The regular season ends Sunday, and most gamers are looking ahead toward next year at this point. Gamers in keeper leagues and dynasty leagues have the joy of managing their teams year round, and this post is largely directed at them. Of course, there’s info in here that will help those in re-draft leagues, but we’re months away from drafts. Back in early August, as one of my keeper league teams (closer to a dynasty league format with the ability to keep up to 15 players) languished near the bottom of the standings thanks in large part to being ravaged by injuries, I headed to ESPN’s free-agent pool to see who was available. I stumbled upon Gaby Sanchez — who last played in MLB in 2014 but spent the 2015 season in NPB — and the wheels began turning. I had no interest in adding Sanchez, but if he’s available, surely another former MLB player who headed overseas to revive his career would be, right? Nope. Eric Thames isn’t in the ESPN player pool. He’s not in Yahoo!’s, either. Alas, I couldn’t beat my savvy league mates to a potential steal of a keeper. If you play at another fantasy baseball provider, perhaps he’s available in the player pool there.
If you haven’t been following Thames’ career, he’s played in KBO since 2014 and raked. He’s a free agent this offseason (as you can see here). KBO has produced Jung Ho Kang, Hyun Soo Kim and Byung-ho Park the last couple of years. They’ve had mixed success in MLB with the former two hitting quite well and Park struggling mightily. One benefit of a few players making the transition is the ability to tighten up projections from league to league. During my years of writing I’ve been incredibly fortunate to work with a number of brilliant, kind and helpful folks. Brian Cartwright is one of those people. He previously supplied me Major League Equivalencies (MLEs) while working on fantasy prospect lists for The Hardball Times many moons ago. For those unfamiliar with Brian’s work, he created the Oliver projection system (you can also read more here). My interest in Thames resulted in me reaching out to Brian for MLEs for Thames’ work in Korea, and Brian was gracious enough to provide that information and more! So what do we know about Thames, and what can we expect if he latches on with an MLB club for the 2017 season?
We know Thames totaled a .312/.389/.506 slash line with 23 homers, a 10.2% walk rate, 20.5% strikeout rate and 12 stolen bases in 870 plate appearances at the Triple-A level, per Baseball-Reference. His success in the high minors earned him a bit more than a full season’s worth of playing time in the majors spread across two seasons. As you’ve probably deduced, he didn’t springboard his upper-minor’s success into a strong showing in the majors. In 2011, he hit .262/.313/.456 with 12 homers in 394 plate appearances for the Blue Jays as a 24-year-old. That’s certainly not a bad showing — and amounted to a 107 wRC+ — but there were some concerning underlying stats. The outfielder sported a below average 5.8% walk rate and didn’t offset it with a high-contact approach (22.3% strikeout rate that season). The following season was split between the minors and majors, and he was dealt from the Blue Jays to the Mariners. He tallied a 141 wRC+ in 231 plate appearances at the Triple-A level with a 11.3% walk rate and 18.2% strikeout rate, but his numbers crumbled in The Show. In 290 plate appearances in the majors in his age-25 season, his walk rate dipped to 5.2% while his strikeout rate surged to 30.0%. In 290 plate appearances in 2012, he hit nine homers with a paltry .166 ISO that failed to offset his contact struggles. He remained in affiliated ball for one more year, but he was in the minors for the entire 2013 season. In Brian’s email to me, he noted from ages 23 to 26, Thames was a, “high-BABIP, average-HR% hitter who had just below average BB% but a fairly high SO%.” His work in the minors and majors prior to the 2014 season would have netted him a .242/.305/.398 projection for the 2014 season with middling power (15-16 homers in 600 plate appearances). That’s not the type of line that would warrant rostering in fantasy. He’s changed the trajectory of his professional career by playing in the KBO and tearing the cover off of the ball, though.
In three seasons in KBO, Thames has recorded 1,634 plate appearances and belted 124 homers with a .348/.450/.720 triple-slash line, 14.4% walk rate and 17.9% strikeout rate, per Baseball-Reference. He’s also stolen 64 bases, but 11 steals in 2014 and 13 steals in 2016 sandwich an outlier 40 stolen bases in 2015. He’s eclipsed 35 homers in all three years in KBO and hit 40 or more each of the last two years. The offensive environment is friendly, but those are still eye-popping totals. His work in Korea has bumped his projections up substantially. Brian projects a .262/.348/.493 line with mid-20’s homer power if he nets a 600 plate appearance season for 2017. Now, that’s a much more fantasy-friendly line.
In addition to the Oliver projections above for prior to the 2014 season and for 2017, Brian also used Thames’ BABIP component rates for his stateside work from 2010-2013 to estimate his batted ball speed (BBS) and vertical launch angle (VLA) profile. He did a linear regression to formalize the process of BBS and VLA estimation, and Brian first presented the BBS/VLA estimation using BABIP component rates at the SABR Analytics 2016 Conference. Armed with the BBS/VLA estimations, he compiled a 17-player list of the MLB batters from Statcast with a minimum of 200 balls in play with a BBS and VLA within Thames’ range. As Brian reminded me, and I’ll remind you, the comps are to Thames’ stats in the minors from 2010-2013. He adds, “I doubt he’s changed his BBS much, but could have adjusted his swing plane upwards for more homers.” The list also includes 2017 projected walk and strikeout rates, which is important when honing in on the best comps for Thames. The list is an interesting one and features some superstars such as the game’s biggest superstar, Mike Trout. No one is suggesting he’ll be Trout-like at all, but it’s rarely a bad thing to share anything in common with Trout on the baseball diamond. After combining the batted ball stats with Thames’ projected walk and strikeout rates for 2017 (which are based on his work in Korea, according to Brian), the best comps for Thames are Khris Davis, Jake Lamb, Justin Smoak and Jorge Soler. Here’s a table featuring the quartet’s 2016 work for quick reference. Only the Smoak-like outcome would be a total disappointment for fantasy gamers who invest in Thames, and the average of the 2017 projections for the four hitters is about .251/.321/.478, which is just a bit less impressive than his Oliver projection above, but it’s still useful in deeper leagues.
Thames has played first base in Korea, and the move from the outfield to first base isn’t optimal for his fantasy value, but if he hits, he’ll be worth rostering even at the deeper offensive position. Circling back to Thames’ 2015 stolen base outburst, he credited Lions’ first-base coach Jeon Jun-ho, the “Stolen Base King of Korea,” for his new found ability to swipe bags, according to Blake Murphy’s article at Vice Sports. Again, the 40 stolen bases in 2015 appear to be an outlier, but two other double-digit steal seasons provide optimism for Thames making fantasy contributions in that category. The linked article from Murphy is a great read penned back in April, and it provides some context for what Thames believes allowed him to thrive after leaving affiliated ball. Within the article, his forthcoming free agency is discussed, and Thames states he’s “open” to returning to MLB. Thames’ numbers have dipped from a career-year in 2015, but in 525 plate appearances this year, he smacked 40 homers with 13 steals and a .317/.425/.676 slash line. His 2016 line translates to an MLE of .258/.341/.513. The 2017 season will be his age-30 year, and I suspect some MLB clubs will kick the tires on Thames. I’ll be keeping tabs on potential landing spots when the hot stove fires up, and a return to MLB would thrust him onto my radar as a post-hype (though, he was never truly hyped) lottery ticket in fantasy leagues.
You can follow Josh on Twitter @bchad50.