Fantasy Baseball: Eric Thames Is a Worthwhile Gamble
By now you've probably heard of the man, the myth, the legend known as Eric Thames.
Okay, that's an exaggeration, but since signing with the Milwaukee Brewers last November, Thames has become one of the more popular fantasy baseball sleepers across the fantasy industry.
Following a 2013 release from the Houston Astros, Thames took his talents to South Korea, where he became a superstar over three seasons. This included an absolutely bonkers 2015 MVP season in which he hit 47 homers, stole 40 bags, and had a 1.288 OPS. He didn't quite match that in 2016, but he still put up 40 jacks and 13 swipes with a 1.101 OPS.
We've had a limited number of imports from the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO), so one has to be skeptical of how Thames' gaudy numbers will translate in the majors -- except several popular industry projections are keeping that glass half-full. Steamer projects 29 home runs, 13 stolen bases, and a .272/.350/.515 line. ZiPS is less optimistic but still forecasts 26 bombs and 10 steals with a .247/.321/.493 line.
Is that a 40-homer, 40-steal season? Hardly, but that's a very intriguing baseline for a guy with an average draft position of about the 200th pick in NFBC drafts.
But this is fairly unusual territory. Thames is 30 years old, and the last time he played in the majors was 2012. He couldn't even get out of Triple-A in 2013.
How successful will he be this time around?
Yes, Thames' KBO numbers must be taken with a grain of salt, but just for fun let's look at them in all their glory. In South Korea, there were virtually no holes in his game, including a high batting average and excellent walk rate.
Wow. No wonder Thames' agent compared his celebrity status in South Korea to the Beatles. Those are some fantasy dream seasons.
But what will carry over to the majors?
As much as we would love to see 40 stolen bases again, it sure looks like the outlier. Thames never showed much prowess on the base paths in the minors, so it's not like he's got Billy Hamilton wheels.
But many factors go into whether a team will run much or not, including the manager's philosophy, the strength of the offense, and personnel. Last year's Brewers led the league -- by a wide margin -- in both stolen bases and stolen base attempts. Sure, it helps if you have Jonathan Villar, but seven different players swiped at least eight bags last year. Maybe he won't get 40, but it's hard to see why Thames can't snag 10-plus as long as he's out there.
But the Brewers obviously didn't sign him to steal bases. The more important question is will he hit?
Although we don't have many former KBO players to compare him to, three who have come stateside recently are Byung-Ho Park, Jung Ho Kang, and Hyun Soo Kim. Kim exhibited some pop in South Korea, and he has proved himself a solid contact hitter at the major league level, but the power of the other two make them more apt comparisons to Thames.
Park hit over 50 home runs in each of his last two KBO seasons, and Kang hit the 40 mark in his final campaign. However, as major leaguers the two players have had diverging experiences. Much of this comes down to strikeouts.
Park had a career 24.5% strikeout rate in South Korea, a pretty unsightly number in any country. Maybe it isn't shocking then that his first year in the majors didn't go very smoothly. His strikeout rate ballooned to 32.8% with an ugly 15% swinging strike rate. This led to a .191/.275/.409 line that would ultimately get him demoted to the minors after just 244 plate appearances.
Park did flex some power with 12 homers and a .219 isolated power (ISO), but it was unquestionably a disappointing season -- not exactly the result we're hoping for out of Thames.
Luckily, Thames' KBO career strikeout rate (17.9%) falls more in line with Kang's (16.9%). Kang's strikeout rate has jumped to 21.3% in the majors, but that's still reasonable. Unlike Park he's proven himself a strong major league hitter, posting a 131 wRC+ across two major league seasons. In 2016 Kang belted 21 home runs in just 370 plate appearances. Among players with at least 350 plate appearances, his .258 ISO was the 15th-best in the league.
It may just be one player, but it gives hope that Thames will be successful, and Kang never had a KBO season like the three Thames did.
But expectations in batting average should still be tempered despite Thames' eye-popping average and walk numbers. Kang put together a solid career .298 average and 10.9% walk rate in the KBO himself, but those figures have dropped to .273 and 7.6% in his brief major league career. Between that and Park's clunker season, it's probably best to not to expect a batting champion out of Thames.
With limited data, we can't predict Thames' 2017 season with very much certainty.
On a very basic level, Kang looks like a valid comparison, but one can't rule out that Thames could be the next Park. The power, for the most part, translated over for both players, though, so the potential for 30-homer campaign with some sneaky speed is certainly there.
No doubt, Thames is a risk-versus-reward player.
There is also the question of playing time and batting order. Depending on how Thames hits against lefties, he could very well find himself in a platoon situation. But Ryan Braun is the only player left on the team who had over 20 home runs last year, so Roster Resource currently has Thames batting cleanup. Even in a platoon, batting higher in the order would be a boon to his fantasy prospects.
Of course, how Thames does in spring training may ultimately determine his initial playing time and spot in the lineup, once again reflecting his wide range of outcomes.
In the end though, like most things in fantasy sports, it's all about value. Thankfully, as we said from the outset, this is someone going off the board around the 200th pick, so the risk is minimized. Thames isn't someone you want to reach for, but once you're past fellow high variance outfielders like Byron Buxton, Carlos Gomez and Keon Broxton, it's worth taking a look at Thames.
Thames isn't going to reach Beatles status in the United States, so don't pay full price for tickets. But he may just surprise us with a performance worthy of an encore after all.