2017 Breakouts Revisited: Tommy Pham and Whit Merrifield
(Photo By Doug Murray/Icon Sportswire)
Each drafting season, you’ll likely be tasked with doing your research and determining which of last year’s breakout studs were legitimate and which will leave you holding the bag. Drafting last year’s next big thing at this year’s prices and getting retirement year production can leave you shaking your head and hoping for better luck next year. Let’s take a look at two of 2017s more improbable waiver wire heroes: Tommy Pham and Whit Merrifield.
Tommy Pham (OF, St. Louis Cardinals)
Pham was drafted way back in 2006, in the 16th round. He never really had much of a big pedigree, flashing some potential tools but failing to consistently show due to playing time and injury issues. He had power, he had speed. Severely hindering his on-field performance? Dude straight up couldn’t see! When a hulking behemoth is glaring down at you and hurling a leather-and-stitches missile in the general vicinity of your headpiece, sight is at least a top four sense. Keratoconus, or the “progressive thinning of the cornea,” can result in “blurry vision, near-sightedness, double-vision, astigmatism, and light sensitivity. (Wikipedia, source of all things keratoconical.)” None of those symptoms sound like they’d aid a hitters success. They sound damn near close to being detrimental!
You probably know the story by now- Pham underwent a vision correction procedure, gained the power of sight, and immediately started ripping baseballs all over the diamond. He finished with 23 homers, 25 steals, a .306 average, and likely propelled many a savvy fantasy owner to victory. He’s a fun story and an easy guy to root for if you are a fan of the sabre/analytics revolution in baseball, reportedly embracing stats, studying his own numbers, and training specifically to increase his speed. But, at his current ADP of 57.56 (NF BC) – 5th/6th round – is he worth it?
I wouldn’t be totally surprised if Pham repeats his great 2017 (possibly giving back some of his batting average) but at his current price, I think I’d err on the side of caution and pass. There are a few things that give me pause when looking towards a repeat.
For one, there’s the keratoconus. I can’t speak definitively on it, as I’m not an optometrist. But the issue is degenerative and reportedly can still give him a little trouble from time to time. It may crop up and affect his vision again, which would be problematic. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that 2017 saw him improve greatly on his plate discipline in a period where he had improved vision for an extended period of time. We don’t have a ton of MLB data on Pham prior to 2017, but there are some marked differences in his strikezone control through the years. Pham posted his lowest O-Swing rate (20% – down from 40.0%, 28.1%, and 26.9% in limited ABs three years prior) of his career. He made contact 80.2% of the time, more than he’d ever done before. He also lowered his swinging strike rate to 7.6%, several ticks better than the league average of 10.5%. If he gives back some of the progress he made with his vision, he could lose these gains.
Second, there are durability concerns. Last year was the most games Pham has played in a professional calendar year BY FAR. His eyes haven’t been the only things giving him trouble – Pham has racked up bigtime ouchies to pretty much every part of his body. Torn oblique, labrum surgery, broken wrist, quadriceps strain – touch a point on your home’s biology skeleton and Tommy Pham has probably suffered some major injury there. Another 150+ game season (a total he reached last year between majors and minors) is not likely.
Finally, there are the actual skills. There’s a lot to like but there’s also a bunch to nitpick. For one, Pham is an extreme ground-baller. His 1.98 GB/FB rate damn near made my eyes fall out of my head when I saw it – completely unexpected out of a guy who cranked 23 big flyes. His 26.7 HR/FB wasn’t absolutely crazy but it was twice the league average and he may struggle to repeat it. I’d love to see him get a little more loft on his swing. Digging into his xStats reveals some luck baked into his .300+ avg., another thing that made him special in ’17. A .368 BABIP ( outpacing .338 xBABIP) shows that Pham could’ve been a little fortunate. I expect an average in the .280s, more in line with 2017s xAvg. of .282. His 6.6% Value Hit rate was nothing special either.
In summation, I think Pham has legit skills and a repeat is not entirely out of the question. But there are enough question marks to make me shy away from him as things stand right now. In my eyes, I see a guy who in 2018 is probably going to take some losses on his batting average, play fewer games than he did last year, and perhaps lose some homers as well. If Pham regresses in skills and playing time, we’re looking at .280 and 15/15, rather than a .300 hitter challenging for 25/25. Justin Upton, Anthony Rendon, Edwin Encarnacion, Nelson Cruz, and Aaron Nola are similarly priced assets I’d rather have at Pham’s ADP. Rooting for him though.
