On Tuesday (11/29), the Brewers signed former failed prospect Eric Thames to a 3-year, 16 million dollar contract. In doing so, they also DFA’d the co-leader for home runs in the National League, Chris Carter. Now, there has been some speculation that the Brewers made this move to save money, but regardless of what you think the motives behind the move may be, it certainly is an interesting one that deserves a closer look.
Thames came up with the Blue Jays after being drafted in the 7th round of the 2008 draft. He showed good power in the minors, belting 27 homers at AA to the tune of a .238 ISO in 2010. He continued this surge into 2011 and did a decent job with the Jays at the major league level, but struggled to hit lefties. Then, in 2012, it fell apart. His ISO dropped nearly 30 points from the year before, and his strikeout rate increased to an even 30% from 22.3%. After bouncing around in the minors in 2013, he then went overseas to the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) and signed with the NC Dinos, where he almost immediately ascended to god status, hitting 124 home runs in 388 games with a .371 ISO in 3 years. Not only that, but he won a gold glove in Korea and stole 40 bases in 2015.
Now, of course, it’s never that easy. You don’t get a 40/40 guy with decent defense in the MLB for 5 million bucks a year. The KBO is notorious for being a hitter’s paradise, as the skill level isn’t nearly that of the MLB. Think of the KBO as essentially being AA, where any major league caliber player will thrive, just like Thames did. But does that mean Thames has actually improved? If you look at some former KBO stars like Jung-Ho Kang and Hyun-Soo Kim, you can see that both have had success in the majors, even though they haven’t come close to matching their numbers in Korea. Thames’ Davenport translations (per Eno Sarris) suggest he’ll be a beast, slashing .333/.389/.628. Looking at those numbers, you could easily argue that Thames would be a bargain for the Brewers, essentially matching Carter’s output while even adding more value on the base paths and in the field.
That being said, Thames is a rare case. We have his stats from when he flopped in the big leagues, and we also have his stats from when he tore up the KBO. Barring some sort of complete technical and mental overhaul, one could also easily argue that Thames’ weaknesses the first time around will be his downfall the second time around. Let’s take a look at some stats from the KBO and compare them to his time in the MLB.
As stated before, one of the issues Thames had was the when he made contact, the balls didn’t go anywhere worthwhile (like the stands). He slugged .431 with a .182 ISO from 2011-2012, which does not look good if you’re a major league first basemen. In the KBO, he put that issue to rest, where he slugged .718 with a .371 ISO, which is essentially unheard of in the MLB. Let’s check that problem with power off the list. However, there still stands the issue of his strikeouts and walks. He struck out 25.6% of the time during his time in the bigs while walking only 5.6% of the time, which is a recipe for disaster. In Korea, he struck out 17.9% of the time and walked a whopping 14.4% of the time. Other KBO imports have shown that both strikeout and walk rates regress when moving from Korea to the majors. So, Thames solved that second problem, although based on available data, we can assume he’ll regress in both categories. Thames improved in both areas that he needed to, but was is this only because he was facing lesser pitching in a hitters paradise, or did he make technical changes to his swing in addition to improving his plate discipline?
Below are two screen shots: the top is Thames getting ready to take Ryan Dempster yard in 2013, the bottom is Thames hitting one of his 47 home runs in 2015.
Look at the hands. In the top picture, Thames keeps his hands roughly around his ears right before his swing, while in Korea, he appears to load his swing lower, near his shoulders. This allows Thames to stay in the zone with his bat longer and have a bit of an upswing, which leads to higher exit velocity and an improved launch angle. Both of these qualities translate into more power and more strikeouts. Ted Williams first pioneered this idea, saying that a slight upswing leads to extended contact on the ball, while a level swing leads to a smaller impact zone.
This is a change many players have made, such as Josh Donaldson, Jake Lamb, and Ryon Healy. Eno Sarris wrote an excellent article on the changes Ryon Healy made to his swing. It looks like this is something Thames is trying to emulate and will hopefully carry over to the MLB.
It looks like Thames has made the adjustments that he has needed to become a successful player. Trying to project what player he’ll be is a bit difficult. Personally, I look at the Davenport projections and I’m a little hesitant to say Thames will hit .333 and slug .628, seeing as how his strikeout rate will almost certainly regress to levels close to his former major league self. I don’t see his walk rate regressing down to that level, mainly because plate discipline is a skill that accrues over time, and pitchers will have to be more careful with Thames and his new approach at the plate.
Let’s look at his slash line from his time in the MLB – in 633 at-bats, Thames hit .250/.296/.431 with 21 homers and walk rate of 5.6% and a strikeout rate of 25.6%. Assuming regression from Korea, let’s keep the strikeouts at 25%, up from 18% in Korea, and let’s up the walk rate to account for added patience and power to 10%. With the technical changes in his swing, we can also assume his batted balls will go further and get hit harder, so let’s bump the slugging up to .500, which translates into something like 30-35 HR. This puts his ISO right at .250, a step up from what we saw earlier in his career. We’re now looking at a slash line of roughly .250/.350/.500 with an above average glove at first and 10 steals (the Brewers love to let their players run). That’s good. In fact, that’s better than Chris Carter, and the Brewers are getting this at half the price of what Chris Carter would cost. I think there are plenty of reasons to be excited about Eric Thames in 2017.