Almost one month into the 2017 season, you can divide the biggest stories in baseball into two categories: There is Eric Thames and then there is everything else.
Thames is the Milwaukee Brewers 30-year-old first baseman by way of Toronto, Seattle, Baltimore, Houston and Korea who considers himself a stunt double for bodybuilder C.T. Fletcher and who happens to hit like Babe Ruth. Thames smashed two home runs on Monday and another on Tuesday, giving him 11 in just 20 games. He reached 10 home runs faster than any player in Brewers history, and now has a .373 batting average and a 1.392 OPS.
(Ruth, by the way, never hit more than six home runs in April. Of course, a killjoy would point out Ruth never played in more than 15 games in April, either.)
Thames (pronounced "Thay-mes") is easily the biggest breakout player of the first month of the season. Here you’ll find my picks for the four other most shocking April breakouts of this season and whether each is sustainable or not. (April last year gave us Mets outfielder Michael Conforto, Cardinals shortstop Aledmys Diaz and his then teammate, outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker, and Phillies pitcher Hector Neris as surprising breakouts, leading to a mixed bag of sustainability.)
Thames’s story is almost amazing as his start. The 2012 Opening Day leftfielder for Toronto, he was quickly cast as a platoon player without enough power to play corner outfield everyday in the majors. Thames told me in spring training that one day then-Blue Jays general manager Alex Anthopolous came up to him and flatly told him, “You need to walk more and hit more home runs.”
“ ‘Oh, O.K. Got it,’” Thames said facetiously. “Like there was dial inside of my head. Of course it’s the GM, so it’s ‘O.K. I’ll do it.’ I’m facing big leaguers! These guys are getting paid hundreds of millions of dollars for a reason. These guys are good. They throw it where they want to throw it. You’re lucky if you get one mistake a game.
“So it’s not that easy, but for him if he said, ‘I want you to work on your plate discipline,’ I would do that, which I did a lot over there [in Korea].”
Asked if he ever felt he had a true shot at establishing himself in the majors, Thames said, “My rookie year I did. Then I had a platoon, and then after I platooned you’re playing twice a week. People don’t realize when you’re playing every day it’s easier. But platooning and facing a Matt Moore randomly? Whoa. I haven’t faced a lefty in like two months, then you strike out and you don’t play for a week. It’s tough man. It’s the business of it.”
After he bounced from Toronto to three other organizations, Thames took his career .250 batting average and .289 on-base percentage to the NC Dinos of the Korean Baseball Organization.
“I put so much pressure on myself, and I was at rock bottom when I went to Korea and I said, ‘You know what? I’m just going to have fun,’” Thames said. “I just changed everything right there. I’m just going to have a good time, enjoy it, and focus on and control what you can control.
“It’s so different. There is no home. I was there alone. You can’t call your mom or ‘Hey, buddy I’m town …’ I knew nobody. So just enjoy the ride. I was talking to Alex Cabrera when I was in Venezuela in 2013 about it. Online there’s a lot of articles about players going over. They said, ‘Be careful. You’re a big black guy and they’re going to throw you off-speed all day.’ Actually it was the opposite. I got a lot of fastballs my first year. Actually they mixed in a lot. It wasn’t like it was all off speed.
“They challenged more than I thought. The game’s so different. There’s a lot of small ball. You’ll see a No. 3 hitter bunt randomly. It’s not like here where guys turn and burn. There you can expect anything.”
Thames became a different player in Korea. He took up meditation and visualization. He learned patience at the plate—a must in Asia, where forkballs are common and the full count is considered a badge of honor by the pitcher. Most importantly, Thames changed his swing.
Like many players today, Thames ditched the old-school method of swinging down on the baseball in favor of a flatter swing in which the barrel gets on plane quicker, rather than taking a steep path to the hitting zone.
“I worked on more hand separation, and my swing is flatter,” Thames said. “I see on social media guys hitting cage bombs. When you face big leaguers that have that late life and sink you foul those balls off or you get gassed. Being 0-2 against a guy like Max Scherzer or someone with a hammer curveball like Clayton Kershaw you have no chance [with a steep swing]. With a flat swing you have the highest chance of contact. It’s a game of adjustments. Adapt or die.”
The Brewers were sold on his swing change. Without ever seeing Thames in person (they scouted him on video), they cut the National League home run champion, Chris Carter, and gave his job and $13 million over three years to Thames.
“There were other options,” said Thames, who said he chose Milwaukee because of “the great people and it’s a great organization. I’ve been gone for three years, and I feel like a lot of guys I played with are out of the game now. It’s crazy. Looking at the roster, I played against [Kirk] Nieuwenhuis in Double A. That’s pretty much it. I mean, I’ve seen them on TV, but actually paying with them or against them, no.
“I feel like the new kid in school, meeting new players and new coaches. I was thinking to myself I was like a mercenary. All of us are hired guns. It’s just a business. That’s the way it is. Now I have three-year deal. I feel like how I felt in Korea, where I knew I had multiple years, so I could just focus on playing and there’s no pressure.”
The transition has been remarkably smooth, especially since Thames sees more velocity here in the big leagues than he did in Korea.
“Here you’ll see consistent velo,” he said. “Over there you’ll see big league arms to Double A arms. You might see a lefty who throws 85 mph with a big eephus pitch, then 95, 96. It varies. That’s the biggest difference.
“For me I feel like I’ve seen enough velo that once my eyes adapt to it and see it again I’ll be fine. For me it’s about seeing the patterns again. My brain’s locked in to how they would pitch, so now I’ve got to get that U.S. style. I know the first few times they’ll challenge me to see if I can hit it.”
Thames hit like Ruth in Korea (he slugged .714) and was so popular there that his bearded face was plastered on beer bottles, T-shirts, a line of wristwatches and magazine covers. People there nicknamed him God. “That is serious!” Thames said. “I was like, ‘Whoa. O.K., people, calm down.’”
Once he returned to the states, Thames became anonymous again, except for the Korean tourists who visited Las Vegas, where he lives.
“There’s a direct flight from Korea,” Thames said. “They know me. I’ll be walking randomly and some fan will go ‘Oh! Thames!’ I’ll go, ‘You know who I am?’ And they’ll go, ‘Oh, yeah. What’s up?’
“It’s cool. It’s also fun, but when you’re playing it can be a little annoying. You want to get away from the baseball and be a human being. But not being there now I love it. I see a fan, take pictures, sign a hundred balls, whatever.”
Thames quickly is reaching star status here in the states. With his comic book hero strength and look, his gregarious demeanor and his stunning start, Thames is losing his anonymity. Is this sustainable? Thames’ swing change is real. The Reds have seen him in 28 plate appearances over six games and haven’t come close to figuring him out; he’s hitting .455 against them with eight homers.
And how’s that transition to consistent high velo going? Through Monday he was crushing good old American fastballs to the tune of a .500 batting average and a 1.429 slugging percentage! Thames averaged 41 homers a season in Korea. With this kind of start, it’s no longer a foreign idea to think he has a chance to come close to that production in the majors.