Whit Merrifield (2B, Kansas City Royals)
2017 was a big year for Daniel Day-Lewis, as he announced he would be retiring from acting after starring in one more feature film. The film was “The Phantom Thread” and is summarized as such on its IMDB homepage:
“Set in 1950’s London, Whit Merrifield is a renowned dressmaker whose fastidious life is disrupted by a young, strong-willed woman, Alma, who becomes his muse and lover.”
Just kidding. 2017 was not just a big year for Daniel Day-Lewis and the fictional dressmaker he played who was actually the quite ridiculously named Reynolds Woodcock. 2017 was also a big year for the ridiculously named Whit Merrifield, who is not a fictional dressmaker but rather a nonfictional baseball player. If Tommy Pham’s 2017 was shocking, Merrifield’s was utterly ridiculous. I can distinctly recall staring at “Two-Hit Whit” on my league’s waiver wire, waiting day after day for his “illegitimate hot streak” to end. It never did. He just went on swiping bases (an AL leading 34) and cranking doubles and homers. The owner who wound up grabbing him won the league, and I wound up crying into my second place trophy (just kidding-there is no second place trophy. My tears fell directly onto my keyboard.) As such, I have kind of an irrational hatred for Merrifield as a fantasy asset (not as a person – I’m sure he’s a great guy.) I’ll try to put my feelings aside as I delve into whether his 2017 was real or a fluke.
The final stats are mad decent. In addition to the aforementioned steals, Merrifield also cranked out 19 homers, a .288 average and went just about 80/80 in R/RBI. Those numbers are absolutely juicy from your middle infielder. Merrifield walked and struck out little, making plenty of contact (84.3%, about 7 pts. above league average.) His swinging strikes were below average (7.9%.) I like both of these things, as you want your speed guys putting the ball in play as frequently as possible to make things happen with their legs. And make things happen Merrifield did – as I mentioned, he led the A.L. in steals with 34. I can completely see that continuing. His speed score, a Bill James metric devised to determine how fast a player is, was 6.7 – well above league average (4.4). The only players above him (Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, Byron Buxton, Jose Reyes, and Xander Bogaerts(?!)) are for the most part a collection of MLB’s most notable burners. So, yeah. Merrifield is fast. On a team that historically runs and will now probably have to do it more than ever to generate offense, I can easily see Merrifield leading the league in steals again.
But that’s about where my certainty over Merrifield’s future prospects end. Let’s take a look at his batting average. A .288 average is nothing to sneeze at, and it looked pretty legit, coming with a .288 xAVG and a BABIP/xBABIP of .308/.302 that suggest he may have even been a little unfortunate. But why was his BABIP so low? We’d want a speed demon like Merrifield posting a BABIP probably in the .330s-.340s. Merrifield’s batted ball profile is quite odd. The smoking gun appears to be a 24.8 poorly hit percentage, which is bordering on poor. Merrifield made a lot of bad contact. If that continues, his batting average could regress.
Another oddity were the 19 homers Merrifield hit. How he managed to accomplish this was pretty confounding considering he did so with only a 9.4% HR/FB ratio. Merrifield maximized the little thump he had by getting the ball in the air over 40% of the time – his xHRs were actually 22.5, so he may have even been a little unlucky in the homer department. This, however, can also explain why his VH was so poor – by selling out for loft Merrifield also popped the ball up quite a bit (7.4% IFFB per Fangraphs, 17.0% Popups per xStats.) I think all of these factors give Merrifield a pretty slim margin for error in the homer department. Some natural fluctuation could see him more in the 10-15 homer range rather than the 20 he pushed for last year.
As for his runs and RBI, make no mistake, they’re going down. I don’t see how they couldn’t after Kansas City lost its two best players in Eric Hosmer and Lorenzo Cain. A team that was already offensively challenged will be getting worse. This is not a ding on Merrifield personally, but the reality of the situation.
In summation, I think Merrifield hit his absolute ceiling last year and is due for a regression in 4 of the 5 standard roto categories. I don’t think he’s an absolute bust, but I do think he’ll be hard pressed to replicate last year’s breakout. As such, I think he’s being a little overvalued in drafts this year at his current ADP of 70.24. In that price range, I’d rather have James Paxton, Jean Segura, Bogaerts, Robinson Cano, or the aforementioned Cain. Ian Kinsler and Jason Kipnis are two late 2b targets that I think can replicate a big portion of what Merrifield will do at a fraction of the price (sans some steals).