On Tuesday, I ran a poll, asking what you would pay Eric Thames now, given what he’s done to MLB pitching — and the Reds — over the first three weeks of the season. When asked what kind of annual salary you’d agree to under the same three year term that he signed this winter, a majority of the responders (56%) selected $11-$15 million per year. The weighted average of all the votes came out to just under $15 million, so the crowd estimated that a fair three-year contract for Thames now would be something like $45 million.
And while I think there are valid concerns about the lack of information we have concerning how Thames will adjust as the league adjusts to him, I still think that number is overly conservative. If I were tasked with crafting an offer for Thames at this point, and followed the same constraint that he was only accepting three year offers to put it on the same scale as the one he signed this winter, I’d offer him the Edwin Encarnacion deal: $60 million over three years.
The primary issue with valuing Thames raised in the comments section of Tuesdsay’s post is his small sample of Major League success. He doesn’t even have 100 at-bats in the big leagues this year, and his 2011/2012 trials, he put up a replacement level performance in 684 PAs. These have been 90 great plate appearances, but the lasting memory of Chris Shelton’s 2006 April (.326/.404/.783, 196 wRC+ in 104 PA) lingers, and the analytical community has rightfully spent the last 20 years warning against rushing to judgment based on a month’s worth of success or failure.
But I think it’s also disingenuous to not acknowledge that Thames’ track record includes far more than just 90 plate appearances in the big leagues. The reality is that Eric Thames has been crushing baseballs for most of the last decade.
Back in 2008, Thames put himself on the map with a monster season at Pepperdine, and despite a late-season injury that caused him to slide to the seventh round, Baseball America rated him as the 90th best prospect headed into that draft.
A lefthanded hitter and thrower, Thames’ outstanding 2008 season at Pepperdine has drawn substantial attention from scouts. He was hitting .407 with 13 homers and 59 RBIs when he went down in late May with what scouts described as a hip flexor injury, though Pepperdine describes it as an upper-leg injury. An unsigned 39th-round pick of the Yankees in 2007, Thames has improved his stock considerably, improving his body over the years. He’s now a solidly built, muscular 6-foot, 205-pounder who physically resembles former White Sox outfielder Warren Newson. Thames’ primary tool is his bat, as he’s strong enough to hit effectively from an open, spread stance. Occasionally, Thames will drift into a habit of trying to lift, pull and jerk everything. He often over swings and whiffs on offspeed stuff, and is much more effective when he cuts down on his swing and attempts to use the entire field. In the outfield, Thames is an acceptable, average defensive left fielder, with acceptable speed and range. He has played some center field but profiles better defensively in left. His inconsistent and fringy arm strength also fits better in left. As a pro, Thames profiles as a potentially heavy-hitting left fielder with average to slightly below-average non-hitting tools.
The quad injury that caused him to slip in the draft came back to limit him to just 220 PAs in his 2009 debut, but when he was on the field, he ran a 153 wRC+ in high-A ball, a debut that earned the following write-up from BA after the season:
Thames’ draft stock skyrocketed when he hit .407 with 13 homers during his redshirt junior season at Pepperdine in 2008. But he tore a quadriceps muscle in his right leg shortly before the draft, causing him to fall to the Blue Jays in the seventh round. After signing for $150,000, he had surgery to repair his quad and didn’t make his pro debut in 2009. He pounded high Class A pitching, but missed all of July and a couple of weeks in August when his quad flared up on him again. Thames has a rock-solid build and is very strong. He has plus bat speed, a sound stroke and solid plate discipline. When he’s healthy and not holding back, he shows average speed. His arm is average as well, and he fits best defensively in left field. Assuming Thames is healthy in spring training, he could get a crack at making the Double-A roster.
They were right about Thames cracking Double-A in 2010, and finally healthy, Thames was one of the best hitters in the minors, running a 142 wRC+. In 2011, the Jays sent him to Triple-A, and he did what he’d done every year as a professional, putting up a 150 wRC+ that forced the Jays to summon him to the big leagues. In his first year against big league pitching, he ran a 107 wRC+, and he looked like a potential regular for the Jays heading into the 2012 season.
That didn’t go very well, as he didn’t hit for enough power to justify poor outfield defense, and Thames was shipped back to Triple-A at the end of May, having put up a 74 wRC+ in 160 PAs. And that was basically when the Jays gave up on him, as they traded him to Seattle at the deadline despite the fact that he’d run a 141 wRC+ after getting sent back down. Thames found his power in Seattle, launching 13 extra base hits and putting up a .220 ISO in 130 PAs, but his strikeout rate spiked up and his outfield defense wasn’t a great fit for Safeco Field.
