You all remember April Eric Thames last year, right? He slashed .345/.466/.810, good for a wRC+ of 218, adding in eleven homers for good measure. Writers and fantasy players alike were fawning over this physical monster who was also not swinging at balls and absolutely punishing strikes. A once failed MLB player who crossed back overseas last offseason looked like he had everything figured out.
Then May-August happened which wasn’t so good. .207/.316/.432 looks less than ideal, especially when it spits out a 92 wRC+. By this point, most fantasy owners had cut Thames after his sustained poor performance, platoon disadvantage, and a myriad of injuries.
However, if you managed to hold all year, Thames actually put up a terrific September, slashing .328/.431/.574 with a 159 wRC+. In this article, Thames is pretty open about his struggles, saying a lot of it stemmed from the fact that he only got to see video in the offseason, and now has seen pitchers in person. He also said this was the reason for his September success.
All of this makes…a lot of sense. Like, none of this is particularly surprising. Now, unfortunately Thames just went down for what looks like 6-8 weeks with a torn thumb ligament. But, this also represents a great opportunity to either buy low or scoop him up off waivers if you have a bench spot or DL spot to burn. But this isn’t entirely a fantasy piece, just a deep dive into a very interesting player.
In a limited April sample, Thames is slashing .250/.351/.625 which is already really terrific. Here’s part of the kicker, though. He only has a .225 BABIP. Now, home runs aren’t accounted for in BABIP and he’s already got seven. But this is still a low BABIP. It’s not overly surprising however, given how much Thames is shifted. Thames has 74 plate appearances, and has been shifted both traditionally and non-traditionally for 27 of those plate appearances. It’s been particularly neutralizing, as Thames has carried a poor .222/.222/.296 line leading to a wRC+ of 35.
Despite this 35 wRC+ in roughly a third of his plate appearances, Thames still carries that nice .250/.351/.625 slash line. The good news is this; Thames shouldn’t be this bad against the shift. With a minimum of 27 PA’s in both traditional and non-traditional shifts, Thames’ 35 wRC+ is tied with Brian Dozier as 21st worst in baseball. This might not seem significant; 21st overall? Really?
Teams have had all offseason to adjust to him, sure, but last year he ran a 101 wRC+ against the shift in 174 plate appearances. I could believe maybe a 70-90 wRC+ against the shift, but a 66% decrease in offensive production against the shift is so egregious that we can reasonably expect regression.
Thames is still very strong, which should come as a surprise to nobody. His average exit velocity is a really great 92.5 MPH, ranking 33rd in baseball (minimum 25 batted ball events), but shockingly his amount of balls hit 95+ MPH is a poor 22, tying him for 140th in baseball. Despite him seemingly not hitting the ball hard consistently, Thames ranks 8th in baseball in Brls/PA.
Given his success barreling the ball up so far, combined with a very good exit velocity, his Baseball Savant expected stats currently look terrific. A .250 batting average is raised to .287, an already excellent .625 slugging percentage is raised to .679, and an already excellent .394 wOBA is raised to .434.
xStats happens to be more bearish on these numbers, but still likes him enough for a .264/.363/.614. It’s important to note these are two different calculations, and it’s even more important to note that I do not currently know the distinction between the two calculations. But both view him as a very good hitter.
One of the important things to note from the actual xStats website, is that Thames’ slugging percentage took a slight hit, with xStats thinking he’s hit more like 5.9 home runs and 4.1 doubles than the 7 home runs and 3 doubles he currently has. This aligns a lot more with what we saw from Baseball Savant; he has a great average exit velocity, but hasn’t really been hitting the ball as hard as he should as often as he should. It seems like he’s trapped between 90-95 MPH on exit velocities, which is more like medium contact than hard contact. That’s doubles power, and not the light-tower-power we’ve come to expect.
Again, it seems like all this is building up to look at Thames as a disappointment, but again, he’s really good. He hasn’t played in five games and still is sat against lefties, yet still ranks 95th on ESPN’s player rater. He’s got anywhere from 20-30 plate appearances less than a lot of players, yet has been good enough to provide a lot of value to both fantasy owners and the Brewers (0.7 fWAR).
Let’s pretend for a minute Thames didn’t get injured. If we extrapolate his current WAR total over a 162 game span, we reach an approximate 5.2 fWAR figure. That’s pretty good, considering he was on pace to reach approximately 545 plate appearances before getting injured.
And what would any of my articles be without mentioning plate discipline improvements? I’m keeping track of my stats in a non-competitive summer league that I have decided to be competitive in because I’m petulant. For those wondering, I currently own an O-Swing% of 0%, a SwStr rate of 9%, and a Z-Contact% of 91%. I also have a Z-Swing% of 100% and a Swing% of 78.6%. I went 1-6 with a single and three ground balls. The fly ball revolution is dead and I have killed it, but my ball-strike recognition is impeccable.
Eric Thames last year had a strikeout rate of 29.6%, and has already cut it down this year to 23% while keeping his walk rate nearly identical to last year (13.6% in 2017, 13.5% in 2018). Diving a little deeper though, things start to get a little strange. His O-Swing% has gone up 2.5% since last year, from a 27.6% rate to 30.1%. This is somewhat concerning as he’s seeing more strikes this year (43.2%) than last year (39.8%).
Even more concerning, and seriously shocking, is his first strike percentage this year. It sits at a ridiculous 71.6%, a sharp rise from last year’s 55.2% figure. I’ll bet you can guess the reason why without me telling you, but yes, Eric Thames sees a lot of pitches. Amongst all qualified hitters last year, Thames ranked ninth in pitches per plate appearance, with an average of 4.25.
Sure enough, yeah, his pitches per plate appearance is significantly lower (~7.1% decrease) at 3.95. My guess at what’s happening with some of Thames’ plate discipline profile is that pitchers are getting ahead with the first pitch strike (Zone% and F-Strike% both up) and he might feel pressed by having only two more chances to hit the ball (K% down). But the thing is Thames has thrived this year in two-strike counts, putting up a 110 wRC+ in 45 plate appearances.
But here’s the other thing. In 0-1 counts, Thames has a wRC+ of 119 in 41 plate appearances. However, if Thames gets another strike and brings the count to 0-2, he has a wRC+ of 20. So he really specifically struggles with this 0-2 count. All pitchers need to do is throw a first pitch strike, roll the dice that he fouls/misses/takes a strike, and they essentially have him out. If Thames keeps taking these first pitch strikes, he really only has one opportunity (the second pitch) to salvage his at bat. This is also likely why the K% has come down as he’s doing everything to avoid the 0-2 count.
Take a look at the pitcher heat map from last year.
Pitchers actively avoided (quite a bit) throwing the ball in the zone to Thames. But the tune is different this year.
Pitchers are throwing the ball in the zone much more often as a result of Thames taking that first pitch. The zone pitchers threw to Thames last year has increased from about twelve of those squares to sixteen, and shifted right.
The good news is pitchers are moving more inside. Thames loves to pull the ball. He also knows what’s coming first about, oh, 71.6% of the time. Thames should swing at more first pitch strikes! Obviously not just any strike, but the ones he can hit. I’m now learning a lot about my own plate discipline. Not every strike is a hittable pitch for Thames, and essentially no strike is a hittable pitch for me, but some aggression will get pitchers to back off again and play into Thames’ hand where he makes his living in deeper counts.
Eric Thames is injured and this sucks. He was doing really well, and by many sources was expected to do even better. Eric Thames is a talented, but flawed hitter. A little more aggression could do him some good, and he’s selective enough where he can learn to do it effectively. We’ll likely check in on this experiment later on in the dog days of summer, but for now we (I) can indulge ourselves in pictures of his forearms as we patiently await his return.