Is Eric Thames For Real?
Often times, when players can’t quite crack it in the major leagues, they find more opportunity on the other side of the world, in baseball hotbeds like Japan and Korea. Japan’s NPB has produced many fantastic players, from Ichiro to Masahiro Tanaka, and currently houses Shohei Otani, who’s a whole new world of talent, being called Japan’s Babe Ruth. The KBO in South Korea has housed some big time hitters, and is widely known as an offensive league. One such offensive stud that has played for the NC Dinos of KBO until recently is a man named Eric Thames. If you haven’t heard of him before, then after this past couple of weeks, you’ll get to know who he is real quick.
Thames came up in the Toronto Blue Jays’ system, as a solid prospect with big offensive upside. However, when he made it to the show in 2011, he was only slightly above average, and fell off the table in 2012, before toiling in the minors, and eventually leaving to Korea.
Having mentioned earlier that Korea’s league is a haven for big bats (teams average around 6 runs per game, and the league batting average last season was .289, and they have some outrageous bat flips to boot), Thames seemed to have learned a thing or two, racking up 124 home runs in 3 seasons there, and touching eye-popping numbers like a .381 batting average and an OPS of 1.288 in 2015 (which would be good for the 7th best season of all time in the majors). Granted, those numbers should be taken with a grain of salt, because again, Korea’s league is a big time hitter’s league.
The Milwaukee Brewers noticed that Thames was ripping up the KBO, and signed him to a 3 year contract. The Brewers were hoping that he’d figured himself out in Korea, and can translate that into major league success. In a small sample size, it seems as if they’ve struck gold.
Between April 13th and 17th, Thames hit 6 home runs, at least one per game. He’s gotten a hit in all but 2 games this season (as of April 20th), and one of those games was a pinch hit appearance (the only other game he didn’t get a hit, he walked 3 times). His on base percentage has been at or over .400 the entire year, and even hit the .500 mark a couple of times in late April. The numbers are unreal.
Perhaps, a little too unreal for some to believe. Chicago Cubs’ pitcher John Lackey had a very interesting quip about Thames:
“You watch film on recent stuff and try to figure out a way, you know, to get him out. But I mean, really even the homer hit the other way, I mean, you don’t see that happen here very often. That’s kinda one of those things that makes you scratch your head.”
Cubs pitching coach Chris Bosio was asked about Thames too, and made an equally interesting remark, in response to Lackey calling Thames a “head scratcher”:
“Well, the bottom line is [Thames] has hit the ball and we gotta figure out a way to get around [it]. All that other stuff, I’ll let other people worry about. But he’s doing stuff that I haven’t seen done for a long time."
“You start thinking about Ken Griffey Jr., Manny Ramirez when he went to the Dodgers, Barry Bonds … You’re talking about some of the greatest players to ever play this game. So, yeah, it’s probably a ‘head-scratcher’ because nobody knows who this guy is. And when he was here before, his body has changed. But, like I said, I’ll leave that to everyone else and we’re just gonna try to worry about how to pitch him better and get him out.”
That second paragraph is very interesting. To those who love it when the media takes things out of context, let me indulge you. In very short, Bosio seems to be implying Thames and steroids, in a very roundabout way. The way he brings in Manny and Bonds (both very closely attached to the PED scandal), and adding the line about his body changing? On top of that, this is coming on the heels of Pirates star Starling Marte getting an 80 game suspension for testing positive. Might that add to this very intriguing statement?
Sure, Thames isn’t a household name, and I’ll give you the fact that it’s hard to believe Thames can keep up this crazy pace of offense, especially 5 years since his previous encounter with MLB pitching. But I don’t think it’s fair for Bosio to throw PED-based shade at Thames, even if there may be substance to it (no pun intended).
PED’s and steroids have been a very taboo topic in baseball for most of the 21st century. Between the Mitchell Report, the book Game of Shadows, Biogenesis, and everything else, it’s been a sore spot for the sport. So many big stars have been banned at one point or another for juicing, that for a while it wasn’t out of question that any player that bulked up a little in the off-season or was doing unusually well was assumed to have had some supplemental help. Lately, though, suspensions are coming fewer and far between, and baseball is cleaning up. Drug tests are still being performed, and will continue to be, and punishments more severe to those caught.
Looking at a couple of factors here, I don’t think it’s right for anyone, let alone a possibly salty pitcher and his coach who just faced the guy, to be pulling the steroids card so quickly, just because a no-name guy is suddenly taking the league by storm. Thames was originally billed as a big hitting prospect. He spent the last 3 years in a hitter’s league, and dominated. It’s not a far-fetched thought that maybe he actually got better there, gained confidence, and finally started living up to his potential.
Yeah, it may not have been what Bosio and Lackey meant by their statements. As mentioned before, the media just loves that juicy gossip that they can contort in their own way to grab as many eyeballs as it can. But even if Bosio and Lackey did mean the ‘S’ word without saying it outright, these comments seem like a slight to Thames, who worked on himself and made it back to the bigs the hard way. Until I’m proven otherwise, I’ll back up Thames on this one.