Former Blue Jay Thames returns to MLB ‘a different player’

Watch as a pitcher in the Milwaukee Brewers bullpen eats it going for a home run ball hit by Domingo Santana.

TORONTO – Around baseball, hitters are selling out for power like never before. Thanks to the success of sluggers such as Josh Donaldson, J.D. Martinez and Justin Turner, fly balls are very much in vogue.

So it’s somewhat surprising when the player who posted video game numbers in Korea — 37 home runs, then 47, then 40 — says he’d rather hit line drives.

“I’m not trying to hit home runs,” says Eric Thames. “I’m trying to get on plane with the ball.”

Compare his current swing, the one that earned him a three-year, $16-million contract with the Milwaukee Brewers, to the one he favoured when he debuted with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2011, and you’ll notice a flatter, more horizontal swing plane.

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“If you have an uppercut swing, it’s a lot more difficult to hit the ball on the sweet spot every time,” Thames says. “A flatter swing maximizes your probability of hitting a line drive.”

To ensure his swing doesn’t get too long, Thames reminds himself to think ‘short, short, short’ to the ball. It’s a constant work in progress, one of many adjustments he’s making after a three-year stint in Korea.

“He’s experienced it before, but I think he was a different person then, a different player then,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell says. “For three years he was in truly a different world. He was playing a different brand of baseball. He was on a different schedule. He was on a different training program. He was with different teammates, a different clubhouse. It’s all been different.”

Perhaps most importantly, the pitchers are different than they were in 2012 when Thames hit nine home runs in 86 games for the Blue Jays and Seattle Mariners. One week into the season, he’s still standing in against new pitchers more often than not.

“Now I’m facing guys who are studs who were in high school or college when I was playing,” Thames says.

As a group, those pitchers are throwing harder than before, adding to the challenge for Thames, especially when umpires are giving pitchers favourable calls.

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“The biggest (difference) so far is the strike zone. It’s a lot bigger than when I left,” Thames says. “It’s tough when guys are throwing 100.”

So far the results have been encouraging. Through six games, Thames has one home run and a .333/.429/.611 batting line that's right in line with the Ruthian numbers he posted for the NC Dinos (on second thought, that sells Thames short — he slashed .348/.449/.715 in Korea, where there's typically not as much velocity).

Even so, the Brewers aren’t playing Thames every day just yet. They’ve rested his left-handed bat against lefty starters Tyler Anderson and J.A. Happ in the early going, but anticipate using him more regularly if his outfield defence continues to improve.

Thames’ newfound appreciation for flexibility could help him in that respect. When he first made the Blue Jays in 2011, he worked out six or seven days a week to add strength onto his already muscular frame. Now? He’s working out just two or three times a week with considerably more time spent stretching.

“I’m actually getting bigger,” Thames says. “My body gets to recover. My legs feel fresher, I feel loose.”

The 30-year-old credits former teammate Jose Bautista for suggesting that flexibility was worth prioritizing along with strength.

“He’s always stretching,” Thames says. “He’s a very flexible guy and he was talking about how he’s more athletic. It’s funny, but when you’re bound up and tight, it takes energy to force yourself in certain positions. When you’re flexible, energy that could be used for that can now go to power.”

The Brewers wouldn’t have made a long-term commitment to Thames unless they believed there was a real chance that the power he showed in Korea would translate at the MLB level. This deal could eventually provide the Brewers with the kind of upside small-market teams dream about.

It’d take a while, though — months, if not years. In the meantime, the Brewers will work with Thames as he adjusts back to life at the MLB level, hopeful that his work will translate into results.

“The great thing for me about Eric is the commitment to every single at-bat is at such a high level,” Counsell says. “He’s committed to every single at-bat, to everything that he does when he gets to a baseball field. Those are traits that, to me, lead to success.”