Brewers Hope Eric Thames, Ruthian in South Korea, Has Crossover Power
For the last three years, Thames adapted just fine with the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization. A marginal major leaguer for Toronto and Seattle in 2011 and 2012, Thames erupted for the Dinos, hitting .348 and averaging 41 homers and 126 R.B.I. His on-base plus slugging percentage was 1.171; the career major league record, held by Babe Ruth, is 1.164.
Thames is not Babe Ruth. But the rebuilding Brewers believe he’s a better value than Chris Carter, the slugger he replaces at first base. Last season Carter hit .222 with 206 strikeouts — but led the National League in homers, with 41. That put him in line to be awarded perhaps $10 million in salary arbitration.
The Brewers let him go, and Carter eventually signed with the Yankees for $3.5 million. Thames did much better on the open market, getting a three-year, $16 million deal from the Brewers with a club option for 2020. They don’t quite know how his production will translate, but the possibilities are enticing.
“We expect a productive major league player,” said David Stearns, the Brewers’ general manager. “That can take shape in a variety of ways. With a signing like this, there’s a fairly wide variance of potential outcomes, and we think there’s a lot of upside there. We’re going to put him in a comfortable environment that will allow him to adjust back to major league baseball, and hopefully his talents will take over.”
Thames, 30, has played 181 games in the majors, with a .250 average and 21 homers. He has just three major league stolen bases, but stole 40 for the Dinos in 2015. He has a .296 on-base percentage in the majors, but had a .450 mark in the K.B.O., where ballparks tend to be small and the talent level is considered to be below that of the Japanese league.
The Brewers did not scout Thames in person, but did study him extensively on video. Pitchers feared Thames and rarely challenged him with fastballs, but he displayed discipline at the plate, laying off junk and waiting for breaking balls he could mash. The pitch patterns will be different now, but the Brewers believe Thames can handle them.
“He’s going to see more consistent velocity than he’s seen the past couple of years, but I think he’s frankly looking forward to that,” Stearns said. “It’s a more normal style of hitting than constantly trying to guess which shade of breaking ball he’s going to see.”
Thames is eager for those fastballs, and everything else about the major league life. He made good money in South Korea — about $3.5 million, plus a Kia Sorento for winning the Most Valuable Player Award in 2015. But some of the game’s customs there grew tiresome, like the emphasis on bunting and the practice of dressing in full uniform at the hotel before road games. And while Thames had a few American teammates, communication with others was limited.
Thames was essentially his own hitting coach with the Dinos, and reinvented his approach. He watched interviews on technique with stars like the Detroit sluggers Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez, absorbing their lessons and teaching himself a new swing after finding his old one too inconsistent.
“I’d be very uphill, so a lot of balls I’d hit would have topspin,” Thames said. “If I got it perfect, it’d be a home run, but if I just missed it a little bit, topspin, so it would be off the wall or even knuckle and it wouldn’t travel as far. Now I work hard to stay short to the ball but have a flat path — finish flat, not just try to be up there hitting dingers all day.”
By not swinging for the fences, Thames began clearing them regularly. As a left-handed-hitting first baseman with power, a thick beard and a relatively short frame (6 feet), Thames recalls a former Brewer, Prince Fielder. His path to Milwaukee was just a lot less conventional.
“Eric’s in a sweet spot for all this,” said Craig Counsell, the Brewers’ manager. “He’s got something to prove, and I think he feels that. That’s a really good place to be for players, when they feel they’ve got something to prove.”
Only one returning Brewer, Ryan Braun, hit 20 home runs last season, so the team needs Thames’s power. Counsell said he was also intrigued by Thames’s potential on the basepaths; the Brewers went 73-89 last season but easily led the majors in steals.
Some players, like Jung Ho Kang in Pittsburgh, have starred in the K.B.O. and adapted well to the major league game. Others, like Byung Ho Park in Minnesota, have flopped. Thames has not set statistical goals for the season; there are too many pitchers to learn and decode, he said, and all he can do is work diligently to apply his skills.
If he fails, he will be severely overpaid. If he succeeds, the Brewers will have a bargain. After fourth-place finishes the last two seasons, they need Thames to help plot their road map to contention.
“This year will be the year that informs us the most about where we really are on the timeline for competing,” said Mark Attanasio, the Brewers’ principal owner. “This team will tell us.”
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