Champ or Chump: Paul DeJong & Tommy Pham

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September is always a challenging month for this column, as nearly anything can happen in a month-long sample. The production expected based on underlying metrics is still the most likely outcome, but it is impossible to say that it will be realized over the next 30 days. Trade deadlines have also passed in most leagues, limiting an owner's ability to acquire players not currently on their roster. The analysis that follows could be considered a head start on 2018 draft prep as a result.

This doesn't mean that it cannot be applied to 2017, as you likely want to know if your breakout performer is likely to turn into a zero over the final month. With that said, let's take a closer look at the latest no-names to put up elite numbers in St. Louis: Paul DeJong and Tommy Pham. Will they continue to defy preseason expectations?

Ownership rates provided are from Yahoo! leagues.

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The Fantasy Jury is Out

Paul DeJong (2B/SS, STL) 69% Owned

DeJong has destroyed MLB pitching in his first exposure to it, compiling a .293/.326/.549 line with 20 HR in 334 PAs. The success was foreshadowed by a 190 PA taste of Triple-A before his call-up this year (.299/.339/.571 with 13 HR), but his previous work in the minors was nowhere near this level (.260/.324/.460 with 22 HR in 552 PAs at Double-A last season). Which is the real DeJong?

The answer is probably something in between. DeJong's pop looks real, as he combines a robust FB% (43% this year) with a strong Pull% on fly balls (29.5%) and above average airborne exit velocity (93.8 mph). He is also Barreling the ball at an above average rate (9% Brls/BBE). The strong fly ball profile was consistent throughout his minor league career (44.7% at Triple-A this year, 41.8% at Double-A in 2016), so he will probably continue to lift baseballs. His HR/FB (21.1%) matches his Triple-A mark (22%), but his work at Double-A wasn't quite as strong (14.9%). Slight regression may be coming, but DeJong hits enough flies to reliably contribute power.

His favorable batting average does not stand up to the same scrutiny, however. He is striking out 29% of the time against a 3.9% BB%, suggesting atrocious plate discipline. His 35.2% chase rate isn't as bad as you might expect, but a SwStr% of 14.1% suggests that the Ks aren't going anywhere. DeJong also struggled with plate discipline at Triple-A (24.2% K%, 4.7% BB%) and Double-A (26.1% K%, 7.2% BB%), so the issue is nothing new for him. Still, it is very hard to post a fantasy-friendly batting average with this many strikeouts.

DeJong has done so thus far with a .363 BABIP, but there is no way that the mark is sustainable for him. His extreme fly ball profile is bad for BABIP, especially since he hits more than his fair share of pop-ups (13.7% IFFB%). He likely lacks the speed to sustain his current .282 BABIP on ground balls, as he never stole bases in the minor leagues. His 62.8% Pull% on the ground could also make him susceptible to the shift (.176 in 17 PAs). Opposing teams did not shift against DeJong at first, but 13 of those 17 shifted PAs came in the month of August. His average exit velocity on the ground (80.3 mph) isn't special either, making ground ball regression very likely.

DeJong also has a league average LD% of 21.7%, a number fitting perfectly into his minor league history save an inflated 27.3% rate in his brief stop at Triple-A. That mark contributed to a .336 BABIP, but remember that shifts are considerably rarer on the farm. DeJong lacks the contact quality necessary to sustain his current .875 BABIP on liners as well, so he'll probably struggle to stay above .300 at the MLB level.

DeJong projects as a power bat with a low batting average, a profile that isn't exactly scarce in 2017. He stands out from the crowd with eligibility at both middle infield positions in nearly all formats (20 games at 2B, 60 at SS) and an extremely favorable batting order slot (third), so he should probably be owned in all leagues. Just brace for a batting average hit if you roster him.

Verdict: Champ

 
Tommy Pham (OF, STL) 75% Owned

Pham has been among the most valuable assets in all of fantasy baseball this year, posting a .311/.407/.522 triple slash line with 19 HR and 17 SB in 431 PAs. His MLB career includes only 789 PAs including this season, so you may be surprised to learn that Pham is already 29 years old. Is this the ultimate fluke or a late-blooming star?

Once again, the answer is somewhere in between. Pham legitimately has the tools to post an elite batting average, as his plate discipline (22.5% K%, 12.5% K%) and BABIP (.375) are both excellent. A minuscule 20.1% chase rate supports the walks, making Pham a tremendous asset in leagues counting OBP. His 7.7% SwStr% is also significantly better than his league average K% would suggest, potentially leading to fewer strikeouts in the near future.

The .375 BABIP may seem ridiculous, but Pham's profile supports an elevated mark. He hits a ton of grounders (51.7% GB%) with the foot speed and above average exit velocity (85.7 mph) to take advantage of them, producing a .293 BABIP on the ground. He also pulls less than half of his grounders (49.3%), so the shift is worthless against Pham. His career BABIP on ground balls is .282, so no significant regression looks imminent.

Pham also has a slightly elevated LD% (22.9%), and his BABIP on liners is in keeping with his career norm (.742 vs. .736 career). His fly balls may be overachieving a little (.140 vs. .126 career), but there is no smoking gun here that raises any major red flags. Pham's true talent BABIP may be around .340, a mark destined to produce very strong batting averages with all of the baseballs Pham puts into play.

A grounder-heavy profile is a double-edged sword, of course, as it severely limits Pham's power upside. He puts just 25.5% of his batted balls into the air, forcing him to run an outrageous HR/FB (currently 27.5%) to help fantasy teams in the power categories. His average airborne exit velocity (93.8 mph), 9.2% rate of Brls/BBE, 21.7% Pull% on fly balls, and previous MLB exposure (26.2% career HR/FB) all support a strong HR/FB, but probably not this strong.

This season represents more than half of Pham's MLB career, so his current HR/FB has a greater influence on his career numbers than usual. The other numbers are strong but not elite, making it challenging to believe the elite HR/FB. Pham easily does enough with fly balls to consider hitting more of them, but he shouldn't be counted on as a power contributor until he does so.

Pham's 17 swipes come attached to six CS, a 74% success rate that just barely justifies his running game. He has also never taken more than 20 bags in a single professional season, so he lacks the upside to dominate the category in the way a guy like Jarrod Dyson can. Pham's steals are valuable, but don't expect him to pilfer 30+ anytime soon.

In short, Pham projects as a strong batting average with an elite OBP and some steals, but little power. The Cardinals consistently hit him second, so he gets more counting stats than is typical for this profile. Pham has fantasy uses, but he's not the superstar he looks like at first glance. Selling high is no longer possible with most trade deadlines having expired, so avoid overpaying in 2018.

Verdict: Chump

 

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