The ultimate fate of the 2017 Brewers, in the surprisingly weak NL Central, depends largely on which version of Eric Thames we see in the 2nd half. Is the mythic, god mode version we saw through April something we might see again?
Much of the evaluation of his drop-off thus far has been focused on a tight hamstring and illness he suffered in mid-May, and if not that, the natural adjustments made by major league pitchers/catchers and defenses in their approach when facing him.
These are both reasonable assessments worth considering. One consideration I haven’t seen much of however is the effect of losing Ryan Braun batting behind him in the lineup. While many feel lineup protection is a myth, if players believe in it, it matters . It seems entirely plausible to me that Eric Thames, after breaking franchise records in April, might put extra pressure on himself to carry the team offensively, after the team’s best hitter went down with an injury. Might he expand the zone a bit in an effort to be the hero? Or swing for the fences instead of shortening up with 2 strikes? To me this seems only natural, especially if you don’t trust the guy behind you to drive in runs. I’ve been accused of dime-store psychology before, so let’s look at the numbers and see if there’s any support for this theory.
Ryan Braun went on the DL on May 10th, here are his numbers to that point:
- 27 Games .287 AVG, .968 OPS, 48.6% Hard contact, 7 HR, 18 RBI, 13 BB, 22K
Compared with the Brewers 3 hitters afterwards:
- 45 Games, .250 AVG, .722 OPS, 35.7% Hard contact, 5 HR, 16 RBI, 16 BB, 55K
Overall Braun’s wRC+ of 146 (Weighted Runs Created Plus is supposed to quantify a players’ overall offensive contribution minus effects of the ballpark) was good for 10th overall among 3 hitters through that point.
Brewers 3 hitters after Braun’s injury? wRC+ 87, ranking them 27th out of 30 in offensive contribution from the 3rd spot in the lineup.
Now let’s look at Thames while Braun was there:
- 32 Games (139 PA), .333 AVG, 1.182 OPS, 13 HR, 25 RBI, 20 BB, 30K, Hard contact 47.1%, wRC+196 (7th in all of baseball)
Compared to Thames without Braun:
- 39 Games (156 PA), .172 AVG, .711 OPS, 7 HR, 15 RBI, 26 BB, 49K, Hard contact 38% wRC+ 84 (207th in baseball)
Thames without Braun is not quite as sad as “Garfield without Garfield“, but it’s pretty damn close.
It’s clear that the production behind Thames dropped off drastically when Braun hit the DL, and with it Thames’ production also fell. I looked at heat maps to see how pitchers had changed their approach against Thames before and after Braun hit the DL, and here’s what I found:
When Braun was with the team (on the left) pitchers threw Thames breaking balls for strikes much more often. They’ve especially vacated the middle bottom of the strike zone (green), preferring to stay low and away, or to sneak one low and inside (yellow). Overall though, he’s seeing the same numbers of Sliders and Curves.
The biggest change is in Fastballs. Again the heat map on the left is prior to Braun’s DL stint and the map to the right is after. In close to the same # of Plate Appearances, Thames went from seeing 260 Fastballs to seeing 326. Thames is getting challenged much more than before. The key though is where those fastballs are going. Prior to Braun’s DL trip Thames got a lot of Fastballs right down the middle (yellow box), afterwards, yeah…not so much. In the green box you can see that many of those fastballs that used to be right down the middle are now being thrown in on his hands.
It’s clear that Thames isn’t getting as many good pitches to hit as he was early. This doesn’t prove that Ryan Braun’s absence is the cause, certainly it could just be that Thames did so much damage on mistake pitches right down the middle that everyone quickly learned to avoid the heart of the plate. As usual it’s probably a combination of the two not an either-or, but I think there’s enough here to be optimistic that a healthy Ryan Braun returning to the 3 hole will very quickly pay off. If pitchers have more reason to worry about walking Thames, this would translate to less nibbling around the zone and more pitches around the middle of the strike-zone. It certainly didn’t work that way Wednesday as Thames earned a Golden Sombrero batting in front of Ryan Braun, (despite facing his best frenemy the Cincinnati Reds). It was probably smart of Counsell to give Thames the day off. Now that Braun has made it clear he’s back and healthy (2HRs in 3 games off of the DL) here’s hoping Thames can relax, worry less about the result, and focus on the process again. If that doesn’t work he should probably just go back to pressing Up Up Down Down Left Right Left Right B A Select Start before each game.