MILWAUKEE — After putting up video-game numbers during three years in South Korea, Eric Thames is doing the same in his return to Major League Baseball.
Thames added two home runs, two walks, three RBIs and three runs scored to his outrageously productive April in the Brewers’ 11-7 win over the Reds at Miller Park on Monday, running his Major League-leading home run total to 10 and tying Carlos Lee’s franchise record for dingers in the opening month while setting a new mark with 24 runs scored.
With five April games left to play, Thames has a Major League record within reach. Albert Pujols hit a record 14 April home runs in 2006, and Alex Rodriguez matched that in 2007.
Has Thames ever had more fun playing baseball?
“I would say the last three years. When I actually started to let go,” said Thames, referring to his time in Korea. “When I was a prospect and [breaking into] the big leagues, I stressed out a lot. I drank a lot. I was just like, ‘Oh my God, I have to hit a home run or I’m going back to Double-A and Triple-A.
“Now, in Korea and here, I’m just like, ‘OK, I’m going to do my job, I’m going to work as hard as I can, and when it’s time for game time, just relax and let it all go.’ It’s amazing when stress levels decrease and you start to actually have fun and be loose and be able to react. It’s crazy.”
Thames averaged 41 home runs in his three seasons in the Korean Baseball Organization, but the Brewers thought he would need an adjustment period at the start of his three-year, $16 million contract. Instead, he has hit everything in sight.
Of his first 10 home runs, four came on four-seam fastballs, two on sliders and one apiece on a two-seamer, cutter, curveball and changeup, according to Statcast™. Six were against right-handers and four were against left-handers — in his first 16 plate appearances against southpaws — including the two on Monday off talented Reds rookie Amir Garrett.
Both of those — a solo shot to right field in the first inning and two-run, opposite-field homer to left in the second — came on sliders in two-strike counts. Seven of Thames’ first 10 home runs have come with two strikes.
Thames has hit as many home runs in the Brewers’ five games against the Reds — seven — as any other Major Leaguer has hit, period. Thames has gone deep in each of those games against six different Cincinnati pitchers.
“He’s getting dialed-in as the at-bat goes on,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. “It’s like he’s getting a little more information, seeing another pitch, seeing what the pitcher is doing, and then when he gets a pitch he can handle, he’s handling it.”
Here’s how Thames explained it: “There’s always a saying that a good Minor League hitter will make an adjustment after the game, an average Major League hitter will make an adjustment from at-bat to at-bat, but a great hitter will do it from pitch to pitch. … You have to be that smart to be able to hit here.”
After his breakthrough, four-game series in Cincinnati on the Brewers’ last road trip, Thames called his boyhood hitting coach in California and said, “I have no idea what’s going on.”
He essentially said the same thing Monday, when he maintained the Majors’ best OPS at 1.385.
“It’s crazy with baseball,” Thames said. “There are some teams that somehow the ball finds your barrel. … I don’t know. There’s no — I don’t know. I’m just trying to play ball and get a good pitch to hit, and tonight it went in my favor and the team’s favor.”
Thames is the first player to hit 10 home runs in his club’s first 21 team games since Seattle’s Nelson Cruz in 2015. It is a new Brewers record, surpassing Rob Deer’s nine home runs in the first 21 games for Milwaukee’s “Team Streak” in 1987.
Thames walked in his third at-bat and scored on a double by Ryan Braun. When he touched home, Thames set a new Brewers record with 24 runs scored in April. Hall of Famer Paul Molitor had 23 in 1987 and Rickie Weeks Jr. matched it in 2008.
“He’s not missing,” Reds manager Bryan Price said. “As the saying goes, you may get one good pitch to hit in your at-bat and you don’t want to miss it. He’s not missing it.”
By Adam McCalvy