Much like puberty, the rebuilding process for a baseball team can be filled with boils, blemishes bad hairdos and embarrassing mistakes that are forever buried so deep within the recesses of our mind they only emerge during bouts of insomnia at 3 am. Just ask the 2012 Cubs who proudly debuted this opening day lineup:
|Geovany Soto||Jeff Baker||Darwin Barney||Ian Stewart||Starlin Castro|
|Alfonso Soriano||Marlon Byrd||David DeJesus||Ryan Dempster||Dale Sveum|
After winning a world series five seasons later, looking back at a group so comically different can be a fun exercise for a nostalgic fanbase, but the real highlight from this storybook 101 loss season was a man who started on the bench, first baseman/outfielder Bryan LaHair
LaHair was a typical minor league lifer who tallied 195 career at-bats during two stints with the 2008 Seattle Mariners and 2011 Cubs. And, at 29 years old, his chances at ever landing a full-time major league roster spot looked grim until the 2012 Cubs, a perfect combination of desperate for possible talent, willing to take a chance due to his previous year .331/.405/.664 line in AAA Iowa, and waiting for the emergence of top prospect Anthony Rizzo, gave him a look as the everyday first baseman.
He exceeded all possible expectations. During April, he put up an astounding .390/.471/.780 line with a 1.251 OPS, 5 homers and 8 doubles. Even though his May and June amounted to a less than stellar .243 batting average, he still managed .286/.364/.519 with a .883 OPS, 14 homers, 12 doubles, and a questionable all-star selection at the end of the first half.
His second half was a bit more believable. A .202/.29/.303 line, 2 homers, and a lot more late inning pinch hit appearances than starts. It also ended up being his last major league season.
Why is this relevant? A quick scroll down LaHair’s Baseball Reference page to the similar batters section reveals a very familiar name, Eric Thames.
The similarities don’t stop there.
Oddly enough, both Thames and LaHair played their 25 year old season in Seattle, and it was their last season before taking a multi-year hiatus from the big leagues.
Here are those seasons side-by-side
Now, in the years both have returned they’ve had breakout months of April, and here’s what those breakout seasons look like through their first 42 at-bats
Now, here is Lahair’s month by month progression.
This isn’t me insinuating Thames will have a drop off as similarly astronomical as Lahair. I’m also not saying he’ll continue he meteoric rise to MVP status. Instead, I think there’s reason to believe he will continue to find moderate success for a few specific reasons: His handling of off-speed against righties, and general competence against left-handing pitching. However, there is also an alternate reality where his inability to hit fastballs and preform in clutch situations diminishes his role in the starting lineup.
We’ll start with the good.
Over his career, Lahair was plagued by left-handed pitching. In fact, over his 82 career at-bats against left handers, he only managed a measly 8 hits and struck out 37 times. In case you’re wondering, that’s a batting average of .098 and a strike out rate of 38 percent in all plate appearances against lefties.
He reached the peak of awful in 2012 where in 54 at-bats against lefties had 3 hits and struck out 50 precent of the time.
Thames, on the other hand, has a career .222 average against left-handed pitching and only strikes out 24 percent of the time. Not great but certainly much more tolerable than Lahair. Even better news, Thames has smoked left-handed pitching during the early part of this season. Entering Tuesday night against the Cubs, in his six at-bats against lefties, he’s got three hits and two of them are home runs (a solid Tuesday night means Thames is now six-for-nine against lefties). Some may bemoan the incredibly small sample size, but remember three hits is the exact number Lahair finished with throughout the entire 2012 season. He would’ve loved to have three hits by April 18th.
As for off-speed, against right handed pitching Lahair hit .157 against curve balls and struck out on 51 of the 385 he faced over his career. He was able to handle sporting a .286 average.
Thames has preformed much better against curveballs with a .273 average and even though he’s suffered against sliders still holds up a respectable .226.
Now, the bad.
Over his career, Eric Thames has faced 1121 fast balls, and not many of them have gone well. His .233 average against fastballs is his second worst average, following sliders, against any of the 6 pitches he’s seen over 100 times. Also, his .416 slugging percentage against fastballs is his third worst.
This was the most telling stat: Against power pitchers, Thames has a .191/.257/.419 line with a .679 OPS. Against Finesse pitches, .298/.347/.506 with a .854 OPS. Fastballs are a real issue.
For comparison’s sake, Lahair had a .265 average against fastballs, a .745 OPS against power pitching and .880 OPS against finesse pitching.
As for career clutch hitting, Thames has struggled:
|2 outs, RISP||73||.205/.266/.301||0.567||1||19|
As for Lahair:
|2 outs, RISP||35||.286/457/.343||0.799||0||10|
Similarly bad, and at times better.
In summary, Thames is a great story and an incredible player to watch.
Can he get an all-star nomination? Absolutely! Can he win comeback player of the year? Potentially, and according to Bob Nigthengale of USA Today, he’ll get a $50,000 bonus if he does. Can he win MVP? Not a chance. Can he tank and find himself out of the league again in 2018? Sadly, yes. It will be a feeling out process all year for Thames, who will have to deal with plenty of ups and down and adjustments. The Brewers just have to hope he can moderately sustain his current success.