Eric Thames was activated from the disabled list yesterday, which makes this a good time to unearth a conversation I had with the Milwaukee Brewers slugger in spring training. It was originally going to run a handful of weeks into the season, but then Thames went down with a thumb injury. Consequently, the interview was shelved, as well.
Prior to landing on the DL — he was hurt diving for a ground ball on April 24 — the 31-year-old first baseman sported a .976 OPS and had gone deep seven times. The start was reminiscent of last season, when he’d been even better in the early going. Back from a four-year stint in South Korea, Thames had 11 bombs and a 1.276 OPS when the 2017 calendar flipped to May.
His summer wasn’t nearly as sunny. Thames scuffled more often than not, and by the time September rolled around his slash line was down to .235/.349/.510. Then came a late-season surge. With the Brewers battling for a playoff berth — they ultimately fell a game short — Thames reached base 12 times in his final 23 plate appearances. After closing August on a 2-for-27 skid, he logged a 1.004 OPS in September.
Thames on his up-and-down 2017 season: “After my hot start, Ryan Braun went down [from May 25-June 27] and I had no protection in the lineup. Guys started pitching around me a little bit and I responded by being more aggressive. I wanted to hit a home run every time — I tried to do too much — and that doesn’t work too well. I became my own enemy, right then and there.”
“Also, in April and May I was fresh. I’d trained all offseason, and I’d trained hard in spring training, but come June and July I had gotten worn out. I did kind of get that second wind toward the end, though. I picked things up after making some adjustments I had to make.
“Later in the year I went back to square one. I changed my approach. I changed my practice. I had everything worked out toward the end, and while the results weren’t there for us as a team, personally I was swinging a hot bat. Had we gone to the postseason, I feel I’d have kept it going.”
On if a veteran player should know better than to try to do too much: “It doesn’t really work like that. We’re all human. It’s easy to think that way in a calm atmosphere, but when there’s pressure, when your job is on the line and fans are blowing you up on the internet… it’s a different kind of atmosphere.
“Some guys can naturally just go out there and play without a care in the world, even if they’re on the bubble. Other guys are different. They expect a lot out of themselves all the time, and they put pressure on themselves. They can’t really control that. There’s that competitive beast they have to deal with.”
On improving his preparation later in the season: “I started training to hit velocity. I was training to hit breaking balls. I wasn’t just routinely hitting off a tee and then in BP to prepare for a game. I had really intensive batting practice. I’d be off a machine that was throwing really hard fastballs, or throwing split fingers or sliders and curveballs. If you train to hit velocity, if you train to hit nasty offspeed — if you train at that level — when you get to the game, everything kind of slows down. That helped me turn things around.”
On lineup protection: “If someone doesn’t believe in it, they’re not standing in the box. You can tell. If there’s somebody behind you that can hit, you get stuff to hit. If not, you can get pitched around. The pitcher can nibble and nibble, and never give in. But if there’s someone behind you they don’t want to face — if they want to pitch to you and not the other guy — you’re going to get at least one good pitch to hit.
“Let’s say it’s runners at second and third and Christian Yelich is behind me and he’s smoking hot. The other team is probably going to be, ‘We want to pitch to this guy, because we don’t want to load the bases for Yelich.’ And it’s at-bat to at-bat, too. Situations are different. Everything can change.”
On not getting overwhelmed by data: “There’s so much data. There’s a stat for how you’re going to hit that day if you wake up later and don’t have coffee. If you take fewer rounds of BP, how do your stats compare to when you take more BP? Everything.
“I tend to overthink things, so when it comes to data I try to leave it alone as much as possible. Say a pitcher is in the dirt with a slider 70% of the time with two strikes. That’s something I need to consider, but hitting-wise… you aren’t always going to get pitched the same way. And not every team pitches the same way. It’s game-to-game and at-bat-to-at bat. That’s why it’s such a mental sport. A lot of what I did this offseason was focus on the mental side. I want to build on how I was able to finish last season.”
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.