We never really know what to expect when a player comes to Major League Baseball from a foreign league. The rules of the game are mostly identical over there, of course, but the competition level is different. It’s a completely different set of hitters and pitchers in a completely different set of parks. Even for truly exceptional talents, there’s no real telling how a player’s skills will translate precisely from league to league. The calculus gets even more interesting when it involves a player who started here, faltered, went elsewhere, and thrived.
April is a time of guessing and extrapolating and of the occasional hot take. We like to draw conclusions when we perhaps shouldn’t. That’s half of the fun of April baseball. And Eric Thames is one of the cool new things happening in baseball right now. Because, as we’ve been reminded, this man can hit some dingers. He just finished hitting five in one series against the Reds.
Now, the Reds play in a tiny little stadium, and they don’t have the best pitching in the world. If Ryan Braun had been the one to do this, it would be a cool little footnote, because we expect guys like Braun to stomp on subpar pitching in tiny ballparks. If Jett Bandy had done this, I’d assure you that Jett Bandy is, in fact, a real person, and that this is an aberration.
Thames is a different matter. This is Eric Thames, who left American organized ball and rather quickly became a league-wide sensation in Korea. This is Eric Thames, who got big, grew a mighty beard, donned what looks like cybernetic robot armor on his right arm, and promptly started hitting massive bombs. Thames took on a nearly mythic quality for a few years, watched from afar by those who still remembered his name and who pay attention to foreign leagues. We got our wish, and he’s back. We get to see if a man who couldn’t cut it in his first try can succeed after dominating a foreign circuit. So far, he’s doing quite well.
It’s probably too early to declare the Thames experiment a success. It’s April 17th, after all. The Brewers have played 13 games, and Thames now has just 44 plate appearances under his belt. He’s already created 1 WAR of value, and that translates to about $8 million of value, but he could just as easily create negative value in the coming weeks as a scouting report starts to form. Baseball is, of course, also not played in terms of cost-effectiveness and surplus value. Thames wants to succeed for Thames, not to make David Stearns look smart. He’s still got a long road to go.
In short, we can’t tell anything for certain from this collection of data. There’s simply not enough here. But consider this, because it is the height of April fun: the two highest single-season ISO marks of all time belong, rather predictably, to Barry Bonds and Babe Ruth. Bonds put up a staggering .536 in 2001; Ruth, a much-lower-but-still-quite-impressive .473 in 1920.
Eric Thames currently has a .553 ISO.
Barring a massive whiff by the scouting departments of 29 teams, it’s pretty safe to say that Thames isn’t going to keep that up. He’s not going to push 100 home runs for the season. He’s not going to regularly hit five home runs in four days. What, if anything, have we learned from this torrent of homers? Not a ton.
We know for a fact that Thames can punish mistakes. Here’s his first home run of the weekend, off Bronson Arroyo, who is still playing baseball.
If we isolate the moment right before Thames makes contact, we get this.
That’s about the last place you want to hang a 71 mph curve. For guys who are built like Thames — and even for a lot of guys who aren’t built like him — that’s batting practice. But Thames has looked as much of a masher here as he was in Korea. Here’s another one from this past series, where he hooks a pitch on the outer third way back into the seats.
This homer is a bit more interesting, because it might reveal a bit more about how Thames’ skills are likely to translate against major leaguers. The pitch here isn’t a meatball like some of the others. Robert Stephenson threw an offspeed pitch on the outer third of the plate, pretty much right where his catcher wanted it, and Thames hit the snot out of it. That’s good hitting and good extension.
Thames is hitting .368. Nine of his 14 hits being for extra bases. Extensive research and many experiments in a laboratory setting tell me that’s unsustainable. Eric Thames isn’t going to come back to MLB and win a triple crown. The Brewers may be on to something here, however. I initially dismissed the Thames signing as an interesting deal, but one more designed to save Milwaukee some pocket change than to put a championship-level player on the field. This may still yet be the case, but Thames may also be better than I gave him credit for.
Miller Park is also a nice place for power hitters to play, so Thames has that going for him. He’s also going to be spending a fair amount of time in Cincinnati and in Chicago. He’s going to have more than enough chances to send some balls over fences. Thames probably isn’t going to put up all-time power numbers. But he may have a fun case to be in the Home Run Derby.
Nick is a columnist at FanGraphs, and has written previously for Baseball Prospectus and Beyond the Box Score. Yes, he hates your favorite team, just like Joe Buck. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets, and can contact him at stellinin1 at gmail.