Back on November 29th, the Brewers decided to non-tender first baseman Chris Carter, despite the fact that he hit 41 home runs for them last year. Despite his big time power, they wanted to open the position for Eric Thames, a free agent they signed the same day. Thames has been a star over in Korea the last few years, and the Brewers decided to bet on his uncertainty, hoping that some of his success over there is based on real improvements, and not just evidence of what a minor league slugger can do to inferior competition.
Normally, when teams make moves, we like to cite the projection system data as a baseline, to give us a rough understanding of what a player might reasonably be expected to do going forward. Because Thames was playing in Korea, though, we didn’t have a Steamer projection for him at the time, and in fact, we didn’t have one for him until yesterday, when Jared Cross finished running his forecasts for international players. And so, starting today, we’re officially displaying a projection for Thames here on the site. And it’s a pretty good one.
The last time Thames played in MLB, he ran an 82 wRC+, as he struck out six times for every walk he drew, and didn’t have enough power to compensate for his lack of strike zone control. This forecast suggests his walk rate might be double what it was back in 2012, while his strikeout rate is only a little above league average, and Steamer thinks the power displayed in Korea is definitely for real. For reference, here are the top 10 ISO projections that Steamer is forecasting in 2017, for players currently listed on one of our depth charts.
That’s some pretty great company to be keeping, as it’s a bunch of All-Stars and MVP Candidates, plus Thames and Chris Davis. Guys who can hit with this kind of power are valuable, and often highly compensated for their skills. Thames, though, will make less over the course of his three year deal with the Brewers ($15 million) than Davis will make in 2017 alone.
That’s because the market was still pretty skeptical of whether his skills will translate back to the big leagues, and clearly, there weren’t teams with internal projections this high, or else the bidding war would have been a bit more intense. So I know that it’s natural, when you see a guy sign for $5 million a year, and then Steamer comes out and says he might be better than Edwin Encarnacion, to not take the projection all that seriously. It’s easy to be suspicious of the calculation, and think that maybe Steamer just has something broken in the adjustment from the KBO to MLB.
Except, if we look around, it’s actually pretty similar to the other forecasts for Thames out there. Back when he signed, Dan Szymborski tweeted out his ZIPS projection for Thames.
ZiPS for Eric Thames in Milwaukee. pic.twitter.com/CUJhF3TJTr
— Dan Szymborski (@DSzymborski) November 29, 2016
The numbers aren’t quite as optimistic, pegging him for a 116 OPS+, which is more like a 114 wRC+ (since OPS overrates the SLG component, and Thames’ OPS is slanted towards SLG), about 10 points lower than what Steamer has for Thames now. But ZIPS is also buying the power to the same degree that Steamer is, projecting a .246 ISO, almost exactly the same as what Steamer has. The difference between them is that ZIPS sees fewer walks and more strikeouts, so the question is more about how much of his plate discipline from the KBO might carry over, not whether Thames has learned to drive the ball better than he used to.
Okay, that’s two projections, one pretty good and one pretty great. But that’s still just an n of two, so let’s look around for some other forecasts. Clay Davenport has been doing projections forever, and was one of the first public analysts to put together translations for players from foreign leagues. Here’s his page for Thames, which includes translated batting lines for his years in Korea, and a 2017 projection: .285/.358/.533.
That’s even more optimistic than the Steamer forecast, and similar to that projection, puts Thames’ future projection in a similar range as Edwin Encarnacion’s numbers. In other words, basically every available projection system that attempts to translate Thames’ numbers from Korea to MLB see him as an elite slugger, and thinks he’ll control the strike zone well enough to be one of the best hitters in the league.
Now, of course, projections aren’t gospel. And we know that pretty much every team in baseball has their own projection systems at this point, and if even a few teams had similar forecasts and put a lot of stock into those numbers, Thames would have gotten more than 3/$15M. So the fact that the market just valued him like a part-time bench player is also a data point we should consider, and is perhaps a good indicator that there might be reasons to think the public forecasts might be a bit too optimistic.
But while the Steamer forecast looks staggering, it’s worth remembering that it’s not really an outlier among public projections. And Jung Ho Kang’s success after getting ignored by the market is a nice reminder that MLB teams don’t have this figured out perfectly either. Everyone’s doing the best they can with imperfection information.
But if Thames comes anywhere close to these projections, the Brewers very well may have gotten the steal of the winter. And if he actually lives up to these forecasts? Then the rebuild in Milwaukee might not take as long as we think.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.