You can probably forgive fans for looking at the stunning early-season production of Eric Thames and wondering how this is possible. How is it even remotely realistic that a 30-year-old first baseman who couldn't stick with the Blue Jays or Mariners (or the Orioles' Triple-A team) five years ago could
You can probably forgive fans for looking at the stunning early-season production of Eric Thames and wondering how this is possible. How is it even remotely realistic that a 30-year-old first baseman who couldn't stick with the Blue Jays or Mariners (or the Orioles' Triple-A team) five years ago could go to the other side of the world and suddenly learn to hit like this?
As you can imagine, not all of the suggestions have been friendly ones. But the truth is, answering the question of how Thames is doing this is the easy part. It's something hitters have known is true for decades, and it's a shockingly simple strategy:
Lay off bad pitches. Crush good ones.
That's it. That's literally it. It sounds so simplistic that you can't believe that it alone could make such a difference, but of course, the fact of the matter is that it's so much easier said than done. It's easy enough to suggest that a hitter try not flailing helplessly at a Major League slider off the plate, given that the outcome is either a miss or poor contact. It's quite another thing to actually do it. Hitters have tried and failed to manage that for years.
Yet that's exactly what Thames has done, to an extent, unlike nearly any other hitter. Using Statcast™, we looked at 256 hitters who have at least 10 plate appearances this year entering Wednesday's games, and asked a very simple question: Which hitters swing at the fewest pitches outside the strike zone?
Fewest swings outside strike zone in 2017
15.2 percent -- Khris Davis, A's
15.3 percent -- Thames, Brewers
15.8 percent -- Matt Carpenter, Cardinals
16.3 percent -- Chase Headley, Yankees
16.4 percent -- Yandy Diaz, Indians
16.6 percent -- Miguel Sano, Twins
16.9 percent -- Joey Votto, Reds
Thames is essentially tied with Davis atop the leaderboard, and this doesn't even include that he offered at only three of the 18 non-strikes he saw in Wednesday's 9-4 win over the Reds. (Thames left early with a tight left hamstring, though it's not expected to be serious.)
Not swinging at non-strikes doesn't by itself make you a star, of course, though it's worth noting the other end of that list, the guys who do swing at non-strikes, is full of noted non-sluggers like Oakland's Mark Canha and Kansas City's Paulo Orlando.
The simple act of swinging at your pitch, and not the pitcher's pitch, is probably the single most important thing a hitter can do, as we looked at last year. From 2015-16, Major League Baseball hit .292 with an average exit velocity of 89.3 mph on pitches in the zone, and only .168 with an 81.4-mph exit velocity on contact made outside it. Nearly 91 percent of all homers over the past two seasons are on pitches in the strike zone. These are massive differences. Learning plate discipline may be the hardest thing for a batter to do, but it's also potentially the best thing he can do.
Thames isn't immune from these trends, because no one is. Looking at his career as a whole, he's hit .320 with a .623 slugging percentage on balls in the zone and .154/.217 on contact outside the zone. It can't be stressed enough what a difference it makes. Remember when we said that Thames went after just more than 15 percent of non-strikes this year? From 2011-12, it was 35 percent. That's a lot more swings at a lot more pitches he didn't want to contact anyway.
"He just got better," Milwaukee manager Craig Counsell told MLB.com this week. "That's what happened. That's what good players do, they go get better. That, for me, is what Eric did for three years, he went and played somewhere else for three years and got better at what he does."
That's exactly right, because it's not that Thames learned to hit pitches outside the zone. He didn't. Thames still can't do anything with them, going just 1-for-18 on non-strikes so far this year. So when faced with a problem he couldn't fix, he did the next best thing. By improving his ability to not swing at those pitches, Thames avoided the problem entirely.
"It's almost like it was a finishing school for him," Counsell said. "I think he knew how to hit, but like a lot of players who come to the big leagues, some holes get opened up by Major League pitching. The good part of it is he identified what the holes were, what he had to fix and then he fixed them."
Thames sure did. The end result isn't that he swings at more pitches in the zone than anyone else, because that's not true; nearly 100 hitters have offered at a higher percentage of in-zone pitches. The end result is that when Thames does choose to swing, he does so at pitches he knows he can mash. Just look at the leaderboards so far this year for results on pitches in the strike zone.
Highest slugging percentage on pitches in strike zone in 2017
1.271 -- Thames, Brewers
1.143 -- Alex Avila, Tigers
1.119 -- Freddie Freeman, Braves
1.083 -- Bryce Harper, Nationals
1.080 -- Matt Davidson, White Sox
Any time you're on a list just ahead of Freeman and Harper, you're doing something right.
Thames isn't this good, because nobody is this good. He'll come back to Earth, because he has to, especially as pitchers adjust. (Reds lefty Cody Reed showed a good blueprint on Wednesday by getting two strikes with in-zone sliders that Thames watched, then got a strikeout by burying a slider in the dirt Thames couldn't lay off of.) Perhaps Thames will revert to his old ways, because it's really difficult to maintain elite plate discipline.
But as far as the "why" goes, well, that's not hard at all. Lay off the garbage, and crush the right pitches. It's the simplest thing in the world, and also the hardest thing in the world.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs.