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Washington Nationals’ Eric Thames struggling in first year in D.C.

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Eric Thames has struggled in 2020. What’s the reason?

MLB: Game Two-Washington Nationals at Miami Marlins Geoff Burke-USA TODAY Sports

We’re now two-thirds of the way through the shortened 2020 Major League Baseball season. For the most part, players’ output and team capabilities have rounded out.

At this point, we have a decent idea which players will finish the year strong and which teams will be hanging around for the playoffs.

The Washington Nationals have struggled this season for a multitude of reasons, and as is my habit, I become preoccupied with a specific player at a certain time. This week, it’s power lefty Eric Thames.

If you recall, Thames was briefly a major leaguer before playing for three seasons in the KBO. Unsurprisingly, he was quite good over there: His home run totals were 37, 47, and 40 over those three years, with an OPS over 1.000 each year to go along with it.

Now, we all know that success in Korea doesn’t always — or even half the time — translate to success in MLB. But Thames made a thunderous return to stateside baseball with the Brewers when he launched 31 home runs, carried a 125 wRC+, and was worth 2.1 fWAR.

The following season saw a regression but 2019 made spectators think Thames was back on track. Now in Washington, Thames hasn’t been able to replicate his production in the least.

At the onset of the season, I predicted Thames to lead the team in home runs. He has two. His wRC+ is 66. He’s worth -0.4 wins. It hasn’t been pretty.

What gives?

For starters, he’s swinging at pitches outside the zone much more frequently than he has in recent years. His O-Swing% is up to 35.7 percent versus 30.9 percent a year ago. That number is higher than it has been since his final season in the US. But while he’s swinging at more pitches outside the zone, he’s swinging at fewer pitches inside the zone. On its face, that’s not necessarily a bad thing; having a discerning eye on borderline pitches can yield strong offensive output (think prime Joey Votto).

Ostensibly, due to his lack of production, pitchers are throwing him many more first pitch strikes (eight percent more), and since he isn’t swinging as frequently at pitches inside the zone, it makes sense to take this approach — especially if the pitcher can get a quick strike, then fool Thames into chasing outside the zone.

On top of that, he’s also walking less than he has in the past, which is due to his propensity to swing at pitches outside the zone.

Finally, he’s not making contact less frequently on pitches inside the zone; in fact, it’s the opposite, he’s making more contact on pitches inside the zone. That’s good, but it seems most of his troubles can be attributed to an eye that’s failing him. It’s possible he simply isn’t recognizing pitches like he had been in years past, so he’s seeing a significant reduction in output.

If Thames can’t improve his discipline and regain some semblance of savviness at the plate, then he’s unlikely to ever reach the heights he enjoyed in Milwaukee.