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Even in America, Eric Thames Is God

After a few less-than-impressive big league seasons, Thames left MLB for the KBO, where he became a superstar and a nominal deity. Now back stateside, the Brewers first baseman is out-hitting Barry Bonds.

(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)
(Getty Images/Ringer illustration)

Until last week, Eric Thames was like the guitarist Mandy Meyer: He’d spent three years in Asia and most baseball fans had never heard of him. Now, he’s the biggest story in baseball. Tuesday’s 3-for-5 outing against the Cubs was actually a disappointment, as it ended Thames’s five-game home run streak, which included a pair of dingers against Cincinnati on Saturday. He currently leads the league with seven home runs, and is tops in many other categories related to home runs: slugging percentage (1.000), total bases (47), and OPS+ (294). Thirteen games in, Thames’s OPS is 1.491; Barry Bonds posted an OPS of 1.422 in 2004, the highest of all time for a full season.

Thames was an anonymous fourth outfielder for the Blue Jays and Mariners in 2011 and 2012, hitting .250/.296/.431 in 684 plate appearances, good for minus-0.6 bWAR. He spent all of 2013 in the minors, then decamped for South Korea, where fans referred to him as "God." In his best season with NC Dinos, 2015, Thames hit .381/.497/.790 with 47 home runs and 40 stolen bases. It’s OK, you can take a moment to laugh.

Obviously, the KBO isn’t the big leagues — it’s not even Japan’s NPB — so when that performance persuaded the Brewers to offer Thames a three-year contract with a club option and $16 million in guaranteed money, it surprised everyone, including, judging by his comments on The Ringer MLB Show, Thames himself.

Hot streaks are like hot peppers: Eat a whole ghost pepper and you’ll be a crying mess for hours, but if you drop a little ghost pepper sauce into a vat of chili, it blends in with the other flavors. The temptation is to write off Thames’s streak because while it’s caused permanent sinus damage to the baseball world, if it happened later in the year, we wouldn’t notice it. Guys have random good weeks all the time.

Except, guys don’t have random weeks this good very often at all. No Brewers player has homered in five straight games since Jeromy Burnitz in 1997. Burnitz also homered six times in four games in 2001 — it’s a big day for Jeromy Burnitz fun facts — but no Brewer has ever homered in six straight games. In the past decade, there have been only 25 five-game home run streaks, including one by Marcus Thames in 2008.

This is clearly a special achievement, no matter how surprising it might be. And there are two ways to look at it. The first is to see an anonymous 30-year-old having the best week of his life and think, "This isn’t going to last." But we should be wary of people who look at something cool and say, "Soon, things will not be cool." Instead, let’s look back and figure out how Thames’s hot streak happened. What attributes does a player need to lead the league in home runs?

Here are seven, one for each of Thames’s 2017 home runs.

Bat Speed

Pitchers are throwing harder than ever nowadays, and in order for hitters to keep up, the ability to pick up a fastball and still have enough time to get the barrel of the bat around on it is more important than ever. Thames’s first home run of 2017 came off a 96 mph fastball on the inside corner from Rockies right-hander Tyler Chatwood. There are more intimidating fastballs than the one Chatwood threw — completely straight and belt-high — but 96 is 96, and hitting that pitch 404 feet to dead center isn’t easy.

Strength

Thames’s most obvious attribute is his strength. He’s listed at an even 6 feet, which is true, give or take an inch, and 210 pounds, which is absolutely not true.

Baseball players need to be good athletes, but they don’t need to look like extras in a Bowflex commercial. There are skinny ballplayers, fat ballplayers, ballplayers with dadbod, but fewer absolutely shredded ballplayers than you’d probably think. Thames is absolutely shredded. He’s got thighs for forearms and pecs the size of José Altuve’s head. He looks like the kind of guy people befriend just so they can ask him to help them move. When I interviewed him in Brewers camp, he was wearing one of those form-fitting workout shirts, or at least I think he was — it could’ve just been a normal T-shirt in the biggest size he could find.

Above, you’ll find a video of Thames hitting another home run to center field off a 96 mph fastball. This one, however, was off left-hander Tony Cingrani, which might be hard to tell from the video since it came on Jackie Robinson Day and everyone was wearing no. 42, but you can look it up in Thames’s home run log. ("The Home Run Log," incidentally, would be a great nickname for Thames’s bat.) Again, the pitch was on the outer half of the plate, but this time it was moving away from Thames, who reached out and yanked the ball, like Hercules diverting a river to clean the Augean stables. This home run traveled 427 feet into a headwind.

