Three weeks into the season, Eric Thames is one of the more interesting players in all of baseball. The Milwaukee Brewers took a chance on the 30-year-old Korean Baseball Organization star to play first base, signing him to a three-year, $16 million contract. Thus far, they’re being rewarded as Thames has done more than could have been expected of him. He’s posted a .415/.500/.981 slash line with a wRC+ of 287. To top it all off, his 1.6 WAR leads all of baseball.
How did he get to this point?
Thames was originally drafted by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008. He worked his way up through their minor-league system and made his major-league debut in 2011, playing in 95 games. Thames proved to be just an above-average player, posting 0.6 WAR with a 107 wRC+ in 394 plate appearances. He manned the corners of the Blue Jays outfield, as he doesn’t possess the ability to play a more rigorous position.
Thames didn’t have the same success in 2012 with the Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners. He posted a -0.7 WAR and an 82 wRC+ in 290 plate appearances. Thames’s plate discipline seemingly worsened. His walk percentage remained virtually the same at 5.2% after being 5.8% in 2011 and his strikeout rate rose from 22.3% to 30.0%. Thames then spent 2013 in the Mariners and Baltimore Orioles minor-league systems before he was out of MLB altogether.
Instead of bouncing around the minor leagues, Thames spent the last three seasons playing in South Korea for the NC Dinos, where he put up a ridiculous slash line of .348/.450/.720 with 124 home runs and won the 2015 MVP award. It’s widely known the level of play in the Korean Baseball Organization isn’t the same as in the United States. The ballparks are more condensed and the pitchers aren’t as talented as they are stateside. However, something must have resonated with Thames during the last three years that has increased his level of play.
Mainly his eye at the plate.
There is a distinct change in Thames’s plate discipline when one compares his early success this season to his earlier MLB seasons. Although it’s only 62 plate appearances, Thames is walking at a 12.9% rate and is striking out 19.4% of the time. He’s also a more selective hitter, swinging at fewer pitches outside the strike zone and fewer pitches overall.
As for the strikeouts – the Brewers can live with the swings and misses if the power is there. Power is almost a necessary tool if you’re going to play first base. Thames is producing like a power hitter with 14 extra base hits – eight of them home runs. His hard contact percentage is at 53.7%, compared to 34.2% when he last played in the MLB, and he has an ISO of .566. Thames has excellent strength as he displays the ability to drive an outside pitch for a home run. An example is Thames’s second home run of the game against the Cincinnati Reds on April 15.
With his team down 6-4 in the top of the seventh inning, Thames awaits the 1-2 count against left-handed pitcher Tony Cingrani. Cingrani throws a fastball to the outside portion of the zone. Prior to the pitch, Thames loads his hands. As he begins to swing, Thames gets his hands, hips, and shoulders through the zone. His head never moves off his shoulder. He recognizes the pitch is on the outer half of the plate and gets full extension with his arms, driving the pitch the other way towards the middle of the field. It takes a lot of forearm and wrist strength to do what Thames did on this pitch, as it almost seems like he just flicks his wrists. The ball ends up way past the 404’ marker in centerfield as a result.
Thames’s success is due to being more selective at the plate and an increase in quality of contact. His time in South Korea might have possibly increased his confidence helping him psychologically at the plate as well. As Rick Rowand pointed out, it looks as if Thames also altered his stance. Prior to his stint in Korea, his stance made it difficult for him to turn his hips and thus he had a tendency to get locked up at the plate. Now he’s more square to the plate, keeping his hips loose and thus allowing his bat to spend more time in the zone. Another possibility is that due to lower velocities in the KBO, Thames had to learn to wait on pitches. It is impossible to expect Thames to maintain this level of production, but his change in approach and plate discipline don’t seem to be luck, despite the small sample size. As long as he continues to lay off poor pitches and hit for power, Thames should be a valuable player moving forward.
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Featured image courtesy of John Minchillo/AP Photo.