Throwing away the veil of reasonable criticisms in regards to Eric Thames, one can’t help but admire the journey of the former and once again major leaguer. The Brewers presumably new first baseman, who signed with Milwaukee for $15 million over three years with a $7.5 million club option for a fourth year, has finally exited off the road less traveled.
Thames, who was drafted by the Blue Jays in 2008 at 22 years-old, made his big league debut with Toronto in 2011. He played 141 games with the Jays, slashing .257/.306/.431. In a 2012 trade, the Mariners acquired him.
Managing only 40 games with Seattle over the course of a full calendar year, moving up and down between Seattle and Triple-A Tacoma, the M’s traded him to the Orioles in June of 2013, where he played solely at Triple-A Norfolk, and subsequently waived by the O’s in September of that same year. The Astros claimed and held onto Thames for two months before selling his contract in December, opening the door for his eventual three-year stint in South Korea.
In 181 major league games, Thames managed a -0.1 fWAR. For a hitter built like an on-base slasher, his 25.6 strikeout percent cast a mighty shadow over his 5.6 walk percentage. At that point in time, it looked like Thames was destined to be a Chris Dickerson/Chris Parmelee type of player. Moving from team to team every offseason, receiving and accepting the first availability of a big league opportunity, never viewed as any semblance of a long-term solution.
Or so it seemed.
Thames not only salvaged his reputation, but did so by going against his own predisposed grain. In three years with the NC Dinos, Thames managed the gaudiest of slash lines, hitting .347/.448/.714 with 126 home runs in 1,673 plate appearances.
Averaging a 1.162 OPS over three years, Thames was even named the KBO MVP in 2015. Of course the on-base numbers were impressive enough, as was his willingness to run on the base paths (averaged 21.3 stolen bases per year), but the prodigious display of consistent power is what eventually convinced teams of his necessary return to the United States.
It’s often said that the level of KBO play probably equates somewhere between Double-A and Triple-A here in the states, meaning any sample taken from South Korea has to be taken with an even more conservative grain of salt. Recent arrivals Hyun Soo Kim, Jung Ho Kang, Byung Ho Park and Dae Ho Lee have all seen their offensive numbers take predictive tumbles, though some have been more productive than others. The KBO after all, is known as a hitters’ league.
Sure Thames inherits the added benefit of previous big league experience but more importantly, he isn’t the anywhere near the same hitter he was when left in 2013. There will surely be those who see his cartoonish numbers and point to the level of competition overseas and a high offensive environment, but Thames has remastered who he is at the plate. He’s something demonstratively and dangerously legitimate.
Without completely disavowing Thames’ inherent traits, it’s easy to forget he’s built like he invented CrossFit. He came into the big leagues with a solid frame, a twitchy swing and a maneuverable set of hands, all tools linked to consistent power.
In his 684 big league plate appearances, Thames averaged a 37.1 percent fly ball rate. T put that into perspective, it would put him among the top 60 players in 2016 in regards to lifting the baseball. Though a career 13.8 HR/FB rate may seem mediocre, because it is, Thames did fairly well in cashing in on his tries given his established approach. And sometimes, he really demonstrated his innate strength.
To hit a no-doubter deep into Safeco Field’s uncommonly spacious right-center gap is a feat very few left-handed hitters can claim. There were times this kind of power revealed itself, but more often than not, his swing was more branded to what he really was: a tentative hitter with potential but not in-game power.
Looking at Thames most recent spray chart from 2012, the majority of the baseballs that found the outfield were actually hit to the opposite field. A lot of that because, as the above shows, Thames’ approach lacked aggression.
You see a player who is a little bendy in his lower-half, thinking more about getting from Point A to Point B, rather than exploding through from start to finish. Four years ago, Thames was a hitter who wasn’t using the entirety of his body in attacking the baseball. Granted, a fastball on the outer-half of the plate is admittedly not the best evidence in judging a swing, but it doesn’t take away the stiffness and hesitancy he showed.
Fast forward to 2016, and Thames is no longer stiff, but he’s entirely free-flowing.
That flattish swing of his has been transformed into a more pronounced uppercut, unleashing the hidden strength we sparingly saw in his previous big league tenure. In nearly all of the available videos of Thames’ time in the KBO, you see that he’s no longer handcuffed. His hands are extending through the baseball and consequently, his swing is freer.
A hitter’s power lies in the core of his torso, and by getting taller in his stance and into a quicker hitting position, he gives himself more time to recognize and react.
In addition to improved mechanics, Thames has transformed his physique. Only a few seasons ago, his playing weight could be estimated around 205 pounds, though he looks even bulkier than that number.
According to ESPN’s Jerry Crasnick, Thames is now playing around 220 pounds, the weight appearing to be more in his thighs and his chest. He went from looking like a slot receiver to a strong safety, and funny enough, he’s started to quite literally lower the boom. The added benefits of muscle and fine-tuning have not only turned pull shots into majestic beauties, but opened himself up to the rest of the outfield.
Another look at Thames’ spray chart evidences a lot of fly ball outs to left field, and again, that can be attributed to a few things. Where Thames was getting too long in his swing, dragging the bat rather than imposing his will through the strike zone, he was commonly rewarded with lazy fly balls caught by the left fielder. Clearly having trimmed his mechanics down to a more compact motion, this not only exploits the inner-half with more frequency, but the outer-half as well.
As we saw before, Thames was unable to get his hands into position with enough haste, causing the bat head to greet the baseball too deep into the plate. With a quicker step and quieter load, Thames now finds himself capable of contacting the baseball outward. You see his much more stable and upright with access to his big legs and out-facing core.
From where he was a few years ago to where he is now, this is the kind of swing that increases the potential for opposite field dingers and extra-base hits to the left-center field gap, whcih ultimately gets him a change back in the big leagues.
The question of competition has stigmatized even the most of accomplished of KBO-adapted hitters such as Hyun Soo Kim and Byung Ho Park. As impressive as Thames’ blossoming has been, most of these videos were him squaring up 86-87-88 MPH fastballs and hanging breaking stuff, so that grain of salt is undoubtedly bitter. The here-there-and-back-again is going to be an unpleasant process for Thames, but there is way too much to like to think he won’t be able to live up to his modest price.
When speaking to Vice Sports’ Blake Murphy earlier this year, Thames recalled a conversation he had with then-Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopolous, who presented him with an ultimatum.
"I remember Alex Anthopoulos sat me down at the beginning of 2012—and this was during the season—and he said, 'We want you to walk more and hit more home runs.' And I was like, 'Uhhh OK. I'm gonna try,'" Thames said. "But do you know how hard that is?"
It looks like Anthopolous was certainly onto something with Thames. After the fact, it’s evident the tools were always there, and as frustrating as that may be for all of his previous organizations, sometimes things just don’t click. Having reframed his technical faults while piggybacking off his inherent gifts, Thames has made it click and the Brewers look poised to benefit.
Nick is a writer for Beyond the Box Score, as well as Camden Chat, SB Nation’s Baltimore Orioles blog. If you so choose, you can follow his Orioles musings on Twitter at @Swissere.