After a torrid first month, Eric Thames has cooled, often lost in his own thoughts.
Eric Thames is a wanderer, a student of life, a naturally curious sort, capable of turning the low point of his baseball career — a three-year stint in exile in the Korean Baseball Organization, after crashing out of the major leagues — into an exercise in personal growth. He read about Korea’s history, learned bits and pieces of its language, embraced its philosophy and ethos and in doing so expanded his mind and soul in ways that seemed to have helped him when he returned to America this spring and began hitting like Babe Ruth.
But four months into a season that is slowly slipping away from both Thames and his Milwaukee Brewers, it sometimes appears as if his voracious hunger for knowledge and growth — his greatest asset in surviving the culture shock of playing overseas — has become his biggest enemy.
“For me, it can work to my advantage or disadvantage,” Thames, 30, said this week, as the Brewers were in the process of dropping two of three games in Washington to the Nationals. “If I start to think too much, it’s just like a whirlwind. [It’s better to] be mindful, take a step back and say, ‘Look, prepare the best you can and then after that, it’s out of your control.’
“But it’s hard to do that in the moment. At the plate, you’re digging in — like, ‘Hey, whoa, bases loaded, I’m going to hit a grand slam.’ And then you chase three pitches out of the zone, and it’s like, ‘I didn’t get one [pitch over the plate], and I struck myself out.’ ”
Somebody, either Thames or the opposing pitcher, has been striking out Thames in alarming numbers lately — 39 times in 92 at-bats in June, another 26 in 65 at-bats in July, entering the Brewers’ critical series this weekend against the National League Central-leading Chicago Cubs.
On May 10, he was batting .333 with a .439 on-base percentage and .744 slugging percentage.
He also led the NL with 13 home runs and looked for all the world like a guy who had discovered the secret to hitting while in foreign exile, and who had come home to reinvent himself as a modern-day oracle of offensive approach.
He spoke of meditation, ancient samurai philosophy and becoming “result-independent.” It sounded great. It looked even better, in person and on the highlight reels.
But from that date, Thames has hit .204 with a .331 OBP and .423 slugging percentage. He enters the weekend with a .252 batting average, with 24 home runs and 45 RBI.
“He’s gotten into some good streaks again; they just haven’t lasted as long,” Brewers Manager Craig Counsell said. “He homered in four straight games in mid-June. There are still signs there. It’s been a pretty dramatic season for him, in both good and bad ways, but he’s still sitting here with a .900 OPS [for the season]. You can say he’s struggling, but that’s pretty darn good, man. When he slumps, his OPS is like .770. I can’t say it’s awful.”
In Korea, where he didn’t speak the language fluently and where the age of analytics had not yet arrived in the same way it has in America, Thames’s mind was free of the avalanche of information he had left behind following the 2012 season. But now that he’s back, there is more information, more deep data than ever, and that isn’t necessarily a good thing for a hitter with an active mind like Thames’s.
“There’s a ton of information here, a lot to sort through — a lot of meetings, a lot of in-depth scouting reports,” he said. “Even though that stuff is very good, for players like me sometimes less is more.”
The obvious assumption about Thames, based on the numbers, is that MLB pitchers — having not seen him in these parts since 2012 — took a good month or six weeks to figure him out, and then once they did, his days as a transcendent slugger were over. And there is at least a nugget of truth there. But it is an explanation that Thames flatly rejects. “I hear people all the time said, ‘Oh, the league adjusted to him.’ No, I’m being pitched the same way I was before,” he said. “Except now I’m not hitting it because my mind is just too busy. So it’s all a matter of me quieting down and doing what I did overseas.”
When you dive deeper into the numbers, it isn’t hard to see where Thames has regressed. In April, according to data at Fangraphs.com, Thames swung at just 19.1 percent of pitches out of the strike zone — a “chase” rate that was nearly half the one he posted as a young, strikeout-prone big leaguer in 2011 and 2012.
But in May, Thames’s chase rate shot up to 25.1 percent, then 30.6 percent in June and 29.1 percent in July. The same low-and-away sliders he didn’t swing at in April, he now can’t help himself from chasing.
“I won’t say it’s the pitcher — it’s me,” Thames said. “Sometimes a guy makes three good pitches, and you’re like, ‘I couldn’t hit any of those.’ It’s the big leagues. These guys are making a lot of money for a reason: They’re good. They locate, change speeds. But it’s all about me being able to stay within myself.”
After returning from three years playing in Korea, Eric Thames has hit 24 home runs for the Brewers. But he also struck out 39 times in June.