I know it feels like the 2021 MLB season is just getting underway, but we're now closer to the trade deadline (eight weeks and two days) than we are Opening Day (eight weeks and six days). That happened fast, huh? The All-Star break is only six weeks away.
Our weekly series examining various trends across the league continues with a look at a slugger turning his season around, an aging pitcher at the top of his game, and one bullpen's terrible month. Last week we broke down the Blue Jays in Dunedin, Jesse Winker's power breakout, the Rockies' road woes.
Pham's return to form
Tommy Pham's first season with the San Diego Padres did not go according to plan. He tested positive for COVID-19 shortly after summer camp opened, then suffered a broken hamate bone in his right hand in August. It sidelined him about a month. In 31 games around the virus and hand injury, Pham authored a meager .211/.312/.312 batting line with three home runs.
Things did not get better in the offseason. Pham was stabbed in the lower back during an altercation outside a San Diego strip club in October and required surgery, though no organs were damaged. He also had surgery to repair cartilage damage in his left wrist at some point over the winter. Those five months from July through November took a toll on Pham.
Early on this season, all the injuries and health problems appeared to hamper Pham at the plate. He hit .179/.209/.194 in April and did not have his first multi-hit game of the year until May 2. On the morning of May 21, Pham was sitting on .182/.313/.218 batting line, and a .191/.313/.265 batting line in 259 plate appearances as a Padre. He'd been one of the worst hitters in baseball.
The tide is beginning to turn, however. Pham went 2 for 3 with a triple on May 21, and three days later he slugged a home run against Brewers lefty Angel Perdomo. With a 108-mph exit velocity, it was Pham's hardest hit fly ball since Aug. 2019, and at 430 feet, it was his longest home run since July 2020.
After going deep Tuesday, Pham is now 15 for 47 (.319) with a double, two triples, three home runs, and nearly as many walks (11) as strikeouts (14) in his last 12 games. At one point he strung together four consecutive multi-hit games after having only four multi-hit games in his previous 69 regular season contests dating back to last season.
"His at-bats have been a lot better," Padres manager Jayce Tingler told reporters, including MLB.com's Shaun O'Neill, this past weekend. "He's getting on base. Now there's a combination -- he's getting on base with a great eye, and he's starting to slug a little bit. So I think that's a really good combination."
Pham is only in the early stages of turning his season around. His expected batting average, which Statcast calculates using quality of contact measures like exit velocity and launch angle, sits at .254. His expected slugging percentage is .450. Here are the largest gaps between actual slugging percentage and expected slugging percentage going into Tuesday (min. 150 plate appearances):
- David Bote, Cubs: .154 (.333 SLG vs. .487 xSLG)
- Tommy Pham, Padres: .132 (.318 SLG vs. .450 xSLG)
- Jorge Soler, Royals: .131 (.314 SLG vs. .445 xSLG)
- Juan Soto, Nationals: .128 (.387 SLG vs. .515 xSLG)
- Alec Bohm, Phillies: .124 (.302 SLG vs. .426 xSLG)
More than anything, Pham looks like a player who is starting to get healthy after a rough year. He had COVID, surgery on both hands/wrists, and had a near-death experience off the field. This is a player who hit .284/.381/.475 in over 1,700 plate appearances from 2017-19. When healthy, Pham is a very good hitter, and he's starting to get back to being that guy as he gets further away from his physical issues.
"If you continue to work hard and you stay focused on the process, you start seeing some results," Pham recently told reporters, including Kevin Acee of the San Diego Union-Tribune. "... You really just have to work on a month-by-month basis and evaluate yourself from there. To have a great season it takes two good months and four average months. I had a terrible month. I need to have three good months this year and two average months to make up for it."
Hill's May to remember
On Monday, Tampa Bay Rays left-hander Rich Hill stymied an admittedly weak Yankees offense, holding them to three singles and two walks in five shutout innings. That came six days after Hill struck out a career-high 13 batters in eight innings against the Royals. In his last seven starts, Hill has allowed zero runs four times, one run twice, and two runs once.
"Limiting runs, a lot," Rays manager Kevin Cash told reporters, including Marc Topkin of the Tampa Bay Times, when asked about Hill's season on Monday. "He's feeling really good on the mound right now. Pitchers go through stretches where everything lines up for them. All the pitches are working and are kind of at the top of his game. Right now, he's featuring his best weapons of the season so far, and he's been able to string it together."
