Certain things in baseball tend to draw one’s attention. A consecutive games streak of any kind, good or bad, makes headlines around a team’s city or division. Then there’s the five-game home run streak of which Eric Thames just enjoyed in the middle of his first MLB road trip in five years. That’s the kind of thing that gets extra attention.
Everybody wants a piece of the hottest story in the sport, Eric Thames. All the attention, focus and pulls on his time have to be tough.
“You gotta take it as a blessing,” he said.
Those blessings have led to Thames appearing live on MLB Network, nationally syndicated sports talk radio shows like that of Jim Rome, and fielding interview requests from writers who cover baseball at a national level including FanRag Sports’ own Jon Heyman, who phoned Milwaukee Brewers general manager David Stearns in an attempt to uncover the secret to Thames’ early success back in Major League Baseball.
Thames is familiar with the attention brought by success. In Korea he was the biggest star in the country as his profile grew each season, culminating with a post-MVP season where he couldn’t even leave his residence without fans being present.
Through all of the early-season media crush, Thames has also done his best to keep it simple by keeping it the same.
“I’m just doing an everyday routine of trying to hit and zone in on my game, ” Thames said. “I just want to be able to swing at strikes and if you keep things simple, that’s when the game gets a little easier. And I say ‘a little’ easier because it’s still a difficult game.”
When a guy like Ryan Braun says that the last two weeks are as good as he’s ever seen anybody play baseball, however, it sure seems like Thames is at least currently having a pretty easy go.
“Deciding between strikes and balls is going to be the foundation. It’s at the start of every hitter’s success,” said Brewers manager Craig Counsell. “You’ll have success if you’re figuring out the pitches to swing at. He’s doing it at a very high level right now. It’s not that easy as he’s making it. He’s making it look pretty easy, the ball/strike stuff right now.”
But we know what’s happening. The goal was to find out why. Was it the combined environments of hitter-friendly Miller Park, Rogers Centre (Blue Jays) and Great American Ballpark (Reds), along with the atmosphere of Wrigley Field (Cubs)?
“I loved hitting in Cincinnati because it was hot. All of us packed our top coats expecting winter out there, but it was 80 degrees and nice so for me that was the biggest part, ” said Thames. “[You] don’t have to worry about getting jammed and that your fingers are going to fall off, you know? I heard from guys that the wind blows out there a little bit. I can tell if you get a ball in the air pretty good with the wind blowing, it’ll fly. So I’m excited to go back there for sure, and that’s saying the least.”
As for the ‘friendly confines’ of Chicago’s North Side? Said Thames, “Playing at Wrigley…it was good energy there, I liked it. I’m glad we go there three more times. I feel like the team hit really well.”
Batter’s eyes and loud fans can only provide so much influence. What does he think the key to his success is?
“I hear people trying to break down my game, why I’m hitting the way I’m hitting, but for me it’s a lot of the pitch discipline, ” Thames pinpointed. “My first time around, when I was a prospect, I swung at everything. There was pressure on my back trying to hit a home run. I was trying to do all these magical things, just getting a good pitch and laying a good swing on it.”
Thames also pointed out that his time learning how to attack a different style of pitching in Korea really helped him develop a more mature approach at the plate.
“Big league pitchers are really good, they’re really smart, and they have so much video and information out now that you can’t just hit a fastball middle in, ” Thames said. “You gotta hit the fastball away, a backdoor curveball, or a front door curveball…there’s a lot of pitches you need to learn how to hit.”
Also important to his growth was being able to play everyday, something that wasn’t necessarily a for sure thing once camp started at Maryvale in February. Not only does that help his aforementioned routine, but he admitted it allows him to make quick adjustments.
“The first time I faced Kyle Hendricks here, he kept throwing those change-ups and I kept swinging at it and hitting weak ground balls, striking out, ” said Thames. “I said okay maybe [in Chicago] if he throws me that pitch, if it’s down, I’m gonna let it go, but if it’s in my zone, I’m gonna swing at it. Just to be aware, being able to control my emotions and not trying to hit a big home run; just swing at strikes.”
Counsell was quick to affirm that he’s seeing the approach result in success.
“He’s doing a really good job of that right now, certainly.”
The bottom line for Thames is that he knows the spotlight in baseball can change as quickly as the calendar changes days because there will always be new games, new results and new storylines. He also is painfully aware that slumps happen and he won’t hit quite this well for the balance of the season.
But for Thames, the big secret appears to be that there is no secret at all. He got better at pitch recognition and what he termed “pitch discipline.” When you couple that with his great strike zone recognition — which Stearns mentioned to Heyman — that’s a lethal combination. It allows Thames to maximize his contact because the contact he’s making is good contact.
It’s a far cry from his previous life in MLB when he “swung at everything.”
“I like that, ‘Previous life.’ I like that.”
By Adam Rygg