Last week, Danny asked that I weigh in on the potential of the Tampa Bay Rays acquiring ex-pat outfielder Eric Thames. And because MLB Trade Rumors monitors all my emails for the latest baseball wisdom, it comes as no surprise to find they included Thames in their most recent Top 50 Free Agents ranking and, sure enough, predict he'll land with the Rays:
45. Eric Thames – Rays. Two years, $10MM. Thames, 30 this month, logged 684 lackluster Major League plate appearances for the Blue Jays and Mariners at age 24-25, back in 2011-12. He headed to Korea in 2014 and became a star, crushing 124 home runs in three seasons there. While offense is greatly inflated in Korea, it’s possible Thames could return to MLB as a left fielder/first baseman/DH and provide a cheap source of power from the left side. Assuming Thames doesn’t return to Korea or head to Japan, the Orioles, Rays, Phillies, A’s, Giants, Rockies, Mariners, and Blue Jays could be possibilities.
And yes, this is the only player in the top 50 they project going to the Rays. Yeesh.
In the 2014 The Hardball Times Annual, I wrote perhaps the fullest bit of research done regarding players transitioning between the MLB and Japan (NPB) and Korea (KBO) and Taiwan (CPBL). Before that, I had studied some of the historical instances of the MLB-NPB transition.
Korea is, yes, a hitter-friendly league. The KBO has a gaudy league slash of .290/.364/.438 compared to the 2016 MLB slash of .259/.326/.425 (excluding pitchers, as they do not hit in Korea -- well, they don't exactly "hit" here either, but I digress). The run environment in Korea makes it much harder to assess true hitting talent because much of the environment derives from hitter-friendly parks, but also a dearth of pitching talent.
So when you look at the next table, just keep in mind that his wOBA (calculated using 2013 linear weights), while near or exceeding .500 these three seasons, came in a league with short porches and a "dominant" Dustin Nippert (MLB career 5.31 ERA).
So he hit well. Quite well.
Even by KBO standards, Thames hit between 30 to 50% above league average. In 2014, he compared favorably to a certain now-Pirates infielder named Jung Ho Kang.
At the time Kang transitioned to the US, I used Thames as a means to temper expectations regarding Kang's potential. Thames was, at best, a mediocre MLB hitter, but he had just dominated Korea at Kang levels. Therefore, I argued, we cannot assume Kang will perform at nearly the same levels in the MLB.
And yet, despite struggling with injuries through his two MLB seasons, Kang has a 131 wRC+ in the majors and has lost barely any of the hitting ability he showcased in Korea. Joining him this season, three more Korean expats helped pushed an early-season narrative that KBO hitters can survive in the majors. But the end-of-season numbers paint a less flattering picture:
|Jung Ho Kang||Pirates||103||370||21||.273||.255||.354||.513||.369||133||2.2|
|Hyun Soo Kim||Orioles||95||346||6||.345||.302||.382||.420||.352||119||0.9|
Kang, Kim, and Lee all posted above average hitting numbers with Kim and Lee doing so in part-time play, which historically has hurt a hitter's performance. Other than Kang, all the hitters posted below-league-average SLG numbers.
However Park, who had an injury-shortened season with the Twins, offers a worrying glimpse at the possible downside of the KBO hitters. He was a beast in Korea, routinely blasting 50+ homers, but his 25% K-rate in Korea ballooned to 32% in the MLB, and by mid-season, the Twins demoted him to Triple-A. Brooks Baseball suggests he whiffed on breaking and off speed -- the types of pitches we would expect the KBO to lack -- a quarter of the time. Now, Park's career and his contract with the Twins are both far from over, so he could well have a resurgence in 2017. But his early struggles seem to correlated with the widely-perceived problem with KBO hitters in that they do not face high-quality pitches.
Thames, in his 600+ PA in MLB, also struggled with breaking pitches -- though not to the degree Park has. It is quite possible that an inferior sampling of breaking pitches in the KBO allows Quad-A type players to excel in Korea while they flounder in the MLB. By that logic, though, players like Brett Pill (.880 OPS in 2016) and Yamaico Navarro (.988 OPS in 2015) should be posting the 1.100+ OPS numbers that Thames has routinely produced. Moreover, Kang's success and the success of, say, Yoenis Cespedes suggest good hitters can thrive even in pitcher-talent-starved environments.
In January, Clay Davenport did the dirty work and regressed trans-Pacific hitters KBO EqA (Equivalent Average, kind of the Baseball Prospectus wOBA) against their MLB EqA (read the whole thing here). He came away with a formula of approximately:
[KBO EqA] = [MLB EqA] * 1.10 + 11
Running that formula in reverse and applying it to wOBA+ (which, hey, isn't perfect but does the job), we bump Thames' career 139 wOBA+ down to about a 116 wOBA+. This doesn't include park adjustments or projections for aging, but I think it presents a realistic image of Thames' upside. If he comes to the States, plays full-time as the Rays LH DH, then I think a 115 wRC+ wouldn't be out of reach.
But the Rays home park suppresses left handed power, and I don't know enough about the NC Dinos home park to suggest how it has impacted Thames' numbers in the KBO. But for a guy who hit about 95 wRC+ in limited action as a 24-25 year-old, I think expecting something like a 105 to 115 wRC+ in his age-30 season isn't unreasonable (given his prominent success in Korea) with much of that deriving from his power against RHP.
Do the Rays want a 30-year-old DH who almost certainly needs a platoon partner? If he can hit and he doesn't need a lot of money, sure. Why not? But expecting a 30+ HR seasons or All-Star accolades is a recipe for disappointment.
MLB Trade Rumors forecasts a 2-year, $10M deal for the Rays and Thames marriage, but if I was in the Rays FO, I would have to think long and hard about why a $5M average annual value (AAV) Thames is better than a basically free Quad-A type like Xavier Scruggs who is younger, cheaper, and equally capable of spelling Dickerson in LF or testing his bat out of the DH spot.
This, of course, is where scouting comes into play. If the guys with eyes on Thames in Korea say he's changed his approach or that everyday play has unlocked his potential, then I'd probably defer to them. The consensus from scouts on Kang said he would certainly hit in the MLB, just fewer homers, and that sentiment proved quite true.
In two years from Thames, I imagine the most likely results would be something like 0.5 WAR to 1.5 WAR depending on how much he plays the field or how well he hits. Given that range, $5 AAV is about right for the market value of Thames. But the Rays can't and don't buy players at market value.
If Thames can come in at $2-4 AAV, then maybe he's worth a shot (and, what the heck, see if you can't get a few Xavier Scruggs or Jaff Decker types in Triple-A just in case). Of course, at that price, Thames may just choose to stay in Korea, where he's guaranteed full-time play and star power contracts.
Thames may end up being a bargain for the Rays if he can translate his KBO numbers to the MLB, but with with bargain hunting comes real opportunity cost risks -- such as playing a whole season with a lackluster LF-DH who doesn't field any better than Corey Dickerson.
Great things aren't impossible with Eric Thames, but they aren't likely either.