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Eric Thames’ shot at redemption

A potential increase in playing time offers an opportunity for a bounce back for the hulking first baseman

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Chicago Cubs v Milwaukee Brewers Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

The baseball career of Eric Thames has been a roller coaster ride of extreme ups and downs, to say the least. Getting his first shot in the big leagues with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, he played everyday for a very short period before becoming a platoon player. His numbers were actually decent in his first year. In 394 plate appearances he slashed .262/.313/.456 for an OPS+ of 105. He could have walked more, but as we have come to see, that would be a hallmark of a successful or unsuccessful Eric Thames. He hit 12 home runs and had 41 extra base hits. There was certainly early promise. He just needed experience and growth.

After slashing .243/.288/.365 in 160 plate appearances in 2012, the Blue Jays traded him to Seattle where he had another 130 plate appearances that year. His slash was .220/.256/.439 for them. In total for 2012, Thames hit just 9 home runs and 24 extra base hits. As is the case with many young players that fail to consistently perform by the age of 25, the Mariners gave up on him sending him to Baltimore.

He never smelled the major leagues with the Orioles as they kept him in Norfolk during his tenure with that organization. After being placed on waivers by Baltimore, the Houston Astros claimed him, and there a young assistant GM named David Stearns was first introduced to Thames. After the end of the 2013 season, Thames had come to a crossroad in his playing career. He was about to turn 27 years old, and his prospects at making it at the major league level were diminishing. With that, he made the fateful decision to go to the other side of the world in order to pursue an opportunity in South Korea’s Korean Baseball Organization (KBO).

He took the KBO by storm. In 2014, Eric Thames hit .343 with 37 home runs and 121 RBI and an OPS of 1.111. In 2015, he would be named the league’s MVP and hit .381 with 47 home runs and 40 stolen bases. He followed that season up in 2016 by hitting .321 and crushing 40 home runs and driving in 121. For his exploits in the KBO, the fans and media in South Korea referred to him as “God.”

In 2017, Thames and David Stearns would be reunited. The new GM of the Milwaukee Brewers signed “God” to a 3-year, $16 million contract with a club option for a fourth year. In April of that year, it looked as if David Stearns’ was a genius. In March and April of 2017, Thames hit .345 with 11 home runs. He burst onto the scene and became one of the most interesting stories in all of baseball. The Washington Post even wrote a long and fascinating piece in May of that year as Thames was taking MLB by storm, just like he had the KBO. During that one month plus, Thames controlled the strike zone and was crushing home runs at a Ruthian clip. It looked like the Brewers found Joey Votto with more power.

Joey Votto he was not. May and June of 2017 became more of struggle for him. Playing everyday started to take its toll. In the KBO, they do not play as demanding a schedule as they do in the United States. The transition was hard for Thames, who is a powerfully built human that sometimes looks stiff. Complaints of sore legs offered excuse for lesser performance in the field.

MLB pitchers and teams also began to adjust to Thames, and it took him awhile to adjust. The results showed in May where hit .221 with 3 home runs and June where he hit .163, but did muscle out 6 home runs. As with his entire career, 2017 was an up and down affair. He finished with a good month of July, a bad month of August, and very good months of September and October. At the end of the year, Thames slashed .247/.359/.518 with 31 home runs, 13.6% BB%, a wRC+ of 125, and 2.1 WAR. Eric Thames turned out to be a pretty good MLB player, albeit an inconsistent one. But he would be a cost-effective option to play first base for the Brewers for the next two years.

Thames came into 2018 looking for more consistency. His hope was to continue in his starting role at first base and build on a successful return to MLB in 2017. To hedge their bets, and to take advantage of their outfield depth, the Brewers decided to get Ryan Braun ready for some first base duty coming into 2018 as well. Braun even started the first game of the season at first as the Brewers faced a left-handed pitcher that day. It looked as if Thames would platoon with Braun. Remember they had a guy on the bench that they were not quite ready to give up on in Jesus Aguilar, too.

Thames got off to a very nice start in 2018. In March and April, he slashed .250/.351/.625 with 7 home runs, 13.5% BB%, ISO of .375, and a wRC+ of 151. The question was, could he maintain it? Unfortunately, Brewer Nation would not find out. Diving for a ball, Thames injured his thumb severely enough that he had to go to the DL for a significant portion of the season, including all of May.

Thames followed the DL stint with a thumb injury with another DL stint for a hamstring.

As Thames was recovering from injuries, Jesus Aguilar was seizing his opportunity. In May, Aguilar slashed .272/.355/.565 with 8 home runs. In June, he was even better slashing .313/.353/.747. Aguilar was one the hottest hitters in baseball. As a result, Thames was finding it more difficult to see playing time, especially once it became apparent that he would struggle defensively in the outfield.

