1B Eric Thames
Platoon first baseman sometimes miscast as an outfielder
Thames came up as a prospect around the beginning of this decade, and after spending a few years as an up-and-down player and riding the waiver wire, he found a better paying gig with more playing time over in Korea. His dominance for three years in the KBO earned him the nickname “Barry Bonds of Korea” and he landed back in the states prior to the 2017 season, signing a three-year contract with the Brewers that guaranteed $16 mil and included a club option for 2020. Thames burst back on to the scene with 11 home runs in his first month in Milwaukee and his hot starts to the subsequent campaigns have helped him become known as “Mr. April.”
Overall he has proven to be a potent power bat for the Brewers, bashing 72 home runs with a 118 OPS+ in 383 games. An injury that coincided with Jesus Aguilar’s breakout in 2018 wound up causing Thames to lose his regular role at first base, but he captured the job back when Aguilar cratered at the plate this season. He generally struggles against southpaw pitching, with nearly a 50 point drop in wRC+ for his career when facing a same-handed hurler. He’s not a butcher at first base, and actually posted improved metrics at the cold corner this past season. The advanced numbers say Thames has been playable in small samples in the outfield, but he sure does look like a butcher when he is out on the grass. Thames turns 33 in a couple of weeks and will play the entirety of 2020 at that age.
The Most Recent Season:
Thames was considered a trade candidate all throughout last winter, but it wound up being a blessing that he opened the season on Milwaukee’s bench. It took until about mid-May for Thames to take back over as the primary first baseman and he finished the year with a career-high 149 games played. But because of his platoon and pinch-hitting roles, he accrued only 459 plate appearances and fell short of qualifying. Still, his .247/.346/.505 slash line along with 25 long balls checked in at a 116 wRC+, a fair sight clear of the league-average for a first baseman (105 wRC+). Thames has come through in some clutch moments, posting a 116 wRC+ with runners on base and a whopping 168 wRC+ in high-leverage plate appearances in 2019.
A king of the three true outcomes, Thames walked, homered, or punched out in 47% of his plate appearances this past season. He shaved a bit off his swinging-strike rate (14.5%) and his punchout rate (30.5%) in 2019 while boosting his walk rate by about a point (11.1%). Thames is slightly below-average in terms of sprint speed (47th percentile) and hits a lot of fly balls, but his .313 BABIP was right in-line with his career average (.307), so perhaps there shouldn’t be as much concern about sustainability as expected stats like xwOBA (43rd percentile) suggest. Thames set a new career-high for hard contact rate and ranked among the elite in his profession in both that statistic (80th percentile) as well as exit velocity (80th percentile). Thames was allowed to take only 62 trips to the plate versus left-handed pitchers this season and he actually played as well as ever against them. Unfortunately that meant only an 84 wRC+, so he should probably continue to be shielded from facing same-handed pitching with any sort of regularity.
On the dirt, Thames posted his first positive defensive season at first base according to Defensive Runs Saved (+2) in 2019. Ultimate Zone Rating wasn’t quite as high on his work but rated him as essentially league-average defensively at first. After starting 18 and 31 games in the outfield during his first two seasons with the Cream City Nine, he was — perhaps smartly — limited to just six starts and 12 appearances on the grass in 2019. The less exposure he can have in the outfield going forward, the better.
1,972 plate appearances
93 home runs
39.4% Hard Contact
459 plate appearances
25 home runs
48.8% Hard Contact
The First Base Depth Chart:
Ryan Braun || Tyler Austin
Tyler Saladino || David Freitas
Jacob Nottingham || Travis Shaw
Patrick Leonard || Jake Gatewood
Weston Wilson || Pat McInerny
Ryan Aguilar || Gabriel Garcia
The Free Agents:
Jose Abreu || Matt Adams
Yonder Alonso || Lucas Duda
John Hicks || Brad Miller
Mitch Moreland || Steve Pearce
Mark Reynolds || Justin Smoak
Neil Walker || Ryan Zimmerman
$7.5 mil club option ($1 mil buyout)
Thames has a clause in his contract that allows him to become an unrestricted free agent if his option is declined.
What decision should the Milwaukee Brewers make regarding Eric Thames’ 2020 contract option?
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Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference, Fangraphs, and Baseball Savant