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Thames' story a powerfully uplifting one

Brewers slugger proving to be a real find after three seasons in Korea
April 25, 2017

How much fun is it to watch Brewers first baseman Eric Thames play right now? There's power and discipline in that swing. There's joy, too, because the backstory is so sweet and so improbable.Thames has been the most productive player in the Majors this season. He hit two more home

How much fun is it to watch Brewers first baseman Eric Thames play right now? There's power and discipline in that swing. There's joy, too, because the backstory is so sweet and so improbable.
Thames has been the most productive player in the Majors this season. He hit two more home runs on Monday night in the Brewers' 11-7 win over the Reds, bringing his homer total to 10, which is three more than any other player in the Major Leagues has.
Thames has an out-of-this-world 1.392 OPS, which isn't even a comprehensible number. He's also leading the Majors in slugging percentage (.910) and extra-base hits (16).

In other words, Thames is making the most difficult game on the planet look ridiculously easy. How he got here may be the best part of all.
To travel this road -- that is, to stare down failure and come out on the other side -- well, Thames surely will need some time to get his mind around it.
Maybe Thames said it best Monday night when asked to explain how he's hitting these moonshot home runs in bunches, how he's suddenly doing stuff players usually only dream of doing.
"I don't know. I don't know," Thames said.
Nor should Thames work too hard at figuring it out. Rather, he should ride this amazing wave as long as it lasts. Actually, that's what all of us should do. Get your popcorn and watch the show.

On Monday, Thames hit a pair of sliders from Reds left-hander Amir Garrett, sending one over the wall in right-center field at Miller Park in the first inning and another to left-center field in the second inning.
Brewers manager Craig Counsell said he was impressed that Thames seemed to be figuring out Garrett pitch to pitch and learning along the way.
"He's getting dialed in as the at-bat goes on," Counsell said. "He gets a little more information, seeing another pitch, seeing what a pitch is doing. When he gets a pitch he can handle, he's handling it."

Thames' swing is so quick and generates such power that he makes the whole thing look easy. And the best part of this whole thing is, no one saw it coming.
Even when Milwaukee signed Thames to a three-year, $16 million deal this past November, it was impossible to know exactly what it was getting.
Brewers general manager David Stearns, one of the game's brightest young executives, had focused on a remade swing and the kind of bat speed that only the special ones are capable of generating.
Still, who knew? Thames had put up video-game numbers -- 124 home runs with a 1.172 OPS -- during three seasons in Korea, but how would that translate to the Majors?

Thames homered once in 57 at-bats this spring, saying later he was simply trying to figure out how and what pitchers were trying on him.
And now?
"Now I'm trying to drive the ball," Thames said.
Thames is not new to Major League Baseball. He played 181 games for the Blue Jays and Mariners from 2011-12, and he hit 21 home runs in 684 plate appearances. He also spent the 2013 season in the Orioles' Minor League system.
Then -- and here's the stunning part -- unable to find a Major League job three years ago, Thames went to Korea and remade his game. Last offseason, when the Brewers became intrigued, Stearns and his staff saw a plate discipline that hadn't been there before, so they went hard for him.
How often do any of us get this kind of second chance in life? Maybe that's why Thames is playing with such joy. Let's not kid ourselves about why this happened, either. Thames earned it.

Look at him now. Thames is standing lower in the batter's box than he did before. His head is more balanced. As a result, he's got the kind of plate discipline he never had when he was with the Blue Jays and Mariners.
In 2011, Thames swung at 35 percent of offspeed pitches out of the strike zone. This season, that number is down to 13 percent, according to Statcast™.
From 2011-12, Thames' slugging average against offspeed pitches was .397. This season, it's .615. He hit four home runs in 148 plate appearances off left-handers in 2011-12. This season, Thames has four homers in 16 plate appearances against lefties.
How much difference can one player make? Plenty. Milwaukee is a better team. It is a more interesting team at 10-11 on the season.
Thames has made those around him better, too, and that's important in the days ahead. Thames walked in two of his next three plate appearances after the two home runs on Monday, and he could begin getting that kind of treatment regularly.
As a result, his teammates could get more pitches in the strike zone. Maybe that impact can be seen in left fielder Ryan Braun's 1.024 OPS, his highest OPS since his rookie season in 2007. Third baseman Travis Shaw has increased his OPS from .726 to .869 since last season.
Bottom line? The Brewers scored 4.1 runs per game last season, the sixth-lowest mark in the Majors. This season, they're up to 4.9, sixth highest in the bigs.

Milwaukee leads the Majors in home runs, extra-base hits, total bases and slugging percentage (.457). And the Brewers have had a lead in 19 of 21 games, including 14 games in a row.
Suddenly, Milwaukee is among the most fun teams to watch and its reconstruction appears to have taken a huge turn. Baseball seasons are so long that they expose every weakness and reveal every strength.
The Brewers aren't yet a finished product, but they're a lot closer than they were before Stearns decided Thames was worth a $16 million investment.
That's the thing about franchises that hire bright people and give them the freedom and resources to do their jobs -- sometimes, things change quickly. Everything won't be transformed with one signing. But everything sure does look different with one like this.

Richard Justice is a columnist for You can follow him on Twitter @richardjustice.