The Mariners decided to stash him back in Triple-A for 2013, and he was okay, running a 129 wRC+, but they eventually shipped him to Baltimore (for Ty Kelly), and the Orioles weren’t impressed enough to give him a call-up, as he struggled to an 89 wRC+ in 149 PAs in Norfolk. He got claimed on waivers by the Astros after the season, but faced with the prospect of being in his fourth organization in a year and a half, he chose to go to Korea instead, signing with the NC Dinos of the KBO. You know what happened when he got there.
So, to recap, Thames was one of the best hitters in college, then hit at every level of the minor leagues between 2009 and 2012. He didn’t hit for enough power or make enough contact in 2012, then struggled after getting shipped back to the minors in 2013, but went to Korea and became the best hitter in a league specializing in throwing breaking balls, the kind of pitch he had the most trouble with previously. And now, armed with a very different approach at the plate, he’s destroying Major League pitching.
Out of the last 10 years, Thames has been a good hitter for about about 8.5 of them, with just his 290 PAs in the big leagues in 2012 and his 398 PAs in Triple-A in 2013 standing out as the only time he hasn’t been one of the best hitters in his league. He hit in college, hit in the minors, hit in the Majors as a rookie, hit in Korea, and now he’s hitting in the Majors again.
The preponderance of evidence suggests that Thames can really hit. He’s really strong (and he’s been that way for a long time, baseless-PED accusations aside) and hits the ball hard with regularity, but he also makes more contact than a lot of other sluggers, and in the KBO and this trip through the big leagues, he’s showed a high-level understanding of the strike zone. With that combination of skills, it would be a surprise if he didn’t hit well.
Even putting aside his KBO performances and how those numbers should be included into a projection of his future performance, Thames now has a career 114 wrC+ in the majors. To put that in some context, that puts him in the same range as Kendrys Morales (113 wRC+), who got a 3 year, $33 million contract this winter for his age 34-36 seasons. And yet, the consensus from Tuesday’s post was that Thames is worth just a few million per year more than Morales, despite being four years younger, being able to play the field, and having recent performances that suggest his career numbers are underselling what we should expect going forward.
Of course, the Morales contract was the outlier for 1B/DH types this winter, and it could be argued that it was an above-market contract based on all the similar guys who signed after him, but Morales is something close to Thames’ downside. If Thames’ current plate discipline is a total mirage that disappears as pitchers adjust to him, and he becomes a lower-OBP slugger on the wrong side of 30, well, that’s what Morales is (plus a few more years and without the ability to play 1B regularly) and our crowdsourced contract estimates suggested he was worth 2/$20M headed into the winter.
So if his reasonable downside is Morales, and the crowd thought Morales was worth 2/$20M for his 34-35 seasons, how do we justify only 3/$45M for Thames now? That’s valuing him similarly to Mark Trumbo (3/$37.5M, plus a draft pick). It puts him a little under what Scott Kazmir got two years ago, and a little over what Melky Cabrera got three years ago. These aren’t risk-free, guaranteed stars. 3/$45M in this economy gets you a flawed back end starter or a borderline everyday position player in decline.
Right now, we have enough evidence that Thames can hit to suggest he’s better than any of those guys were when they were free agents. Realistically, the most similarly skilled hitter to hit free agency in recent years is Encarnacion, who got 3/$60M for his 34-36 seasons after turning down 4/$80M from the Blue Jays. Our projections saw Thames and Encarnacion as similar hitters before the season started, and the updated projections that account for Thames’ hot start have moved him into the range of Manny Machado and Kris Bryant.
Even if we thought the projections were overly optimistic, you have to deflate them past a point of reasonableness to get him from his current .370 rest-of-season forecast down to where a 3/$45M offer would be a good balance of risk and reward. Trumbo, who got the equivalent of that offer once you factor in the cost of the draft pick surrendered to sign him, is projected for a .330 wOBA over the rest of the season, and it’s not like he’s adding value in the field.
Thames is better than Trumbo. Thames is a lot better than Morales. And yet, we’re still thinking he should get paid like he’s in their class?
Eric Thames is a good hitter. He might be a great hitter. In this day and age, even with the risks associated with his small sample success in the big leagues, he’s a $20 million per year player.
Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.