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Is Eric Thames Legit?

In maybe the most asked question of the first half, and another highly talked about story-line in the offseason, people have been wondering what on earth happened to Eric Thames. The last of him in the States before his comeback was on his third team by age 26, hadn’t made it back to the majors in over a year. Needless to say, there’s a reason there was a lot of talk about his early season success, as a guy who just didn’t have it in the majors during his prime years, yet seems to have found himself at age 31.

Thames’ 2017 season was a fantastic one, hitting for a 124 wRC+ while launching 31 bombs, more than doubling his career output to that point. But it came out of nowhere, and his numbers tapered off from a 138 wRC+ in the first half down to 105 in the second half. His second half splits aren’t terrible, although they really aren’t fantasy relevant. So it remains to be seen – can he replicate his awesome first half over a full season, or was he just someone riding a hot start ?

Firstly, it’s not like Thames’ power came from nowhere. While never the biggest power prospect, he produced strong isolated slugging numbers all through the minors, and even had a very good .193 ISO as a rookie in 2011. Something stalled in his power development, as his next season’s ISO was .166, and he was down in Triple A the following year. A forensic study into exactly who and what caused his power sludge may be beyond the scope of this article, but understanding what happened is critical for projecting why his comeback may or may not be legit.

Thames’ struggles from his rookie to sophomore season is tied largely to contact, which tends to happen with power oriented hitters. His strikeout rate rose from 22.3%, at the time a high but passable number, to 30.0%, which was among the most in the league. Essentially, Thames had crazy chase rates (36.2%), and in his second year his contact dropped from 77.6% to 72.6%. So all the extra balls he was able to put into play to fall for hits or drive for extra bases had gone away, as pitchers exposed his swing happy approach.

In 2017, we saw a different version of Thames. His chase rate was cut down to 27.6%, one of the better marks in the league, and although his contact is still low, thanks to being more selective with what he swings at allowing his swings to carry more value, getting hits more frequently.

His strikeout rate was still high at 29.6%, but the league average strikeout rate has changed to 21.6% in 2017 from 19.8% in 2012, his most recent season. While the magnitude is virtually the same, the relative difference is big, and shows his improvement on his discipline. This is magnified when we look at his walk rates, where he changed from a career 5.6% walk rate to 13.6% in 2017.

When we look into what happened between Thames’ first and second half, we see immediately the strikeout rate increased from 27.1% to 33.3%. His walk rate also decreased from 15.5% to 10.8%, showing his discipline in general started to regress as pitchers started figuring him out again. Something that helped him find that next power gear was hitting more fly balls, going from career 37.1% to 41.3%. But if we look at his splits, his first half was 44.0% but it dropped sharply to 37.2% in the second half.

Everything that was making Thames so awesome started to evaporate as the season went on. Obviously there’s going to be some give and take with any breakout season like this, with the league catching up and the player having to react. But it’s a tough scenario where there really isn’t a whole lot of silver lining when it comes to Thames.

He still turned himself into a fantasy relevant player in 2017, and that doesn’t seem to be a role he’s going to leave in 2018. However, his long-term outlook will never live up to his 2017 season, and the chance for further regression, or even a cliff year, are a realistic possibility, so it might be smart to just avoid him.

Look for someone in your league to buy high on his hot first half, and be weary about picking him up except in later rounds. If you own him in a keeper league, find that owner who believes in those first half numbers and sell.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.
James Krueger

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