It’s Time to Revisit Eric Thames, Human Cyborg

Note: This article was originally published at The Unbalanced, with minor alterations

One of the best early stories of this season was that of Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Eric Thames. Thames, a former prospect who never developed into anything more than a journeyman (he was once traded for Steve Delabar, which is a rite of passage for all middling players bouncing around the league), decided to take his talents to the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization. The legend of Eric Thames begins there. He hit .345 in the Pacific, with 145 home runs in three years. After three years of doing his best Barry Bonds impression, he sought to return to Major League Baseball as a conquering hero this year. Based on what he did in April, that return went exactly as he intended.

Thames became the talk of baseball by that point, and universally praised by the online community. FanGraphs ran four articles and a podcast about him in one week, Baseball Prospectus declared that pitchers are as careful with him as they are Bryce Harper, and even our own Quinn Allen profiled the role his confidence plays in his game. April was a great comeback for Thames, but he has not been as hot since the calendar turned to May:

Everything that made Thames’ April so special dried up to his previous journeyman levels in May. His batting average dropped from “Barry Bonds” to “Mario Mendoza.” He only hit four home runs, three of which came in May. His on-base plus slugging (OPS), which measures how well a hitter can reach base, hit for average, and hit for power, was so low that it rivaled his .727 mark in the majors before leaving for Korea. Additionally, his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which measures the role defense and luck plays in a batter’s success, went as south as one can go. This suggests that Thames was the recipient of luck in April, or that something went horribly wrong in May; for Thames, it was the latter.

In May, Thames dealt with a hamstring issue and a bout of strep throat. The hamstring is probably the injury to focus on, because it affected the physical approach Thames took at the plate. I believe that Thames, whom I consider something of an equal to Edwin Encarnacion, is not the player we saw in May and that he will return to his mashing ways after fully recovering from injury.

Normally, I would never bother writing an article in support of a struggling player by citing his injuries, but Thames is a special case because our data sample on him is so small. The idea that a journeyman in the MLB can come back from South Korea and hit like he did in April has drawn many skeptics. Reportedly, Thames has been drug tested five times already this season, and it’s easy to compare his May production to his early career production before going overseas. I want to point out some of the consequences Thames’ hamstring injury has had on his batted ball rates, and then point to the positives:

As you can see, Thames suffered drops in line-drive rate, pull-percentage, and hard-hit percentage; all of these are tell tale signs of a hamstring injury. Fellow writer Quinn Allen, who played college ball at Douglas College, talked to me about the direct causes and effects between the hamstring injury and those rate changes:

“A hamstring injury in Thames’ left leg, the loading leg, can inhibit his ability to pull the ball with power because he generates a lot of his power from the lower half — it’s the back leg in his stance, after all.”

He continues:

“Even though Thames has a very simple swing with minimal movement, not being able to fully use his lower half has affected his ability to turn on pitches for a high exit velocity on a consistent basis.”

Indeed, Thames has struggled to hit fastballs with the hamstring injury. In April, Thames posted a 90.8 MPH Average Exit Velocity (aEV) on fastballs, six of which accounted for his 11 home runs. Since May, that number has decreased all the way down to 86.2 MPH. While we can draw a direct line between Thames’ injury struggles and his struggles at the plate, there are more reasons to be optimistic that he will be back in form soon. There are some positives in Thames’ batted ball rates that I found very interesting:

Despite being limited by his hamstring troubles, Thames avoided rolling pitches over and hitting more ground-balls; in fact, it seems that he made a conscious effort to avoid just that. While decreasing his ground-ball rate, he posted a big uptick in fly-ball rate, all while continuing to avoid pop-ups. Additionally, his soft contact rate only increased minimally; this means that the drop in hard contact we saw earlier was distributed to his medium contact rate. In other words, Thames’ results may have been less productive, but he was never quite weak. There are more encouraging signs that Thames is maintaining the same solid approach that is conducive to generating power:

Thames may be getting less juice on his fly-balls, but he is certainly still hitting the snot out of his line drives. As Quinn alluded to, once the hamstring is fully healed, Thames will be able to transfer the power he is putting into his line-drives back to his fly-balls. David Cameron of FanGraphs noted in April that Thames produced a stellar 97.2 MPH FB/LD aEV. By combining the two batted ball types together, Cameron was able to point out that Thames hammers both fly-balls and line-drives. Even though he isn’t hammering his fly-balls with the hamstring injury, maintaining the damage on line-drives indicates that he will return to hitting fly-balls with authority.

We noted earlier that Thames is hitting fewer line-drives since May; conventional wisdom would conclude that he would probably have had better success while injured by not trying to hit as many soft fly-balls and instead concentrating on hard line-drives. This is an approach that Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts took to deal with the cold weather in April:

“I mean in April it’s not easy to hit home runs,” Bogaerts said to WEEI. “You’re playing in Boston. I know the wall is right there but it’s pretty hard to hit in the cold in general. We’ll hit some home runs, especially when it starts warming up. Looking forward to a lot of home runs from a lot of guys.”

He continues:

“I mean the cold is good and bad for me,” he said. “The good part is that it helps me do a little bit less. My effort level goes down because it’s kind of cold. But when it warms up I start swinging a bit bigger. You feel stronger because of the sun and whatever. The cold is good because I just try to do more contact, don’t want to get jammed or off the end for my hands to feel pretty bad.”

Thames, as we can see in our chart above, is not taking that line-drive approach. His Average Launch Angle (aLA) has only increased (as has his fly-ball rate), which was par for the course for him, but not a player with a bad hamstring. While it’s easy to criticize Thames for not adjusting accordingly, it’s probable that keeping consistency is better for him in the long run. When the hamstring heals and the power returns, Thames will not have to adjust back to his April tendencies, because his swing plane is already where it needs to be. To me, that is a good sign that he will be back with a vengeance soon.

Matt is an undergrad at the UConn School of Business. He knows that Daniel Norris has a 0.92 ERA in the first inning going back to 2016, and that Brandon Nimmo has a 148 wRC+ against RHP in his career. Follow him on twitter @matthewmocarsky!

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I know the article is about Thames, but as a New Englander I enjoyed the Xander quotes at the end. He has been discussed frequently up here, in concern to his lack of power. I wonder if his comments about swinging harder will be noticeable in his metrics as the summer goes on.

Jim Melichar

Thanks for writing the article. I’ve been coming to his defense for a month now with the same injury rhetoric. As recently as last weekend (watch him misplay a ball and dove in left field against AZ) he was still limping around grabbing his knee and hamstring. The next day he appeared at 1B and was still grabbing at the hamstring. I’m hoping the homers this week are a sign that he’s getting healthier but he still looks like the legs are bothering him. No matter how he got here, a ~.400 woba after 2.5 months still impresses me. Love… Read more »