In six starts in May, the 41-year-old Hill pitched to a 0.78 ERA and held opponents to a .145/.242/.214 batting line. Here are the best individual months (by ERA) among 40-somethings since earned runs became an official stat in 1913 (min. 25 innings):
- Eppa Rixey, age 41: 0.60 ERA (Aug. 1932 with Reds)
- Johnny Niggeling, age 42: 0.64 ERA (May 1946 with Senators)
- Rich Hill, age 41: 0.78 ERA (May 2021 with Rays)
- Johnny Niggeling, age 40: 0.79 ERA (Sept. 1943 with Senators)
- Kenny Rogers, age 40: 0.98 ERA (May 2005 with Rangers)
Furthermore, YES Network researcher James Smyth notes Hill is the first pitcher age 41-plus to lead his league in ERA in a calendar month since Roger Clemens in May 2005. Hall of Famers Satchel Paige, Hoyt Wilhelm, and Nolan Ryan (twice) are the only other pitchers who have done it. It's not often a pitcher Hill's age is this effective, even for just a one-month stretch.
Since reviving his career in 2015, Hill has never not been excellent when on the mound. The only question is health. He averaged 109.3 innings per year from 2016-19, and he's already thrown nearly as many innings this season (57) as he did in 2019 (58 2/3). Health is a concern, and fatigue could become a factor as well. (Hill threw 38 2/3 innings during the 60-game 2020 season).
History suggests Hill, who has battled blister problems (among other things), will spend time on the injured list at some point. The Rays knew that when they signed him to a one-year deal worth $2.5 million. They will happily take elite performance from him for as long as possible before figuring out how to cover the rest of the innings, and to date, it's working wonderfully.
"I think that's been proven over my career," Hill told Topkin about his effectiveness this year. "That's what I say, keep working and continue to put in the time and the effort, and good things happen."
Houston bullpen's May to forget
At 15-12, the Houston Astros had one of the six best records in the American League in May, and they did it despite a bullpen that can generously be described as deficient. The bullpen surrendered 70 runs (only 53 earned because of the extra innings auto-runner) in 93 innings in May, and allowed a .253/.353/.429 opponent's batting line. That ain't good.
"(Zack) Greinke was outstanding," Astros manager Dusty Baker told reporters, including the Associated Press, after Greinke threw eight innings this past Sunday. "... We badly needed this to give the bullpen a rest because we didn't have like four guys out there."
The Astros bullpen blew a one-run lead in eighth inning lead Friday and a five-run lead in the eighth and ninth innings Saturday. The bullpen allowed six runs in 8 2/3 innings in those games in regulation time, then another 13 runs in five extra innings. That includes a seven-run 11th inning Friday. You can't blame all that on the extra innings auto-runner.
Baker's veteran high-leverage crew (Ryan Pressly, Brooks Raley, Joe Smith, Ryne Stanek) combined to allow 29 runs (23 earned) in 40 1/3 innings in May. As a fan, there's nothing quite as nerve-wracking as an untrustworthy bullpen in the late innings of a close game. Here's where Houston's bullpen ranked among the 30 MLB team in May:
- ERA: 5.13 (26th)
- FIP: 5.13 (28th)
- WHIP: 1.54 (27th)
- Strikeout rate: 21.5 percent (25th)
- Walk rate: 12.3 percent (25th)
- Home run rate: 1.5 per nine innings (28th)
- Swing and miss rate: 9.5 percent (30th)
- Shutdowns: 22 (12th fewest)
- Meltdowns: 22 (2nd most)
Shutdowns are relief appearances that improve the team's win probability at least six percent and meltdowns are the opposite. They are relief appearances that decrease the team's win probability at least six percent. The Astros, Angels, Orioles, and Phillies were the only teams with at least as many meltdowns as shutdowns in May. Not the best company for Houston.
The traditional (ERA, WHIP, etc.) and nerdy (FIP, meltdowns, etc.) stats agree the Astros bullpen was a mess in May. It was better in April (3.99 ERA, 4.32 FIP, 1.22 WHIP), though it was not dominant. The bullpen has been a real sore spot for the Astros this year and the problem went from bad in April to worse in May. It's a legitimate concern at this point.
Jake Odorizzi and Framber Valdez returned this past weekend, pushing Cristian Javier into the bullpen. He'll help some, though there's still room for another reliever or two. This might be this core's last year together given all the impending free agents (Carlos Correa, Justin Verlander, etc.), so there's no sense in holding back at the deadline. Houston should be aggressive come July 30.
"It's something that needs to be addressed," GM James Click said Sunday, according to the Houston Chronicle's Chandler Rome. "It's something that we will address with the players that we have. We know that there will be ups and downs in the season, especially with a young bullpen like this ... We know that there will be these ups and downs. We need to be cognizant of all of those things when assessing the group that we have, but at the same time, we need to cut out the unforced errors."