who signed with the club last winter, isn't going anywhere (especially since he controls his fate with a no-trade clause), and based off what Pham just accomplished, he's forced his way into St. Louis' future.

It took him longer than he would've liked, but Tommy Pham has finally arrived in the big leagues. And his tremendous performance appears to have him as a building block for the next run of playoff-caliber Cardinals squads.