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CTBNL | Eric Thames a story not of corruption but redemption

CHICAGO, IL - APRIL 18: Milwaukee Brewers first baseman Eric Thames (7) stands and smiles during the national anthem prior to a game between the Milwaukee Brewers and the Chicago Cubs on April 18, 2017, at Wrigley Field in Chicago, IL. (Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)
(Photo by Patrick Gorski/Icon Sportswire)

History does repeat itself sometimes.

In 1985, the Toronto Blue Jays brought up a first base prospect named Cecil Fielder. Fielder was only 21 and he had never played above Double-A, but he had the kind of hitting talent that made you want to rush things. He was a .294/.371/.523 hitter in the minors, with 100 home runs in 2,180 career plate appearances. He killed it in the majors, too, hitting .311/.358/.527 in 81 PAs.

The Jays sort of lost track of Fielder at that point. They had—they thought—a long-term first baseman in Willie Upshaw. Fred McGriff, a better prospect at the same position, was on the way up too, and between the two of them Fielder was boxed out. In 1987 he hit .269/.345/.560 with 14 home runs in 82 games. The next year he slipped (.230/.289/.431 in 74 games) and the Jays sold him to the Hanshin Tigers.

At that moment, Fielder was a major-league bust. Yet, he was only 24, and if you looked at his record holistically instead of as a series of small samples, there was clearly something there: The Jays had given him 558 plate appearances over four seasons, or something just short of a full season. Overall he had hit only .243/.308/.472 with 144 strikeouts, a then-high total. Simultaneously, he had hit 31 home runs. He should have been worth a try, at the very least as someone’s designated hitter. In 1988, just two teams had received a slugging percentage over .426 from their DHs. It was Fielder’s misfortune that one of them happened to be the Blue Jays (primarily with the veteran Rance Mulliniks, but also with Fielder himself), but that left 12 teams that could have benefitted.

As you no doubt remember, Fielder went off to Japan for a year, ate enough sushi to develop a late-career Babe Ruth physique, and popped 38 home runs in 106 games. The next year he was signed by the Detroit Tigers, where he took the league by surprise with 51 home runs. The total was shocking because no one had hit 50 home runs since 1977, but Fielder’s ability to hit for power shouldn’t have been.

Eric Thames is similar in that he always had power. His professional career got off to a belated start because of injuries, but once he was healthy he showed real potential. As a 23-year-old in the Eastern League in 2010, he hit .288/.370/.526 with 27 home runs. His plate judgment was a problem (just 50 walks in 130 games) as it would be in the majors, but the offensive skills were there.

When the Jays moved him up to the hitter’s paradise that is Las Vegas, he kept right on going, hitting .342 with 13 home runs in 107 games spread over two seasons. His major-league trials, both before and after a trade to Seattle for Steve Delabar, were less successful in part due to the aforementioned problems with strike-zone judgment, but he still hit 36 doubles, 8 triples, and 21 home runs in 633 at-bats. As with Fielder, there was something there, however flawed.

Like Big Daddy, Thames’ explosion this April is less a discontinuity than an evolution. Most players with a blind spot don’t find a way around it. Jeff Francoeur, to cite one example, had the ability to punish a baseball when he got a good pitch, but his inability to lay off of the ones that weren’t good put tremendous pressure on him to hit safely every time he put the ball in play and he couldn’t do it. Another player who likely falls under that heading is current Tigers outfielder Steven Moya, who has hit .250/.293/.452 in three brief major-league auditions. The ball goes far enough when he hits it, but it’s not enough.

By playing overseas, both Fielder and Thames found a way to revise their games and overcome their weaknesses. They were the rare human adult who was capable of learning something. Casey Stengel once said he didn’t need his hair parted with an axe to get an idea from the outside. Fielder and Thames got an idea from the outside.

One idea Thames’ got sans axe is to be crazy selective. When he was in the majors the first time he saw 3.73 pitches per plate appearance. Now he’s at 4.47. That’s like coming up with Robinson Cano’s approach at the plate and changing over to Frank Thomas’s. The main difference is that even Thomas wasn’t quite that patient—his career rate was 4.10.

