Eric Thames ended up crushing in the Korean Baseball Organization (KBO) during his three seasons with NC Dinos (2014-16), putting up a .349/.451/.721 line with 102 doubles and 124 home runs in 390 games and 1,638 plate appearances.
His decision to go to Korea wasn’t an easy one, however, and things were difficult at the start of his time there.
“I feel like it’s like anything in life,” Thames explained in a conference call following the official announcement of his 1-year/$4M deal with the Washington Nationals last night.
“When you go through a really tough time and you come out on the other side, it’s like, ‘Man, actually I grew as a person,’ and had a lot of life experience.
“And that like makes you better. So, going into Korea, I had no idea what to expect, and I honestly didn’t want to go. I went because I convinced myself I’d play every day, peace of mind, I know where I’ll be. But I had no idea what to expect, and once I got there I was like, ‘This is not bad at all,’ and then I kind of got into the science of it. I really delved into learning the pitchers, what styles are they compared to the U.S., and stuff like that, so I just really made up my mind that I really wanted to succeed, and I was going to work as hard as I could to do that, and things worked out. It’s crazy how life works.
“We always think everything goes linear, but no, sometimes you have to take one step back to go two steps forward, so for me it just worked out so well in [terms of] life experience and just learning myself.”
It also helped him at the plate, with the pitching he encountered forcing him to change his swing as he adjusted to the way pitchers worked in the KBO.
“I used to have a really upper-cut, home run swing, and over there, [Japan], Korea, their style is more like split-fingers, forkballs, and like four-seamer spin rate up,” Thames said.
“And I remember my first year there I kind of struggled a little bit, under the ball, fouling a lot of balls off here and there, and I kind of learned I [need like] a flatter swing.
“I started breaking down old-timers like Ted Williams, Stan Musial, Lou Gehrig, all of those older players even like Pete Rose, they have really flat swings and they hit for high average, and for power, so I really tried to adjust my swing, which is really tough to do as you get older. If you’re over like 20, it’s hard to change body mechanics you’ve done your whole life, so I worked hard on it, and I was able to get it flatter and flatter through the zone, and then increased my hard-hit rate, and then obviously home runs go up, average goes up, everything.”
Thames returned to Major League Baseball in 2017, signing three-year/$16M deal with the Milwaukee Brewers, and the left-handed hitting slugger, who put up a .250/.296/.431 line, 36 doubles, and 21 home runs over 181 games and 684 PAs for the Toronto Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners between 2011-12 before leaving for the KBO, put up a .241/.343/.504 line, 59 doubles, and 72 home runs over 383 games and 1,288 PAs for the Brewers, before his $7.5M mutual option for 2020 was declined this winter, making him a free agent.
The decision to sign with the Nationals once he hit free agency, Thames said, was an easy one.
“I know a few guys on the team, Howie Kendrick, and him in particular, he kind of reached out to me, and I’ve talked to him for years,” the 30-year-old, five-year veteran MLB veteran said.
“I’ve know him for a long time, and he always talked about how fun the clubhouse was, how much they all had fun together, and they play for each other, and I’ve heard great things about Davey Martinez, how much of a great manager he is, and that’s just like from what they tell me. But from a players’ perspective, as the enemy, like seeing them on the field, I feel like every game the Brewers played against the Nationals was close all the way to the end. We could have a big lead, and then they’ll come back and tie it, and it will be a battle all the way to the end. And that was evident in the playoffs as well. This team is just like — you could just tell that they played like a unit. So, naturally, I love that, I love playing in a clubhouse where guys care about each other on top of winning, so it was a no-brainer for myself.”
Thames, of course, is another player, like Will Harris, (who signed a 2-year/$11M with the Nationals last week), whose now-former team fell to Washington in the 2019 postseason (in the NL Wild Card Game in Milwaukee’s case) but that didn’t deter him from signing in D.C. once he hit the free agent market.
The fight the Nationals showed all season, in that NL Wild Card Game, and throughout their run to the World Series championship, made an impression on Thames when it came time to find a new home.
“What they did, because everybody, the whole media was against them throughout the world, everybody had counted them out, and they still fought back,” he said.
The Brewers took a 3-1 lead into the bottom of the eighth inning in their Wild Card matchup, before the Nationals loaded the bases with two outs and Juan Soto cleared them with a line drive to right that was misplayed into a go-ahead hit.
“I’ll never forget that feeling of being heartbroken seeing Juan Soto’s base hit over my head,” Thames recalled.
“And it’s like, ‘Oh man, I thought we had this game,’ and then all of a sudden they won the World Series. It’s crazy to think about that.
“They definitely showed how that team motto, how their atmosphere was, and like not a lot of teams have that.”
Thames was clearly excited about his new team, and he said he’s looking forward to the opportunity to work with Nationals’ hitting coach Kevin Long, whose worked wonders with some left-handed hitters over the course of his coaching career.
“Yeah, I’ve seen so many videos on him, like hitting with [Robinson Cano] all the drills he would do, and all the teams he works for rake,” Thames said. “So I’m really excited to work with him, I’m excited to be a part of the atmosphere. I can’t even contain myself, that’s how excited I am. Excited to talk to him and get on board with his hitting program and see where I fit in with this lineup and then honestly start winning.”