Back in January, when Eric Thames talked to reporters after signing a 1-year/$4M deal with the defending World Series champion Washington Nationals, the 33-year-old infielder said his time in the Korean Baseball League taught him a lot about his swing and helped him to turn things around after he’d struggled early in his MLB career.
“I used to have a really upper-cut, home run swing,” Thames explained.
“And over there, [Japan], Korea, their style is more like split-fingers, forkballs, and like four-seamer spin rate up, 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.”
Thames ended up doing “okay” in the KBO, putting up a combined .349/.451/.721 line, 102 doubles, and 124 homers over 390 games and 1,638 plate appearances between 2014-16.
“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,” Thames said.
“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 from Korea when he signed a 3-year/$16M free agent deal with Milwaukee, and over three seasons with the Brewers, the left-hand slugger posted a .241/.343/.504 line with 59 doubles and 72 home runs in 383 games and 1,288 PAs before signing with the Nats this past winter.
Talking again about the influence of the KBO game on what he’s done since then during a Zoom conference call with reporters in the nation’s capital yesterday, Thames said while it definitely is a different game, some things translated.
“I was used to like Triple-A ... like, big leagues in 2011-12, a lot of like the older veterans are 91-92, cutters,” he said, “... and now everybody throws 100 [MPH], so it was like, overnight pretty much people started throwing harder.
“[In Korea], guys threw 90-91-92, but they would just throw a lot of soft stuff to kind of get you off that, and then they would try to blow it past you with two strikes, and it worked.
“If you watch some of the games now, they throw a lot of forkballs, splits, with big curveballs, and they nibble, they nibble the zone, and they try to get you to chase.
“I learned how to really zone in on the pitch I wanted to hit, which is what you have to do in the big leagues. It’s tough in the big leagues, because, man, those guys are the best in the world, so the secondary stuff is lights out, and their fastballs are obviously electric. You can’t expand, so if a guy wants to throw soft away, and give you nothing to hit, those at bats, you just walk away like, ‘I had nothing to hit that at bat,’ but I struck out, and it’s like, ‘You gave me nothing to hit.’ And that’s just the way the game is, but if they hang it, that’s how you get paid. You’ve got to learn discipline.”