The fan base of the Milwaukee Brewers were left collectively shaking their heads when it was reported that the club planned to non-tender Chris Carter. The league’s reigning home run champion (with Nolan Arenado) was projected for an $8.1 mil salary in arbitration by MLB Trade Rumors after earning $3 mil during the 2016 campaign, though Milwaukee’s league-low payroll would’ve been able to withstand the impending increase. The team officially designated Carter for assignment the following day on 29 November, after announcing the signing of Carter’s replacement, Eric Thames.
Thames earned a $16 mil guarantee over a three year term from Milwaukee after mashing 124 home runs with a 1.171 OPS in Korea from 2014-16. Thames previously spent time in the big leagues in 2011-12 with the Blue Jays and Mariners and posted a 96 wRC+ in 181 MLB contests, though his game featured a lot of swing-and-miss (30% K rate in 2012) without much in the way of on-base capability (5.6% career BB rate) and only slightly above-average power numbers (.182 ISO). That, combined with the fact that his Ruthian production overseas came in a league where the average pitcher posted a 5.22 ERA in 2016, make Thames a bit of a wild card going forward; Nick Stellini of Fangraphs opined that the move to replace Carter with Thames essentially amounted to a cost-cutting maneuver that will save the club some $4-5 mil in salary during what figures to be a noncompetitive 2017 season.
If you’re a believer in the various projection systems, however, there appears to be plenty of reason for optimism. On the day the move was announced, ZiPS developer Dan Szymborski tweeted out his three-year projections for Thames. His system valued the slugger at 4.2 WAR over the life of his three-year contract, which translates to roughly $28-$32 mil in $/WAR production. Even that conjecture appears modest when compared to Thames’ recently-published Steamer projections, however, and Clay Davenport’s (one of the founders of Baseball Prospectus) forecast for 2017 is even more toe-curling:
The projections clearly buy the idea that Eric’s power gains in Korea are for real; even the lowest of the three on him, ZiPS, projects him for a SLG that’s 68 points higher and an ISO that is 80 points higher than the league averages from 2016. Steamer and Davenport both see higher walk totals and lower strikeout rates (significantly so in the case of Davenport) than ZiPS does and as a result project Thames to put together much shinier numbers: an .865 OPS from Steamer and a whopping .891 OPS per Davenport’s model.
The Steamer projection for Thames’ defensive and positional adjustment would’ve ranked him right on par with the median MLB first baseman last season, giving credence to the idea that he should be an upgrade over the iron-gloved Carter at the number three position. His ability to steal double-digit bases is obviously an improvement over the outgoing, heavy-footed slugger, and though the projections don’t figure he’ll crack near as many balls over the fence, the algorithms say that his overall offensive game should be more productive than CC.
Before we start shaking too much with anticipation, however, Dave Cameron of Fangraphs cautions us to take a measured approach to these numbers:
Now, of course, projections aren’t gospel. And we know that pretty much every team in baseball has their own projection systems at this point, and if even a few teams had similar forecasts and put a lot of stock into those numbers, Thames would have gotten more than 3/$15M. So the fact that the market just valued him like a part-time bench player is also a data point we should consider, and is perhaps a good indicator that there might be reasons to think the public forecasts might be a bit too optimistic.
And Daniel Brim of Dodgers’ Digest was also quick to pour a little cold water on us:
Thames might be good now but you shouldn’t base it on MLEs. KBO is crazy and the cross-over sample is too small. https://t.co/oRrNcedPWE— Daniel Brim (@DanielBrim) January 5, 2017
I don't hate projection systems as a whole. My main issue is that error bars should be more visible and Thames' are too big to be useful.— Daniel Brim (@DanielBrim) January 5, 2017
Or, to phrase another way: Eric Thames might be really good now, but unless the case is 95% scouting-based it's not worth much attention.— Daniel Brim (@DanielBrim) January 5, 2017
Regarding Brim’s last point, there does at least appear to be some scouting-based evidence that Thames has made some real mechanical adjustments during his time in Korea that could lend to some success in transitioning back to the MLB. Nick Cicere dove into analyzing Thames’ swing earlier this winter for Beyond the Box Score, saying that Thames came into the league with a “solid frame, twitchy swing, and maneuverable set of hands,” all tools that lend to in-game power. Cicere concluded that during his first trial in the big leagues, though, Thames was a “tentative” hitter whose “approach lacked aggression” and who “wasn’t using the entirety of his body in attacking the baseball” with a stiff and hesitant swing.
Four years later, however, Thames once-flat swing has become a more pronounced uppercut with his hands “extending through the baseball and consequently, his swing is freer.” Cicere credits Thames for compacting his mechanics rather than allowing his bat to drag through the zone, saying that he now “not only exploits the inner-half with more frequency, but the outer-half as well...With a quicker step and quieter load, Thames now finds himself capable of contacting the baseball outward...much more stable and upright with access to his big legs and out-facing core.” He adds that Thames has put on another 15 pounds of muscle since he was last seen stateside, calling him “built like he invented Cross-fit.”
Cicere does warn, however, that most of the fastballs that Thames saw in Korea were in the 86-88 MPH range, so just how he’ll be able to translate back to facing big league caliber pitching remains to be seen.
Hopefully the player that Thames was in 2011-12 can establish a rough floor for what we should be expecting: a slightly-below league average hitter overall with a little pop and decent speed. If his bat isn’t enough to keep him in the lineup everyday at first base, his ability to play the outfield corners should still help to make him useful in a role as a bench/platoon player. If we’re talking $/WAR, Thames really only needs to be worth about two wins (or a shade more) total over the life of his three-year deal in order to justify the expenditure. His $5.33 mil AAV will hardly kill the team.
The projections and the scouting report, on the other hand, give reason to hope that Milwaukee could achieve considerable upside from the signing and that Thames could be a league-average starter or better at first base. If the Brewers’ marquee free agent signing can stake his claim to a regular role in the middle of the lineup, it would bring Milwaukee that much closer to being ready to compete for a playoff spot. Until Thames actualizes that performance on the diamond, however, let’s make sure we take some deep breaths and temper our optimism.
Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference