Eric Thames Went from Quad-A Slugger to Korean League Star. What's Next?
Eric Thames has always had a big bat, but was blocked in his MLB career. In three years in Korea, he's become the best hitter in the league. Can he make it back?
Photo by Steven Bisig-USA TODAY Sports
When Eric Thames stepped to the plate at Masan Baseball Stadium in Changwon, South Korea, last Friday, the 11,000 strong in attendance were expecting something great. A painfully drawn-out eight-week spring training had finally come to a close, and the league's reigning Most Valuable Player was back in the building, ready to get to work leading the NC Dinos back to the playoffs again in 2016.
Because baseball is cruel, Thames disappointed those expectant fans. He made them wait until his second at-bat to deposit a 3-2 offering from Yang Hyeon-Jong over the fence for a home run. He'd record another hit later in the game, as his Dinos topped the KIA Tigers 5-4 for an opening day victory.
This is just how it is for Thames as he enters his third season in the Korean KBO. He is fresh off of winning a gold glove at first base, becoming the league's third foreign-born MVP, and making himself the inaugural member of the famously hitter-friendly league's 40-40 club. There's really no end to the list of random records and strange accomplishments he managed last year - he became the first player to hit for the cycle twice in a single season, for example - when Thames hit .381 with 47 home runs, 140 runs batted in, 103 walks, 42 doubles, and 40 stolen bases. Whatever there is that can be done with a bat, Eric Thames did it in Korea last season, and he'll aim to do even more in this one.
Production like this naturally raises the question: What the hell is Thames doing in Korea instead of the Major Leagues? And, to an equal extent, what has changed since he left the United States at the end of the 2013 season, when he traded in life as a fifth outfielder for a shot at hitting cleanup and, apparently, inaugurating his own 40/40 club? The answer to both can be traced back to injury and context.
A seventh-round pick out of Pepperdine in 2008, Thames wasn't considered an elite prospect in the Toronto Blue Jays' system. Solid, to be sure, but Baseball America never ranked him in the organization's top 10, even as he made quick progress toward the bigs.
It was on the doorstep of the majors where Thames's standing as a lesser prospect than Travis Snider, the team's 2006 first-round pick, came into play. Snider was struggling with the Jays in his fourth season, and Thames outperformed him in his 2011 rookie campaign, hitting 12 home runs with a 107 weighted runs created plus (wRC+) in 95 games. But Snider was one of the organization's blue-chippers, and so the two entered 2012 in a competition of sorts. Each was on the shortest of leashes.
"I saw the writing on the wall," Thames told VICE Sports from Korea in late March. "They kind of pitted him and I against each other. It was kind of that pressure of, 'If you mess up, we're gonna call up Travis,' or, 'Travis, if you mess up, we're gonna call up Thames.' It was weird. Instead of having that comfort, knowing, 'Hey, of course, it's baseball, it's a tough sport and of course we're gonna give you time to adjust and feel your way out'—it wasn't like that."
Thames started the year fine; at the end of April, he was hitting .308 but had only hit two home runs and drawn five walks. He was playing well, in other words, but not necessarily in the ways the Jays envisioned. That necessitated a conversation with the general manager, who was looking for a specific skill set from his corner outfielders.
"I remember Alex Anthopoulos sat me down at the beginning of 2012—and this was during the season—and he said, 'We want you to walk more and hit more home runs.' And I was like, 'Uhhh OK. I'm gonna try,'" Thames said. "But do you know how hard that is?"
Thames started pressing in the search for more power, but he couldn't figure out the chicken-or-egg dilemma of trying to be more selective for walks while also being more aggressive in looking for pitches to drive. "I started striking out, striking out, striking out," he said. "And, of course, that was the end of the road for me, trying to do too much." He hit .193 in May, striking out 28 times in 88 plate appearances; he walked less while also hitting for less power, and the Jays sent him back to the minors on May 28.
Snider, meanwhile, had dominated at Triple-A and was eventually called up in Thames's stead. In an unexpected development, the Jays ultimately decided to move on from both players, shipping Snider to Pittsburgh the same day they sent Thames to Seattle.
The change of scenery hardly helped. Thames didn't thrive with the Mariners. He hit well in their minor league system in 2013, and then got shipped to Baltimore—coincidentally, Snider's eventual landing place, too—where he stagnated again. He hit below his own standards before he got stepped on and broke his hand, costing him the last two months of the season.
That injury may have been the best thing that could have happened to Thames. While playing winter ball in Venezuela, the Dinos made an overture to Thames's agent, who confirmed that the Orioles were likely to remove Thames from the 40-man roster that offseason. "I would have been fucked either way," Thames recalled, though he still had some obvious trepidations about such an extreme move.
"At first I was like, 'No way, there's no way I want to go to Asia, I'm not done yet. I'm still young, I'm not, like, 35,'" Thames said. "There's a stigma about playing overseas. But then they threw some dollar figures around and I figured it was a better situation than being in Triple-A all season with Houston or being released. So I took a chance."
That gamble paid off enormously. Thames struggled initially but he found a groove at the plate after a few weeks—he needed time to adjust to the wider variety of pitches and velocities and grow familiar with the forkball, which is common in Korea but seldom seen stateside. Even in the offense-heavy Korean league, his final line stands out: Thames hit 37 home runs, batted .343, and stole 11 bases.