As June moved into July, and July moved into August, everyone could see Eric Thames was struggling. In June he slashed .218/.306/.491 with 4 home runs, 8.1% walk rate, and a 33.9 K%. In July he got better as he slashed .265/.324/.500 with 3 home runs, 8.1% BB, and a 33.8% strikeout rate. August was awful as he slashed .098/.159/.244 with 2 home runs, 6.8% walks and an astounding 56% punchout rate. In August, Thames struck out 25 times in 44 plate appearances.

By any account something was extraordinarily wrong, whether it was health, psychological, or both, this was a level of performance that could not be allowed for, especially for a team making a run at the playoffs. The result was a significant loss of playing time. Even with Jesus Aguilar coming back to Earth significantly in September and October, Thames had only 24 plate appearances and was left off the playoff roster. Eric Thames was at another low point in his career.

Just like his struggles breaking into the major leagues that nudged him to sign with the NC Dinos of the KBO led to tremendous success there and initially with the Brewers, his experience in 2018 may lead to another chapter of success. Injury and poor play led to him becoming a part time player and being left off the playoff roster. He will have the chance to take back what was lost to him last year, and it is coming because the man that took the job from him in 2018 is struggling so much to begin 2019.

Jesus Aguilar is off to a horrid start. To this point, Aguilar is slashing a paltry .134/.234/.164 in 79 plate appearances. He has yet to homer. His hard contact percentage is just 37.3%. Aguilar is a slugger with a league average hard hit percentage.

With that in mind, the situation is ripe for Thames. He should get an opportunity not just because Aguilar is struggling, but because Thames is performing. Right now Thames is slashing .273/.327/.614 with 5 home runs, which is pretty darn good. He is putting the ball in the air 61.5% of the time and has a HR/FB percentage of 31.3%. His hard contact percentage is 46.2%. This is good news, although there is room for concern. His strikeout percentage is 38.8% and walk percentage is 6.1%. That does not speak to a successful Thames long-term. The reason for this is that Thames does not have strong bat to ball skills. His ability to make contact within and outside the zone are issues. This is why having a strong walk rate and controlling the zone are huge for him. See the graphs below for illustration comparing him to the rest of the league.

In this graph you will see that Thames fly ball rate is well above the MLB average, per usual, but significantly more pronounced than his previous two seasons. Although it is a small sample, talk about launch angle.

You will see that Thames hard contact is well above league average as well. Thus he is getting the ball in the air and hitting it hard frequently.

He is again well above league average in hitting home runs on fly balls. So what we have so far is a lot of fly balls that are hit hard on a consistent basis resulting in many of them going over the fence. This is a big part of the formula that brings Thames success. However on the 2019 season overall, he has struggled in a couple areas that cause worry and doubt.

Eric Thames strikes out a lot in general. He seems to be striking out a lot more this season. He is driving the ball when he puts a bat on it, but he is not making contact regularly.

He generally has trouble making contact even with pitches in the zone.

The same can be said for pitches outside the zone. This is why it is important for him to control the zone and get his walks. When we look at the full season to date, he is not doing that.

When Thames is right, he has a BB% over 13%. Should there be cause for concern? Possibly no, and it has to do with getting more playing time.

Since April 15, Eric Thames has started at first base four of the past nine games. Because of Aguilar’s inability to hit early in the season, Craig Counsell is penciling Thames at first a bit more often, and he is capitalizing of late. The strikeout and walk numbers are skewed to the negative by performance earlier in the season when he was not playing as much. If he keeps up something remotely close to what he is currently doing, we will have an All-Star on our hands.

Beginning with a start against St. Louis on April 15 to his last start against the same team on April 24, Thames is having quite a stretch. He is slashing.368/.455/.842. His OPS is 1.297. He has 3 home runs in that period. His fly ball percentage is down in relation to the overall season at 53.8%, but his HR/FB percentage is up to 42.9%. Hard contact is 53.8% and soft contact is 0%. Most importantly, Thames strikeout rate is down during this stretch to 27.3%, and better yet his BB% is 13.6%. His BABIP is .400, so this is not sustainable. However if he can keep strike outs below 30% and walks over 13%, Thames will have a big year.

Eric Thames is getting another chance seize the first base position, or at least a significant portion of it. He is off to the kind of start to suggest that he will grab it, especially when you look a bit deeper. The question is, can he be consistent? When Thames is ‘on’, he is one of the most exciting players to watch in MLB. He exudes “danger” when he is at the plate. A slash line of .260/.335/.500 with 30 home runs is not out of the question by year end, and that might be conservative. If he can produce at that level, the Brewers will have a significant bat playing at first that would push Aguilar aside. Even if he platoons with Aguilar and they perform in the neighborhood the two performed at in 2017, you would have one of the best offensive first basemen in MLB between the two of them.

If either of the two scenarios occur for Thames, he will be a redemption story that will excite Brewer Nation and hopefully contribute to a very deep run into the playoffs. He has to stay healthy and demonstrate patience. His BB% is a key indicator for him. If he can do that, he could put up All-Star level numbers. It will also set him up nicely going into a year where there is a club option to be picked up or bought out. In the type of marketplace that currently exists in baseball, would the Brewers entertain picking up the option coming off a strong year?

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs