The Curious Case of Eric Thames’ Trip To Korea
And how he learned to be a better baseball player.
This morning on one of my favorite podcasts I listened to Ben Lindbergh and Michael Baumann interview Eric Thames, the Milwaukee Brewers’ newfound first baseman and hopeful Chris Carter replacement. Thames put up decent numbers in his 181 Major League games with Toronto and Seattle from 2011 to 2012, (.250/296/.431 w/175 Ks, 38 BBs, and 21 HR) but was never ever to replicate the success of his minor league career. Seattle sent him off to Baltimore in the summer of 2013.
Thames never got a call-up from the Orioles, and the club designated him for assignment in September 2013 after he broke his hand. The Astros picked him up on waivers and put him in a few AAA games, but released him by the end of the year. Down but not out, Thames packed his bags for Caracas, where he played in Venezuelan Winter League, and then headed to South Korea, where he played for the NC Dinos, just coming off of their first season in South Korea’s premier league.
In Korea, Thames quickly became a fan favorite and a baseball sensation. His first year, he slashed .343/.422/.688, and more or less maintained that torrid pace for a 3-year average slash line of .347/.488/.714, including a breakout 2015 season in which he posted the first 40HR-40SB season in KBO history and earned the League MVP award. His performance in Korea was good enough that the Brewers justified bringing him on board with a 3-year, $16m contract (and club option for 2020). So great was the Brewers’ confidence, in fact, that they designated slugger Chris Carter (tied with Nolan Arenado for most HRs in the National League in 2016) for assignment and opted to take a risk on Thames, Carter’s replacement.
So what accounts for Thames’ improvement in Korea, and is it real enough to justify the Brewers’ dollars? In Thames’ telling, losing his opportunity in the Majors was disappointing but only drove him to get more reps and more experience, which is why he opted for Korea despite the stigma attached to US-born players playing in foreign baseball leagues.
With the NC Dinos, Thames got the experience he was looking for, to the tune of 1644 plate appearances. He also stole more bases than ever, thanks to the coaching of South Korea’s legendary base stealer whisperer, who helped Thames see the intricacies of the game in ways that he hadn’t before. That new perception extended to the batter’s box as well: in the Korean Baseball Organization pitchers at slower velocities, so Thames had to get accustomed to what he describes as “sneaky” pitchers who worked the corners of the strike zone and threw pitches with lots of movement. Thames calls out the forkball especially, which is basically a knuckle fastball similar to the splitfinger that moves unpredictably like a 12–6 curveball. No one in the US throws the forkball anymore, but to give you an idea of the movement, here’s Japanese pitcher Minoru Iwata throwing one that his catcher can’t even handle:
The big question for the Brewers, obviously, is whether or not Thames can continue his success on this side of the Pacific, and there are reasons to think that he will. He’s in good company with a number of KBO stars who are making names for themselves with Major League teams. Dae-Ho Lee, who played 15 seasons in the KBO and Japan’s Pacific League compiling a .383/.387/.314 with 323 HRs, joined the Mariners last year and slashed a healthy .253/.312/.428 with 14 HRs. Hyun Soo Kim, who last year joined the Orioles after ten seasons in the KBO, saw almost no drop-off from his performance: .318/.406/.488 in Korea and .302/.382/.420 through 95 games with Baltimore. Jung Ho Kang has been an excellent contributor for Pittsburgh over the last two seasons as well, although he has been implicated in multiple off-field incidents, including a possible sexual assault.
But there are others who have not enjoyed the same on-field success. Most notably, the Twins’ Byung-Ho Park was expected to be a contributor to the lineup’s power after compiling a stat line of .281/.387/.564 and mashing 210 homers in 9 seasons in the KBO. So far, Park has only turned in an anemic performance across 62 games for Minnesota: .191/.275/.409 with 12 HRs. Park was doomed by a high K rate, striking out in over 37 percent of his ABs.
In Thames’ case, there’s no reason to think that he won’t be able to replicate at least some of his newfound success once he returns to an MLB lineup. Even in his brief two-year career with Toronto and Seattle, in big league games he hit a respectable .250/.296/.431, averaging 141 hits and 19 HRs per 162 games. But like Park, one of Thames’ most concerning metrics in his MLB career was strikeouts: 175 Ks in 633 ABs for a 27.6% K/AB rate. But Thames has talked about how his time in Korea improved his plate discipline, and the numbers back that up: in 1648 ABs for the NC Dinos, Thames struck out 293 times. That’s a K/AB rate of 17.8%.
In signing Thames, the Brewers made a wise move. Even if he never exceeds his previous MLB performance, he should still be a solid performer in the lineup. On the other hand, the data suggests that Thames has significantly more upside than the Jays, Mariners, Orioles, and Astros ever recognized. After three years in Korea, Thames is ready to prove it.