A Good Eye

When power hitters start to feel their bat speed slip, they’ll start their swing a little earlier, trying to make up for the time they’ll lose midswing. It’s a risky move that often results in the hitter swinging over an unexpected breaking ball — think latter-day Ryan Howard — and some really ugly strikeouts.

Here, Thames homered not off a fastball (though with 40-year-old Bronson Arroyo on the mound, "fastball" is a relative term) but a curveball that registered at 71 mph on the TV broadcast. You’d expect any hitter to be out in front of a pitch like this, struggling to slow down his weight transfer enough to keep the ball fair — if he even hit it at all — but look at Thames’s front foot. The time from toe tap to swing wasn’t perceptibly different from the swings that allowed him to take Chatwood and Cingrani out, and he was able to keep his weight back enough to golf this ball into the second row in right center.

This was the highest of Thames’s home runs by 30 feet, with a 140-foot apex , tied for the fifth-highest home run in the league this year. That’s so high you could stack 21 Aaron Judges end-to-end and Thames’s home run would have still cleared the Tower of Judges. Thames got under the ball, but he still hit it out, so if he got fooled, he didn’t get fooled by much.

The Ability to Recognize a Mistake

Thames’s longest home run of the year, 432 feet, came off Reds right-hander Tim Adleman, and you can see why: Adleman showed Thames a 92 mph fastball with less movement than my colleague Ben Lindbergh on a dance floor, and it came in at the belt and over the middle of the plate. If you can’t hit that pitch out, you’re not going to stick in the big leagues.

Conversely, good hitters will hit that pitch out more often than not. Given that pitchers, if only by virtue of being human, make lots of mistakes, hitters who punish those mistakes routinely stand to gain a few easy home runs over the course of the year.

An Adaptable Approach

Baseball purists like hitters who use all fields. They’re harder to handcuff with defensive shifts than dead-pull guys, and there’s something to be said for working with what the pitcher gives you and going the other way rather than trying to pull an outside breaking ball and rolling over to the second baseman. Thames is, unfortunately, as pull-happy as they come: 61.1 percent of the balls he’s hit have been to the pull side, seventh highest among qualified hitters.

That’s not to say Thames can’t adapt. Here he took a John Lackey cutter, at 82 mph, on the outside corner, on a 3–2 count — exactly the kind of pitch that a hitter like Thames is predisposed to turn into a weak grounder — and poked it over the left-field wall.

Willingness to Sell Out to the Pull Side

On the other hand, fundamentally sound hitting — going the other way, moving the runner over, shortening up with two strikes — is boring. You know what’s not boring? Dingers.

In my opinion, there are two reasons for the recent power spike in MLB. The first is, per long-standing Ringer MLB Show editorial policy, that the balls are juiced. The second is that hitters are selling out for pull power by breaking two rules of hitting fundamentals. Hitters are taught to stride toward the pitcher, not toward the nearest base, and to swing level to avoid popping the ball up. But more and more, hitters confronted with an inside fastball are flying open with their front foot, dropping their back leg to force their swing into an uppercut, and slow pitch softballing that sonofabitch off the foul pole.

What Thames did with this ball wasn’t quite that extreme — and you can tell because he hit it out to right center, not straight down the line — but he definitely saw a fastball low and in, cleared his hips quickly, and took an uppercut. The 8-year-old little leaguer just learning to hit pops that ball up, but Thames, who looks like a meatball with a beard, can hit it 416 feet, at 105.9 miles an hour off the bat.

Luck

Here’s an 87 mph changeup from Robert Stephenson, on the outer half, that Thames tried to pull. That ought to be a grounder to second; you can see Thames sort of lean over midswing just to reach the pitch. But Thames not only hits it in the air, he hits it out, thanks in part to atmospheric conditions that ESPN’s home run tracker say added 18 feet to the flight of the ball. The kind of hot streak Thames is on requires him to play well, and get lucky too.

Baseball is unpredictable because so much of the game at this level is predicated on things that don’t show up in large-n statistical analysis, like wind conditions or minute variations in where the bat meets the ball, and those variations aren’t evenly distributed from player to player or over time. Baseball’s unpredictability humbles participants and learned observers, but it also causes the game’s exciting narrative twists.

That unpredictability allows Eric Thames, who just got back from South Korea, to hit six home runs in five games. If you’re not enjoying this, I don’t know how to help you.