Look, we all knew Eric Thames wasn't going to hit like Barry Bonds all season.
At the end of April, he was hitting .345/.466/.810 with 11 home runs and 5 doubles, carrying a hard-hit rate of 49.2%. More impressive than the power numbers was the patience. As seen with the .466 OBP, if it wasn't a pitch he could crush, he was likely taking. If he wasn't Bonds-like, he at least had some Brewers fans thinking back to the days when Prince Fielder was teaming up with Ryan Braun as one of the most feared duos in the league.
With May winding down, Thames' overall line of .278/.408/.596 entering Tuesday still looks impressive and is better than anyone likely could've expected when David Stearns took a flier on him this past winter. But there's no doubt he's been struggling -- not just "coming back down to Earth," but flat-out struggling -- especially in the latter part of the month. The overall line is masking the fact he's hitting .194/.333/.328 in May, and while his 13 home runs still rank among the National League leaders, he hasn't gone deep since May 9th.
So, what's the deal? There are a few things to think about.
For one, any time you take a look at one month out of a six-month season, you're going to get some weird results in those 20-something games. There's always the chance this is just some small-sample wonkiness. That could apply to this past month, but it could also apply to his all-world first month.
Then there's the matter of health. While Thames is clearly in incredible shape, he's said multiple times he needs to constantly be stretching in order to be able to play at a competitive level, and he's prone to muscle tightness and soreness. We saw that a bit this month, when Craig Counsell occasionally gave him some time off to "get off his feet," missing virtually an entire four-game series in San Diego save for a pinch-hit appearance (he also had a bout with strep throat at the start of that series). As any player will attest to, it's hard to hit for power -- or much at all -- if you don't have your legs under you.
It also may not be a coincidence that Thames has struggled during the same time Braun has been out of the lineup with his own injuries. While theories of lineup protection have been debated for years, we have seen Thames' frustration bubble up a few times in May when he failed to be the one to drive in a run, missed a pitch he would've crushed in April, or uncharacteristically chased a pitch.
Whether or not Thames is pressing without Braun in the lineup -- it's not like Domingo Santana or Travis Shaw have been slouches behind him -- there is some evidence he's chasing more out of the zone over the past month.
On May 1st, Thames had only swung at 18.6% of pitches he'd seen out of the strike zone at that point in the season. The number steadily rose in May, to the point where it was at 22.1% after last Saturday's game, the highest it's been since his 13th game of the year.
If you take a look at the zone breakdowns, you can see where he’s started to expand the zone in the past month. First, a look at where he swung during his red-hot April:
Now, where he’s swung to this point in May (through the 27th, with data not available yet from the rest of the weekend):
As we learned in April, Thames’ power typically comes on pitches low and in, so it’s probably no surprise that he’s tried to jump on pitches near those old sweet spots, even if he was laying off more of the borderline pitches early in the year.
But if you compare the two heatzone maps from Fangraphs, you’ll notice he’s also chasing more to the outside (these are from the batter’s perspective, so “outside” for Thames means “left” here) quite a bit more than he did in the first month of the season. With that in mind, it’s not too surprising his strikeout numbers have inched up — his K% is up by nearly 2.5% to 24.7% in May. The walk rates are still solid (13.6% BB% in May), but still down from where they were last month (17.5%).
We’ve seen two pretty drastically different versions of Thames to this point in the season, but the average production — as noted — has still been great. You could even say he hadn’t been struggling that badly prior to going 0-for-a-week (through the 23rd, he was hitting .250/.391/.423 in May, a still-solid .814 OPS). Selective endpoints aside, he’s still looked increasingly frustrated at the plate this month. With just a couple months’ worth of (diametrically-opposed) production, the jury is still probably still out on who the “real” Eric Thames is.
Statistics courtesy Baseball-Reference and Fangraphs