The SI.com Debate Series will pit two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, Gabriel Baumgaertner and Michael Beller debate Christian Yelich and Tommy Pham.
Gabriel Baumgaertner makes the case for Yelich over Pham…
Christian Yelich may never blow you away with his weekly performances, but he’s one of the fundamental pieces to keep your fantasy team in contention. The newly minted Milwaukee Brewer is free from the constraints of Marlins Park, and he may be a down-ballot MVP candidate in his age-26 season.
It’s impossible to identify what Yelich doesn’t do. He’s durable, playing at least 126 games in each of the last four seasons, including 150-plus in 2016 and ‘17. He logged a career high 80 walks last year en route to a .369 on-base percentage. He scored a career-high 100 runs in 2017, despite a career-low batting average of .282. He stole 16 bases in 18 tries. He’s hit 39 homers over his last two seasons. He strikes out a fair amount, but he sports a high walk rate, good power and a decent extra-base hit rate.
There isn’t a single red flag in his entire offensive profile.
Yelich and fellow new Brewer Lorenzo Cain will likely hit 1-2 in the lineup. That will keep a bit of a cap on Yelich’s RBI potential, but he’ll be a threat to score 100 runs again with Cain, Travis Shaw, Domingo Santana and Ryan Braun behind him in the lineup. He can also recoup some of what he loses in the RBI department by leaving the yard more often, now that he has traded Marlins Park for the hitter-friendly environment of Miller Park. Yelich carries a legitimate 30-homer ceiling this year, and if Orlando Arcia takes the next step and Jonathan Villar bounces back, he could have more RBI opportunities than the typical leadoff man. Add that to an average that seldom dips below .280 and you have an incredibly valuable fantasy asset. He’s worth the reach if you’re looking for a player that will help you make the playoffs.
Michael Beller makes the case for Pham over Yelich…
If you’re reading a fantasy baseball debate between Pham and Yelich, chances are you already know the former’s story. Diagnosed with a degenerative eye disease, keratoconus, in 2008, Pham has had to painstakingly manage his vision for the last 10 years. It started with surgery to stop the erosion of his cornea, and has continued, ever since, with a steady flow of new contact lenses as the condition of his eyes change over time. There were successes, mostly in the minors, along the way, but after Pham hit .245/.333/.455 with 14 homers in his first 136 games in the majors, failing to force his way into a consistent role across three seasons, it seemed the vision issues would get the best of him.
All that changed last year. Pham got a new set of lenses before the 2017 season, and it’s safe to say he finally found the right match. He started the year with Triple-A Memphis, but quickly proved he was too good for that level now that he could, you know, see the ball. He hit .283/.371/.500 in about a month of action, earning a promotion back to the majors. He then became, in no uncertain terms, the best player on the Cardinals.
Pham broke out last season to the tune of a .306/.411/.520 slash line with 23 homers, 22 doubles, 25 steals, 73 RBI and 95 runs scored. He racked up 6.4 bWAR, which had him just outside the top 10, and ahead of players like Kris Bryant and Paul Goldschmidt. Pham proved last season that he has the ceiling of a top-25 fantasy hitter. Yelich, as good as he is, cannot say the same.
There will always be some risk tied to Pham. His vision could get worse, and the contact lenses that worked so well for him last year could no longer be the answer. Someone out there reading this is probably an eye doctor, but most of us aren’t. Even the eye doctor likely couldn’t project if and how Pham’s vision will change without examining him. All we can do is look for proof that the lenses he used last year fueled his breakout season. We don’t have to search too long to find the evidence.
First, let me start by saying that it’s pretty hard to amass the numbers that we already touched on if you can’t see at the plate. That’s a solid jumping-off point. We also want to see differences in the 2017 Pham against the version that played parts of three seasons in the majors before last year, and we can find those in abundance. Let’s start with his walk rate, a good indication of how well a hitter is seeing the ball. Pham’s jumped to 13.4% last year, ranking 16th in the majors. It was 10.9% for his career going into 2017. We’re just getting started.
Pham’s o-swing rate, the frequency with which he swung at pitches outside the strike zone, was 19% last season. Only Joey Votto and Matt Carpenter swung at fewer balls than Pham. His o-swing rate was 25.4% in 2016, and 27.3% in 2015. Hitters can tailor their approach to swing at fewer pitches outside the strike zone, but we’re talking about a 25% reduction in o-swing rate, year over year. That doesn’t happen by accident. We’re still not done.
Another strong indicator of how well a hitter is seeing the ball is how often he makes contact. Pham wasn’t exactly great at that before last season, registering a contact rate of 66.1% in 2016. If he had enough plate appearances to qualify, he would have ranked 145th out of 147 hitters in contact rate, ahead of a couple of whiff-happy sluggers, Chris Davis and Chris Carter. Last year, Pham’s contact rate jumped to 79.9%. That sort of year-over-year change is likely impossible to achieve simply through on-the-field growth, such as gaining a better understanding of the strike zone, or how pitchers want to attack you. Given what we know about Pham, we can safely say that he finally found the right contacts, and that they opened up an entirely new baseball world for him.
There may be risk tied to Pham, but with that comes the possibility for great reward. Remember that Pham spent a month in the minors last season. There is legitimate 30-30 potential here, and he likely brings a 20-20 floor to the table. How many other players have that club in their bag? I count three: Mike Trout, Jose Altuve and Mookie Betts. Last season may represent Pham’s best, but that still makes him a game-changing selection at his ADP, and a better fantasy player than Yelich. That much is easy for anyone to see.