MLB’s phenom is 30-year-old who went to Korea to figure it out
By Joel Sherman
The Brewers switched from one NL homer leader to another, which initially led to some uncomfortable moments in Sin City.
You see, Milwaukee signed Eric Thames to replace Chris Carter as its first baseman and main power source, and the Brewers went a step further by designating Carter for assignment to open the 40-man roster spot for Thames and, well, why don’t we let Thames’ agent, Adam Karon, take it from here?
“The crazy thing is that Carter and Thames work out in Las Vegas in the same facility,” Karon said. “They were seeing each other several times a week. They are not friends or enemies, but Eric told me, ‘Man, this is awkward.’”
But Thames is nothing if not adaptable to difficult surroundings. He had to travel more than 6,500 miles to find a better swing and mindset that has made him the biggest story in baseball this April — a washout who has become a phenom at age 30.
Thames had power in his first major league incarnation, but his plate discipline was poor. Between 2011-13, four organizations gave up on him. So Thames signed to play in Korea.
“His mom said it is a black hole, no one ever comes back [to the majors],” Karon remembered. “I told her it doesn’t mean you can’t come back, but I was saying it to pacify a mother.”
But Thames hit his way back home. Playing for the NC Dinos, Thames batted .349 over three years with a combined 124 homers. That enticed many teams, including the Yankees, to have interest in the lefty swinger.
Karon established three criteria to sign his player back in the majors or else Thames would either enlist back in Korea or perhaps go to Japan: 1) a three-year contract; 2) contractual language that prevented him from being sent back to the minors (he has one option left); 3) no platoons.
The demands were designed to ensure Thames got an extended chance in case, for example, his success in Korea did not translate quickly here. Recognizing a market flooded with power bats at the corner infield spots, Karon also wanted to move quickly, and the Brewers – despite never scouting Thames on anything but tape – were the most aggressive.
Carter had hit 41 homers last year, but struck out 206 times, batted just .222 and was considered a defensive liability. Through arbitration, his 2017 salary likely would soar to $8 million or more.
“Never once did [the Brewers] say a thing about Carter, but a lot of people knew that Carter was on [the trade] block,” Karon said. “But the Brewers never said if Eric signs, we are letting Carter go. [Milwaukee GM David Stearns] said, ‘If we lay out this kind of money [three years, $16 million], you have my word he will play every day even if he struggles early.’ That was important because we felt he would need a transition period.”
So much for that. Thames has homered 11 times in his first 20 games while hitting .371 with a 1.411 OPS — eight have come in six games against the Reds.This has rekindled memories of when Cecil Fielder came back to the majors in 1990 after a year in Japan and hit 51 homers for the Tigers.
Why has Thames graduated to this type of hitter? There is not much fastball velocity in Korea, so pitchers rely heavily on off-speed offerings. Seeing so many curves and splits improved Thames’ hitting eye, and he has carried that over here. Karon, though, insists that is only part of the reason.
“He grew up emotionally,” Karon said. “His approach to life changed. He adopted an Eastern way of thinking.”
Still, I wondered: If Thames’ plate discipline could be improved by being force-fed so many breaking balls in Korea, might this be an avenue for talented minor leaguers here with the same problems to use to get to the majors?
“It is an innovative idea, to go there for a specialized training,” Karon said. “But we have a lot of guys overseas, like 10 or 11 Americans in Asia. It is not easy to get there. They don’t want just anyone. I have clients who are 4A. Korean scouts say they can’t hit breaking balls and won’t sign them. They don’t want their league to be training ground. They are very proud of their league.”