None of this is to say we should expect Thames to hit like Ted Williams on Red Bull from now on, though we should feel free to root for that outcome because very few of us have seen the likes of Teddy Ballgame in our lifetime and we deserve to. However, don’t misconstrue what Thames is doing as unprecedented. It’s not.

For all intents and purposes, Thames Mk. II is a 30-year-old rookie. Jose Abreu, a 29-year-old rookie, hit 10 home runs in his first April just a few years ago. Aledmys Diaz hit .423 as a rookie just last April. Eighteen rookies going back to the 1920s have hit for an OPS over 1.000 in April (50 PA minimum), and hundreds of players, rookie or veteran have done so overall. Thames is currently licking most of them, but he also has another nine days to come back to Earth.

Though Thames has shown the ability to hit in the past, and what he is doing is unusual, but not unprecedented, the usual mumbling misanthropes are floating the word “steroids” about. I feel sorry for them. First, for perhaps the thousandth time (just from me—other writers have said this as well; it doesn’t stick no matter how many times it’s written), baseball is not comparable to running, weightlifting, or cycling. Whatever PEDs actually do in terms of that fatal “P,” performance, they don’t add to one’s eye-hand coordination, pitch-recognition skills — which require a hitter to have crisp eyesight, a vast mental catalogue of pitches he’s received in his lifetime so as to create not so much pitch recognition as pattern recognition at a subconscious level — and the reflexes to be able to do something about it in about 0.4 seconds. You know what steroids do for your vision? They promote the growth of cataracts.

If you know of a drug that is causing Eric Thames to peruse 4.47 pitches per plate appearance, please let Major League Baseball know, because every team should be taking them. They can crush them in factory batches and dump them in the drinking water.

Nursing this kind of suspicion is a sad way to go through life. Your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband, or wife is potentially cheating. Your doctor is misdiagnosing you, your dentist is filling cavities you don’t have, and your dog is lacing your food with poison when you’re out of the house. If you feel this way, well, some of you are right, and my condolences; life is going to be hard for a while. However, most of you are wrong because of a basic misunderstanding between legalistic cheating (PEDs are against the rules) and actual cheating (if PEDs actually did anything for ballplaying skills), not that there’s any evidence that Thames is perpetrating either crime.

Don’t let that confusion keep you from failing to enjoy life due to your own cancerous pessimism. Me, I’d rather have fun until the dog finally gets enough arsenic into my system to do me in. Let them say at the funeral, “Damn it, he should have paid more attention to Rover’s nefarious scheme, but man, was he joyous until his hair and fingernails started falling out.”

I don’t even have a dog, but you know he’s doing it anyway.

Chances are, in the future Thames will have a month every bit as pathetic as this one is glorious. It doesn’t mean the pusher cut off the supply, it just means that the universe hates extreme performances in any direction and eventually drags everyone back to the mediocre center. Life then will be bland and grey. Thames’ story is not one of corruption, but redemption. 

SAY IT AIN’T SO, CONNIE MACK

Something I remind myself of constantly at this time of year, when you have teams getting off to surprising starts, both hot and cold: The A’s won their last pennant under old Connie Mack in 1931. That’s not to say that all his subsequent teams were terrible. Many of them were, but not all of them.

Some of them, had you been around, might have surprised you a little, made you think the wrong thing at this time of year. The 1948 team had a half-decent pitching staff with a couple of guys who had pitched no-hitters—their names were Dick Fowler and Bill McCahan, which shows just how little a no-hitter suggests a pitcher’s quality. Another starter, Phil Marchildon, had come close to a perfect game in 1947. He was a Canadian, unusual for baseball at the time, and had had a brutal POW experience in World War II.

They were a colorful group, but they weren’t particularly good. Nonetheless, they started the season hot, winning 10 straight games at the beginning of May, and were in and out of first for much of the season, claiming a share of the AL lead as late as August 11. They were 65-43, on a pace for 93 wins.

They went 19-27 the rest of the way, losing eight straight at one point and losing nine of their last 10 contests. They finished fourth. You could call that a collapse, but it wasn’t, not really. They just weren’t very good and had gotten by on luck. By runs scored and allowed they should have been 57-51 and in fifth place in an eight-team league. It just took a while for their true quality to catch up for them.

In other words, there is hope for the Blue Jays and Rangers, and, obviously, the Cubs, and reasons to be nervous about just about everyone else. 

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