Af­ter a tor­rid first month, Eric Thames has cooled, of­ten lost in his own thoughts.

The Washington Post Sunday - - SPORTS - BY DAVE SHEININ dave.sheinin@wash­post.com

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.”

PA­TRICK SMITH/GETTY IM­AGES

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.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.