The Even Scarier Eric Thames Stat

As Nick noted yesterday, Eric Thames is destroying the baseball right now. Through his first 48 plate appearances, he’s hitting .405/.479/1.000, good for a ridiculous .604 wOBA and 287 wRC+, both the best in baseball. He’s homered in five consecutive games, and 11 of his 17 hits this year have gone for extra bases. Power was the one part of Thames’ game in which we were fairly confident, but he’s putting to rest any doubts about whether his thump would translate back to the big leagues.

In reality, the uncertainty with Thames was what his control of the strike zone would look like. That was his undoing before he went to star in the KBO, as he struck out about five times as often as he walked back in 2011 and 2012. And while the projection systems were in agreement that he was likely going to hit, this was the area where they differed.

The numbers aren’t quite as optimistic (as Steamer), 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.

The skeptical view of Thames was that, while he might still hit the ball a long ways, spending a few years crushing low-quality pitching doesn’t mean that he wouldn’t still be exploited by big league stuff. And as a guy without a lot of defensive value, if he was still a low-contact slugger, that wouldn’t make him much different than Chris Carter, the guy the Brewers non-tendered in order to make room for Thames at first base.

So, while the dingers are fun and get all the attention, I’d like to present the real reason the Brewers should be pretty excited about the first two weeks of the Eric Thames experience.

2017 Z-Contact% Leaders
Rank Player Z-Contact%
1 A.J. Pollock 100.0%
2 Jose Abreu 98.3%
3 Jorge Polanco 98.2%
4 Mookie Betts 98.1%
5 Joey Votto 97.3%
6 Melky Cabrera 97.0%
7 Daniel Murphy 96.9%
8 Troy Tulowitzki 96.5%
9 Chris Young 96.4%
10 Eduardo Nunez 95.9%
11 Joe Mauer 95.8%
12 Nolan Arenado 95.5%
13 Jonathan Lucroy 95.2%
14 Elvis Andrus 95.0%
15 David Freese 94.9%
16 Joe Panik 94.9%
17 Jordy Mercer 94.6%
18 Brett Gardner 94.6%
19 Victor Martinez 94.6%
20 Jason Heyward 94.3%
21 Christian Yelich 94.3%
22 Michael Brantley 94.2%
23 Kole Calhoun 94.0%
24 Anthony Rizzo 93.9%
25 Danny Valencia 93.9%
26 Kevin Pillar 93.9%
27 Yunel Escobar 93.8%
28 Eric Thames 93.6%
29 Mitch Haniger 93.2%
30 Andrelton Simmons 93.2%

Z-Contact% is contact on swings at pitches in the strike zone, and is one of the skill stats that doesn’t need a huge sample to give a decent overview of a player’s abilities. As a Major Leaguer, you either have a swing that puts the bat on the ball with regularity or you don’t, and it’s really hard to fake contact skills even in a couple week span.

The names at the top of the list are no surprise, really. Pollock has a career Z-Contact% of 93.3%, and has been over 91% every year of his career. The rest of the list comprised mostly of lower-power elite contact types or guys with line-drive power, the Vottos and the Murphys of the world. The one 40-homer guy on this list is Nolan Arenado, and he plays at altitude. You don’t find the Exit Velocity leaders anywhere around here, as guys like Giancarlo Stanton and Miguel Sano make a conscious decision to give up contact by swinging as hard as possible.

In fact, this group of 30 hitters has an average 2017 exit velocity of 88 mph, right in line with the league average among guys who have at least 10 tracked balls by Statcast this year. Their ball-in-air exit velocity is 92.0, below the league average of 92.4, so this is not a group that is regularly crushing the ball. There are a few guys who can turn on fastballs here and there, but mostly, it’s slap hitters and line drive guys who make the most contact on swings at pitches in the zone.

Except Eric Thames. He’s got an average EV of 91.6 this year, and he’s at 97.0 on balls in the air; both of those marks are tops among this group of top-30 Z-Contact% hitters. He’s crushing the ball like a slugger while making contact like a guy who doesn’t strike out.

Or, we can look at it the other way. Among hitters with at least 20 plate appearances this year, Thames’ 97.2 mph ball-in-air EV ranks tied for 37th, with Jake Lamb, Wil Myers, and Matt Holliday. So let’s just look at the Z-Contact% marks for guys between 96.0 and 98.0 mph on balls in the air.

