On Eric Thames, Hot Starts, and Baseball Fandom

Being a fan of a sports team is weird.  We watch people with whom we have no other emotional investment go out and play a game, and we want only those wearing our favorite team’s jersey to succeed.  We impute positive characteristics on to people who wear our city’s name on their work clothes, and we form emotional attachments with players who have done nothing to engender those attachments except sign with (or be drafted by) our team.  And when players succeed when we don’t expect it, we get excited and decide that maybe this is the guy who has figured it out and will be the feel-good story, even though most of those players never amount to very much.

I assume that most everyone who reads this website is a Brewers fan, and I am not going to tell you to lose hope in Eric Thames.  You should, in fact, continue rooting for him with everything you have, because he is an amazing story and the baseball world is better off if he is good.  Regardless of whether he is ultimately successful, his big league tenure will tell us more than we previously knew about converting Korean stats to MLB projections.  But if he is good, we gain an amazing story of self-improvement and determination.  Baseball is a sport that at times seeks storylines; if Eric Thames is good, he provides with a great one.

At this point in the season, it’s hard to know if Thames is in fact good.  His hot start has been well-documented, but the numbers are truly staggering: entering Tuesday night’s game against the Cubs, a batting line of .405/.479/1.000, with an MLB-leading seven home runs.  His 1.491 OPS is over 100 points higher than second place Freddie Freeman’s, and his .503 TAv is nearly fifty points higher than Freeman’s as well.  If he keeps up some semblance of this performance, then the Brewers have a steal.

The key question there, obviously, is whether he will.  There are some excellent hitters at the top of the TAv leaderboard: Freeman, Bryce Harper, Daniel Murpher, Mike Trout, and Ryan Braun are all in the top twenty.  But Zack Cozart, Eugenio Suarez, and J.T. Realmuto are all in the top ten.  It is obviously far too early to know anything from the leaderboards.

Some of Thames’s peripheral stats are positive; his 10.4 percent walk rate is above league-average, and his swing rate at pitches out of the zone is the fourth-best in baseball (minimum 100 pitches seen).  Thames also places towards the top of Statcast’s exit velocity leaderboard, although I think it is fair to say that we are still unclear how exactly that correlates with success.  Overall, though, these numbers are similar to those being put up by some of baseball’s best hitters in the first two weeks of the season.

However, it is impossible to watch this and not think of Chris Shelton and Bryan LaHair.  In the first thirteen games of 2006, Shelton hit nine home runs and posted a 1.716 OPS for the Tigers.  In April of 2012, LaHair posted a 1.251 OPS for the Cubs and turned his .600 BABIP for that month into an All Star appearance.  Both Shelton and LaHair were first basemen who were not thought of very highly, and their hot streaks should remain cautionary tales.

If we’re looking for optimism, even Shelton’s incredible two weeks clearly seemed unsustainable.  His .577 BABIP was obviously a red flag, but his sixteen strikeouts and two walks should have set off alarms for everyone as well.  Thames, on the other hand, has a .417 BABIP and has eleven strikeouts to five walks.  The BABIP is high, as it would be for any hitter on this type of hot streak, but the strikeout and walk rates are certainly in the sustainable range for any power hitter; it isn’t as if Thames is just making incredible contact every time he swings.

Another key difference is that we had no reason to think that LaHair or Shelton or any of baseball’s other various one-month wonders would be any good.  Thames, though, may have fundamentally changed who he is as a baseball player during his time in Korea, and offseason analysis accounted for that unknown (PECOTA projects him for a .244 TAv, while ZiPS and Steamer each give him a wRC+ over 120).  If he truly improved his skills and wasn’t just feasting off sub-par pitching, then he may be on the path towards being a true star in the big leagues.  While we don’t know if that’s true, it is certainly a possibility.

I don’t know if Eric Thames is good.  From a long-term enjoyment perspective, I hope he is.  But in the short term?  I don’t really care.  He is a massive person with an engaging personality, and he has spent the last week hitting the ball very hard and very far.  That’s fun to watch.

Whether Thames is actually good is hugely relevant for the Brewers franchise both this season and going forward.  First base has been a black hole in recent years, and if Thames can solve that problem and provide a consistent bat in the middle of the lineup, then the club is in much better shape than we thought.  If he continues playing this way, then maybe the team can make a surprise push towards a wild card spot.

But at this moment, I think shrugging is an acceptable response.  He is playing very well, and because that is happening for a team we all watch and have some sort of emotional connection to, that makes us happy.  On April 18, that is enough.  It’s too early to really know whether any of this is truly sustainable, so I am focused on enjoying the show.

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