By Nathan Petrashek (@npetrashek)
It’s no secret that home runs were way up in 2016. One-hundred-eleven players hit at least twenty home runs in 2016, easily topping the 64 from 2015 and 2014’s 57. With no obvious explanation for the home run surge, speculation has ranged from pitchers throwing more cutters to hitting adjustments against hard throwers and even “juiced” baseballs. Whatever the cause, 2016 saw the second-most home runs ever in a major league season. There were an average of 1.16 home runs hit per game: a higher per-game average than during most of the steroid-infused years of the 1990s and 2000s.
Although only two Brewers players topped twenty home runs for the team, they did help usher in the year of the homer. Brewers collectively hit just a handful more homers than the league average. And several lineup regulars set new personal single-season records in home runs: Jonathan Villar (19), Scooter Gennett (14), Kirk Nieuwenhuis (13), Domingo Santana (11), and Hernan Perez (13).
But when it came to raw power, there was only one Brewers player really worth talking about: Chris Carter. And not just a team leader; Carter’s battle with Nolan Arenado for the National League home run title in the season’s final series was the highlight of an otherwise fairly forgettable year on the field. They wound up tied at 41.
Carter, who hit .199 with 24 homers and 64 RBIs in 2015, made $4,175,000 in 2015 in his first year of arbitration. The Houston Astros let him go rather than pay the likely more than $5 million salary he would have commanded in arbitration in 2016. The flaws in his game that led to his being non-tendered were apparent during Carter’s 2016 season with the Brewers; he maintained his low contact rate and struck out a league-leading 206 times. But he also hit some monstrous home runs.
And yet, despite his prominent place atop the National League home run leaderboard, Carter couldn’t get a 2017 contract. The Brewers weren’t interested, despite the fact that they had no obvious replacement candidate at the time. Carter settled for a 1-year, $3 million contract from the New York Yankees, a meager deal reflective of just how little teams value power in light of last year’s surge.
To fill the gap, the Brewers looked to Korea, plucking lefty Eric Thames from the NC Dinos of the Korea Baseball Organization. Thames, a Korean League MVP and owner of a 40/40 season in 2015, hit for a 1.162 OPS over four foreign seasons and turned his success into a 3-year, $16M deal with the Brewers.
Prior to that, Thames was the definition of a AAAA player. He performed well enough in the high minors, with a triple slash line of .312/.389/.506 over three seasons. And there were reasons to be optimistic following Thames’ 2012 campaign with the Blue Jays, in which he posted a .193 ISO over 394 plate attempts. But 2013 was disastrous; Thames’ 30% K-rate and dreadful defense doomed him to the minors, from whence he would not return to MLB.
Until now. So what are we to make of Thames with the Brewers going forward? Assuming the power sticks (and there’s no guarantee it will, as explained below), he couldn’t be going to a better park for a lefty masher than Miller Park. And given his contract and the Brewers’ lack of a serviceable bat at the position, playing time won’t be an issue in the same way it was prior to Thames’ time in Korea.
But there’s a notoriously short track record for players coming from Korea and having success in the States. And Korean players generally benefit from smaller parks and a hitting philosophy that does not emphasize on-base skills; in other words, Korea was perfectly suited to Thames’ predilection to swing at first-pitch fastballs. Add that to the relative success of Thames’ Korean teammates last season (of the top eight NC Dinos players in plate attempts, all but one hit above .297), one definitely gets the sense that offensive output in Korean baseball is inflated. So I’m not bullish on Thames, but I see the appeal.
While there’s little chance Thames will put up another 40-home-run season in his transition year, it doesn’t seem likely any of his NL Central competition will, either. In fact of the expected NL Central first basemen, STEAMER projects only Anthony Rizzo to top 30 home runs – and then just barely. Thames’ STEAMER projection comes pretty darn close to Rizzo’s: their ISO is within .002 points, and while it’s safe to say Rizzo’s going display more on-base prowess than Thames, their slash lines are otherwise remarkably close (.279/.381/.523 for Rizzo, .272/.350/.515 for Thames).
It’s an optimistic projection to be sure, but if it proves accurate, Thames may push Rizzo as the most productive first baseman in the division, ahead of even Joey Votto. I think Thames will fall short of those lofty goals given his trouble making contact and his rather average batted ball profile, but Brewers fans probably won’t be able to gripe much for his rather small contract. With a win above replacement currently valued at around $7+ million, Thames could be an excellent return on investment even if he’s not Anthony Rizzo.