Typically, when you hear the phrase, “Good eye!” on a baseball field, it means the batter has correctly made the split-second decision to not swing at a ball outside the strike zone. The phrase is not to be referring to the batter’s eyesight in general, but rather how their optical perception coincided with their decision making on that particular pitch. In fact, having a “good eye” at the plate has much more to do with a hitter’s ability to anticipate and recognize pitches than it does with his actual vision. However, for Cardinals outfielder his literal optical capabilities are priority number one as he suffers from a degenerative eye disease called Keratoconus that has the potential to severely limit his vision depending on the day.
Despite all of these unique hardships, Pham has battled through the minors for eleven seasons, never losing sight of his goal (no pun intended). At age 29, the toolsy outfielder has been the Cardinals best player during their playoff push, despite not getting the call to the big leagues until early May. By contributing in all facets of the game, Pham finds himself 12th in the National League in WAR, ahead of Anthony Rizzo and Buster Posey.
At times throughout Pham’s career he has found himself legally blind due to his eye condition, but this year he has found a consistent treatment to manage his condition and unsurprisingly his plate discipline and contact rates have improved dramatically as a result. After all, it helps when you can see the ball.
During his stint with the Cardinals last year, Pham had a Contact% of just 66.1%, this year he has improved that number to 79.9%, good for a 13.8% change. Over the last 15 years, that is the single highest increase in Contact% from one year to the next.
It should come as no surprise that with improved contact skills, Pham would experience a huge drop off in strikeouts. In his 183 at-bats in 2016, Pham struck out 38.8% of the time. This season he has trimmed that number to 22.7%, which is below the league average.
One of a hitter’s biggest tool is the ability to use his vision to pick up spin on the ball in order to identify pitch type. When Pham was deprived of this ability, it made him extremely vulnerable, especially to breaking pitches. Pham has cut his O-Swing% down to 21.8% this season, down from 26.6%. Cutting down on his chase rate is directly tied to his ability to identify and lay off breaking pitches. A year ago, Pham’s whiff rate on off speed pitches was 43.75%, this year he has cut that number down to 25.7%.
Out of all the player’s on this list, plate discipline has generally been the driving factor for their turnarounds, but for Pham the circumstances are just a little bit different. The other players on the “All-Adjustment Team” made the choice to change their plate approach, but for Pham, developing a disciplined approach was just a matter of being able to actually see the ball.
While managing his eye condition has lead to clear improvement at the plate, the batter’s box isn’t the only place where improved vision has helped him.
Despite being a fleet footed, athletic outfielder, Pham had been a rather poor defender before this year. This year, however, Pham has become a whole new player defensively.
Here is a table showing Pham’s improved defensive performance:
|Defensive Runs Saved (DRS)||ARM||RngR||UZR||UZR / 150|
Traditionally speaking, a player doesn’t just go from being a below average defender to a gold glove contender in one season, so I think it is fair to attribute this improvement to his vision as well. As an outfielder, one of the biggest factors dictating range is the initial read you get on the ball, which is primarily determined by vision. It is no surprise then that Pham’s improved vision has allowed him to take a quicker, more efficient first step, leading to a near 9 run improvement in his RngR (runs saved due to range).
Improved reads off the bat have allowed Pham to cover more ground in the outfield and ultimately make more plays for Cardinals pitchers.
Pham has been one of my favorite players to root for this year. He is not only a dynamic player, but his ability to stay dedicated and persevere through adversity reminds us why we love sports.