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Will Eric Thames’ Success in Korea Translate to the Brewers?

Korean ball is a very different game, explains LLC Datacaster David Schultz

Dec. 1, 2016
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Photo Courtesy Milwaukee Brewers (@Brewers)

Before this week Brewers fans could be excused if they hadn’t thought much about the Korea Baseball Organization (KBO), or how the game played in one of Asia’s most notable professional leagues compares to what we see on this side of the Pacific Ocean. With the Brewers’ recent addition of Eric Thames, however, many of us are likely to learn a thing or two about it.

Stats LLC Datacaster David Schultz (@Sultan_of_Stats on Twitter) has seen over 2500 games from the press box at Miller Park, and in 2016 for the first time his work expanded to cover the KBO. As such, he’s seen Thames play around 70 times for Korea’s NC Dinos in 2016 and has a uniquely informed perspective on the differences between the two leagues and what to expect from the Brewers’ new first baseman.

So the KBO features a fair number of gaudy offensive statistics. How does that translate to expected production in the US?

That’s one of the things I’ve been telling people on Twitter, is to temper expectations. One has to only look at Byung Ho Park with the Twins last year. He had consecutive years of over 50 home runs in the KBO, and then he came over here and struggled. Now obviously he had some other issues, this isn’t his own country and Eric Thames is coming home. And Park brought his wife and his young son with him and had a lot of off-the-field issues that went into his struggles coming to Major League Baseball.

But you really have to temper it. (Kung) had a good year with the Pirates, and I think that kind of perked up interest in KBO, but I think maybe Park is tempering it a little bit.

What was your initial reaction to hearing Eric Thames was joining the Brewers?

Well, I got the notice from (Brewers Senior Director of Media Relations) Mike Vassallo and was like, “Wow. I know that guy, I watched that guy and he was a stud player.” I was kind of excited about it. I still am. I think it’s a good deal. He’s a very enthusiastic player, he was a rock star, superstar in Korea. Everywhere you went you had people following him. He played hard, had fun, he looked like he enjoyed playing over there. He immersed himself in the culture.

He kind of took the Gary Carter route, when Carter played in Montreal. Carter learned French and he did commercials on French TV and he really ingrained himself with the French Canadians. That’s kind of the path Eric Thames took. He really threw himself into Korean culture. He brought his mother over there with him and she lived with him.

I really liked watching him play. He always played hard and had a lot of fun. He reminded me somewhat of Carlos Lee. Going strictly on the attitude, not necessarily on the playing skills. But Carlos Lee played hard, had a lot of fun and never missed a game.

How does the KBO compare to American minor league baseball?

I had this confirmed with a colleague of mine when I was down in Arlington covering the Brewers. I wrote down my opinion, and he’s covered some games, and I asked him, “What’s your opinion? What level is it?” And we both agreed it was about two-and-a-half A. It wasn’t quite AAA, but it was above AA. It was interesting to me that he felt the same way I did, so I think it’s a valid opinion.

What are some of the biggest differences between the two leagues?

Pitching. The pitching over there, you’re lucky if you have one or two pitchers you can depend on. And the way they run the pitching staff… I had one guy that pitched four innings in relief and the next day he started. I think I’ve watched 174 games and I’ve never really caught onto their logic. They will have a reliever finish one inning, come in and get two outs in the next inning, and he’s a left-handed reliever, he gets two right-handed hitters out and they bring in a right-hander to pitch to a lefty. I don’t understand the nuances of the game.

But the pitching is the thing that’s sorely lacking. I don’t know if you had a chance to look at the list I posted on Facebook of all the foreign players that played in KBO last year. If you run down the pitchers in that list there are some names you will recognize: Dustin Nippert was their version of a Cy Young winner this year. He pitched off and on for 4-5 years in the big leagues, and he was the ace this year and went 22-3. Michael Bowden pitched a no-hitter. Brooks Raley is another name, if you’re familiar with people. Henry Sosa had a pretty good season. But these are guys that couldn’t make a big league roster or couldn’t stay in the big leagues. So that’s the type of pitching you’re looking at over there. And then the bullpens are pretty much nonexistent: They just seem to patch it together every game. There doesn’t seem to be many designated closers, or anybody that’s a lights-out closer.

Another thing I noticed is that KBO is very punitive. I had a game where a right fielder lost a ball in the sun and in the same inning another ball got by him, and he got yanked out of the game right then and there. I had a starting shortstop make a big error in the top of the first inning, and they pinch hit for him in the bottom of the first. They will take catchers out, in effect the manager trying to say the catcher called a bad game. So that caught me off guard, how punitive they are. If you mess up, they haul your butt out and sit you on the bench.

And then the baseball instincts: The KBO has been around since 1982 and they still do some of the most outrageous baserunning. I just don’t get it. They’ll steal bases when seven runs behind and get thrown out. They’ll try to take an extra base on a single down five runs, when that base means nothing and the guy will get thrown out. And that’s the part of the game I thought…what I said to Theron (his son) is, “the baseball book in Korea, there is no baseball book.” You just go out and play and it’s almost Little League style. I likened it to Fernando Vina, when he was with the Brewers. I said he always ran the bases like he was in Little League: You just run until you either score or they put you out. It seems to be that way in Korea.

The outfield play over there is better than it is in Japan. I’ve always said somebody must have gotten a serious injury running into an outfield wall in Japan, because when I watched those games, nobody ever went into the wall. They all shied away. But the Korean outfield play is a little better than it was in Japan. That’s another thing that kind of threw me: They’ll lay back and let a ball bounce, they won’t try to dive. They’ll just play it safe that way.

Another thing I wanted to comment: The Korean game is a very gentlemanly game. They don’t do the takeout at second base, their first time up the players always acknowledge the home plate umpire, the first time on base they’ll tip their cap to the first base umpire, and so forth. It’s a very gentlemanly game. It’s very rare to see a pitcher throw at a batter. They play to win, but they don’t take out a catcher at home plate, and definitely in the plays at second base they’ll peel off or whatever to avoid taking out a middle infielder.

So what are your predictions for Eric Thames in Milwaukee?

Kind of like I mentioned earlier, they (Brewers fans) are going to love him because he plays hard and has fun. I think he’s going to be a 20-25 home run a year guy. He’s going to steal some bases. He’s not half bad in the field. I think they’re getting a real bargain. I just looked at some contract signings today: Jason Castro, $24 million for three years. Jon Jay, $8 million for one year. And the Brewers are getting Thames for $16 million for three years. He’s going to far out-produce both of those guys. I think they got a real bargain.

I hope Brewers fans have patience if he starts off slowly. I will say he didn’t finish the season very strongly. He really had a horrible second half and in the postseason he was only 4-for-28. So I hope they’re patient with him. But he’s coming back to his home country, I think he’s going to be excited.

I think Miller Park is the perfect park for him to be in. KBO is known as a hitter-friendly league and the park that he played in, Changwon, was probably the most hitter-friendly park in KBO. So I think it was very shrewd on Thames’ part, I know other teams were talking about him, I know San Diego was in the mix, but Milwaukee is a perfect fit for him as far as ballpark dimensions.

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