Eric Thames and Defensive Value

It’s time we addressed the question of the winter on the minds of Brewer fans. The question that’s keeping us up at night, refreshing our favorite projection system in our web browser, just hoping for some new information that will finally allow us to just get some sleep and put our minds at ease, knowing that all will be well in 2017 with the Cubs, Cardinals, and Pirates safely behind us in the standings:

How will Eric Thames’ defense be?

In the grand scheme of things, or really in any scheme of things in 2017, it’s probably not really important at all. However, given that Chris Carter posted an amazing -12.1 FRAA, good for 59th and absolute last among first basemen in 2016, it’s possible that it might matter a little more to the Brewers than to any other team. In fact, Chris Carter’s defensive FRAA in 2016 ranks 3,081 out of 3,136 seasons by first basemen since 1950.

Projection systems so far have been fairly bullish on Thames’ offensive output. Steamer and ZiPS, respectively have Thames projected for over an .800 OPS, and Clay Davenport’s translation from his production in Korea is even more optimistic, with a 1.000+ OPS.

If his offense is even just close in production to what Carter offered, the Brewers might end up having more to gain even if Eric Thames can just be average at first base to the tune of a win or more. Could he be better than that though?

Unfortunately, publicly available KBO statistics don’t give us anything of particular use defensively. You could argue that he won Korea’s Golden Glove at first base last year, as was cited in several articles after Thames signed with the Brewers this winter. However, the Gold Gloves in Korea are actually awarded to the best players at each position overall, not solely on defensive capability or metrics—to the point of a Golden Glove awarded to a DH every year. I’ll give you a moment to collect yourself after the shock of learning that a league’s Gold Glove award might not just take defense into account.

That leaves us with his minor league and brief stints in the majors, but he hasn’t played any first base at any point in his career stateside. Splitting his time between right field and left, he has basically averaged out to slightly below average outfielder. Playing in 95 games his rookie year in Toronto mostly in left, Thames was -3.0 FRAA, and the following year splitting time between Toronto and Seattle he was close to average.

The scouting reports on Thames have  been pretty consistently down on his defense overall. In the 2011 Baseball Prospectus Annual, he was called “below average.” Interestingly, the 2013 Annual report pointed out some conflicting data on his defense, and is worth quoting here in full:

“When you start feeling confident in advanced defensive metrics, go look at Thames, who is either an above-average left fielder (+4 runs in his 181-game career, according to us) or a considerably worse option than Bobby Abreu right now (-19, by John Dewan’s +/- ratings). That’s a big difference and it’s a big deal in evaluating Thames, whose bat is just average for a corner. With an average glove, he’s an every-day player on a second-division team, and perhaps the big half of a platoon on a contender; without it, he’s quad-A. The consensus among those who watched him in Toronto, where he was frequently replaced for defense late in games, leans heavily toward the latter.”

It appears from as much information as we can cobble together, Thames was somewhere between an average to below-average left fielder. That seems like it would work out okay defensively at first base. Surely a converted left fielder at first would be…oh. We’re back to Chris Carter again.

To expand our sample size outside the Brewers organization, I used Baseball Reference’s Play Index to look at active players who have played both positions and more than 500 games. The list of those players, along with their average FRAA since they started playing the majority of their games at first base:

Player FRAA
Albert Pujols 14.3
Miguel Cabrera -1.9
Adam Lind -3.9
Mark Trumbo -0.8
Chris Carter -5.0
Brandon Moss -1.3
Lucas Duda -6.2
Mike Morse -3.3
Logan Morrison -2.7
Sean Rodriguez -0.7
Steve Pearce 1.0
Allen Craig -3.7
Don Kelly 0.3
Average -1.1

Obviously, the list isn’t a perfect mirror of Thames’ situation, and Albert Pujols skews the average FRAA pretty heavily. Some players moved back and forth between positions, which may not reflect their first base-only FRAA. But the larger point is that players who have switched between left and first base generally have been below-average fielders at first (the rare exception seems to be super-utility guys like Steve Pearce or Sean Rodriguez), and we might expect the same out of Thames. But even a Lucas Duda-type FRAA season for Thames represents almost 6 FRAA improvement from last year at first.

Hey, I told you this wasn’t important in the grand scheme for 2017. Unless Eric Thames is Albert Pujols…

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