"I would say the biggest thing for me was playing every day," Thames said of his massive surge. "In 2011 when I was with Toronto, it was great, because I was playing every day, I was able to make adjustments, and I knew I'd be in there the next day. In 2012, it was like, 'You're going to be platooning with this guy, so you're going to play twice a week.' And you start putting pressure on yourself to hit. It sucks, man. So coming over here and playing every day was fucking awesome. I'm actually playing every day, and I've learned a lot about who I am as a player and a hitter over here."
From there, Thames improved even further, putting up his historic 2015 performance that was highlighted by even more walks and, shockingly, a nearly four-fold increase in stolen bases. If anything stands out about Thames's stats in Korea, though, it's the speed, which is something he did not previously display. Last season, the 210-pound first-baseman announced himself as a major threat to steal. For all that Thames has learned about himself and his approach at the plate in Korea, his emergence as a fine base-runner is perhaps the most tangible and measurable gain, one he owes in part to Jeon Jun-ho, the Lions' first-base coach known as the "Stolen Base King of Korea."
"He's so smart, he knows everything. He taught me a lot," Thames said. "Even little things like the way the glove's tilted a little bit—'OK, go.' 'On this pitch, go.' It's like, are you serious? And then—bam!—it's a high leg kick or a curveball. It's like, how do you even know that? He's one of those guys that has a natural eye for base-stealing."
Beyond the baseball learning curve, Thames knew that his move to Korea would come with a pretty major lifestyle shift. As a well-built, 6-foot black man with a thick beard, Thames stands out "like a sore thumb" around town. Asian baseball fans are known for their intensity, and given how easy Thames is to identify, there's no escaping the celebrity that comes with emerging as one of the greatest players in recent KBO history.
"It's kind of hard to blend in," Thames allowed, but he's leaning into the weirdness; he says his next goal is to be in a Korean commercial for "some deodorant or something." He has no choice but to embrace it, to some extent—he's that famous, and Korea's fans don't care much for boundaries. "I remember I was on a date," Thames said. "And I was making out with this girl outside my apartment. And this fan came up and tapped me on the shoulder and asked for an autograph. Like, dude, what are you doing? There's no privacy here. I could be eating dinner. I could have a burrito in my hand, eating, and someone will want to walk up and shake my hand or ask for a picture."
While that particular life change will take some getting used to, Thames knows that this qualifies as a good problem to have. "I saw the light at the end of the tunnel. I just saw, like, I can come here and do my job or I'll be gone, I'll be home working at McDonalds or something," Thames said. "So I kind of made it work. Korea is so different from the U.S. That's why when a lot of guys come over, they fail. They can't adapt. If you have an open mind and go with it and just enjoy it, it's a really easy adjustment."
South Korea is "more Western than you'd think," but for a then-27-year-old who was living outside North America for the first time, that's maybe not saying a lot. Thames stuck to eating at an Outback Steakhouse near his apartment for a long period before venturing into some of the local cuisine. He still sticks mostly to barbecued beef with rice—"I crush that all day to keep me big"—rather than experiment with the team's spicy, soup-heavy pregame spreads or Seoul's abundant street-food scene.
There's also the matter of what he calls Korea's "very military" baseball culture, which made the adjustment period more difficult. Korean teams spend far less time in the clubhouse than their American counterparts, which limited his ability to bond with teammates. The Dinos acquired former Jays teammate Zach Stewart in the middle of 2015, though, and now Thames has someone to unwind with over Call of Duty. "Me and Stewart always go on these fire teams and we just crush," Thames says. They're also waiting on preorders of Doom and Uncharted to come through, though they avoid the exceedingly popular PC gaming cafes that are on every corner. (Thames is still avoiding social media until he can secure a steady enough WiFi connection to stream Wrestlemania.)
For all of the differences in culture, baseball and otherwise, Thames has made things work. He's improved as a player and made a life for himself halfway around the world. The next challenge he'll face will come after this season, as a 30-year-old free agent: Should he stay in Korea, or take another shot at the big leagues?
Buoyed by a renewed confidence, and knowing the recent market for Korean imports, the answer is currently a noncommittal yes. "I know for a fact, if I came back, it'd be a whole different scenario for me as a player," he said. "So I'm definitely keeping that open." While Korean players don't attract the sort of big league paydays of their Japanese counterparts, the market is emerging; Hyun-soo Kim and Byung-ho Park commanded a combined $19 million this offseason, and while both are a year younger than Thames, they weren't nearly as productive.
This choice, too, can be filed under Good Problems to Have. In the meantime, there's Call of Duty to be played, a culture to explore, and maybe yet another record or two to take down in 2016.
"Everybody wants 50/50, so we'll see," Thames said, agreeing with the incredulous response that receives. "I know! I'm trying to stay healthy, shit. I'm too old for that." There may not be a ballplayer on earth who can talk about a 50/50 season with a straight face, but Thames is certainly not too old to parlay his ridiculous three-year career arc into a second act in the major leagues. Given what he's accomplished already, it's wise not to rule anything out.