Z-Contact%, 96-98 mph FB/LD EV
Player  Avg EV (mph)  Avg FB/LD EV (mph)  Z-Contact%
Joc Pederson 95.0 98.0 73.7%
Scott Schebler 90.2 97.9 87.5%
Charlie Blackmon 91.4 97.9 86.7%
Bryce Harper 93.6 97.8 91.4%
Ryan Braun 93.9 97.8 86.7%
Brad Miller 90.1 97.7 76.1%
Michael Conforto 91.3 97.4 91.7%
Brandon Moss 89.3 97.4 71.4%
Andrew Romine 84.3 97.4 71.4%
David Peralta 92.1 97.3 88.5%
Eric Thames 91.6 97.2 93.6%
Jake Lamb 92.3 97.2 82.3%
Wil Myers 89.5 97.2 78.8%
Matt Holliday 89.5 97.2 78.0%
Edwin Encarnacion 89.7 97.1 80.6%
Matt Davidson 91.1 97.0 83.0%
Yasmany Tomas 91.7 96.9 81.8%
Manny Machado 92.2 96.8 89.8%
Justin Bour 92.1 96.8 68.5%
Kyle Schwarber 88.7 96.7 83.3%
Justin Upton 88.5 96.7 78.4%
Trevor Story 91.1 96.7 76.9%
Eugenio Suarez 89.8 96.5 85.9%
Mark Canha 89.3 96.5 83.3%
Trevor Plouffe 93.5 96.5 66.7%
Jedd Gyorko 90.1 96.4 87.0%
Corey Seager 92.5 96.4 85.9%
Jonathan Schoop 85.6 96.4 85.7%
Paul Goldschmidt 92.3 96.4 76.0%
Rougned Odor 90.4 96.2 91.2%
Gerardo Parra 86.0 96.0 92.1%
Mitch Moreland 93.7 96.0 89.2%
Tyler Collins 93.3 96.0 82.2%
Evan Longoria 91.1 96.0 76.1%

I’ve highlighted the four guys on the list who are in this EV range and have a Z-Contact% over 90%. Any time you’re in a group with Bryce Harper, you’re probably doing okay, and while Rougned Odor and Gerardo Parra aren’t elite hitters, both are known for having pretty decent contact skills, and thus far this year, they’re hitting the ball pretty hard.

The average Z-Contact% for this group of 34 hitters? 82.6%, well below the league average of 85.8%. This is a group that trades contact for batted-ball authority, and these are Thames’ peers in terms of driving the ball in the first few weeks of 2017.

So, yeah, we were pretty Thames had power, and that’s been obviously true the first few weeks. But he might also have pretty decent bat-on-ball skills, or at least, it doesn’t seem like contact is going to be a huge, Joey Gallo-style problem for him. Certainly, we’re dealing with just a couple of weeks of data, and a lot of his success came against a bad Cincinnati pitching staff, so perhaps he’ll make less contact as he faces better pitchers and the scouting report on him gets around the league.

But the big question coming into the year was whether Thames would be able to hit big league pitching enough to make the power play at this level. So far, the answer is a resounding yes, and if his early contact abilities hold, Thames might make even the lofty projections look conservative.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

Michael Conforto also has a Z-Contact score above 90%. He really should be getting everyday playing time

7 years ago
Reply to  thedirt17

Surely one of the great tragedies of our time.

7 years ago
Reply to  FrodoBeck

Hasn’t seen any breaking pitches yet.

7 years ago
Reply to  thedirt17

Yo aint coming out of the lineup
Bruce aint coming out of the lineup
Duda is still slugging and healthy
Conforto cannot play CF

I dont see any way he gets reg AB without an injury or trade

7 years ago
Reply to  OTMHeartBBC

Granderson can’t play CF either. Might as well go for the better bat if you’re going to put a statue out there.

7 years ago
Reply to  OTMHeartBBC

Why not put him in CF and see what happens? I know Granderson has actually played CF before but heck, if the Mets were okay with Cespedes in center they owe it to Conforto to see what he can do there.
My instinct is to sell high on Bruce before he implodes again and put Conforto back on the field, but I think Alderson would be tarred and feathered if he did that given how Bruce has been hitting.

7 years ago
Reply to  OTMHeartBBC

Also, someone pointed out that Bruce is terrible against lefties. Could have him play instead of Bruce against them, plus when he’s already playing against righties.

7 years ago
Reply to  OTMHeartBBC

Bruce should, in fact, come out of the lineup. It’s nice that he had a hot week to begin the season and all but there’s no particular reason to think that will continue. Honestly if they could flip him for a decent reliever (i.e., might slide in at #3 on the bullpen depth chart behind Familia and Reed) right now that would be great.

Because the way Conforto looks right now, and the skills he’s displaying (as seen in this article), I’m pretty sure he would out-produce Bruce even in Bruce’s, like, 95th percentile outcome or whatever.

Cory Settoon
7 years ago
Reply to  thedirt17

He has also faced a total of 0 left handed pitchers. He needs the chance, but his Z-Contact will fall when he does.

7 years ago
Reply to  thedirt17

Can a Mets fan tell me why they are dicking around Conforto so much?

7 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

No, no they cannot. It defies explanation, except that they made a mistake on Bruce and are committed to it now (and it happens to have worked out okay-ish for the first week of the season but who knows if that will keep up).

7 years ago
Reply to  dtpollitt

I am also not a Mets fan. When I have asked them, the explanation is that I have been given is that “Terry Collins likes veterans.” I don’t know if that is true or not, but this organization has done some weird things to get extra pop in the lineup (like playing corner guys in center) so I don’t understand why they don’t try it with Conforto too.