When the Mariners traded Steve Delabar for Eric Thames it wasn’t going to take much for Thames to make the trade a win for the Mariners. Delabar was a guy that was giving up a ton of homerun in a pitcher’s park. The Mariners bullpen is one of their strongest points, and with Carter Capps and Stephen Pryor filling two of those positions, age is even on their side. By contrast, they’ve got very little outfield depth in their organization, and while Thames has shown well so far, before this point he was a guy that seemed an unlikely to have an extended big league career.
You see, Thames isn’t a good fielder. He’s not a guy with a natural position at all, as he’s not a very good outfield and he’s got no experience at first base. He doesn’t have much range and while his arm seems close to adequate, it’s not close to average for a right fielder.
Of course, the Mariners have enough decent outfielders at the big league level to make up for some of Thames’ deficiencies: Michael Saunders has played a great center field this year, and both Trayvon Robinson and Casper Wells are above average fielders.
But Thames appeal is his bat. He’s got a ton of power, and some major holes in his swing. After absolutely destroying AA and AAA the past three seasons combined, Thames came up to the big club in Toronto last year and started his career hot. In 95 games he posted a 108 wRC+, including 12 homeruns and 24 doubles in 394 plate appearances.
This year was much worse, as his ISO dropped from .193 to .122 and his strikeout rate rose to 25.0 while he played with Toronto. He posted a .243/.288/.365 slash line with Toronto this year, and was in the AAA when the Mariners trade for him. However, part of that is because the Blue Jays have a surprisingly good young outfield, and one that seems geared toward defense.
He had only 11 extra base hits in 160 plate appearances, and as a guy that doesn’t walk and a guy that strikes out a lot, Thames’ value was sapped. All of that added up to a 73 wRC+.
Altogether, he’d posted a 98 wRC+ with Toronto, but seemed like he was headed the wrong direction.
Enter Mariners trade, and Thames has done nothing but mash since being traded. He’s got nine extra base hits in only 66 plate appearances, and has two shaving cream pie assaults to his name so far.
And for a guy that is a bad defender, Thames is watching his defensive performance slosh over the edge of a cup that is much less than half full. That and his surfer demeanor has made him the kind of guy that could become a fan favorite in Seattle quickly, but his batting profile means that he could be this decade’s answer to Bucky Jacobsen.
Here’s the problem, Thames strikes out a ton and doesn’t walk much at all. He struck out less and walked more in the minors, but if he never improves in those categories he wouldn’t be the first guy who was considerably worse at something at the game’s highest level. So while basically all of Thames value will be found on offense, an even more disproportionate amount will rely on his BABIP, and his ISO, as he doesn’t bring much else to the table.
On first glance, Thames BABIP of .318 seems unsustainable. He’s not a fast guy, and as a guy that hits for some power you’d think that he’d end up losing some balls in play over the fence. You’d hope at least. If Thames becomes a guy that hits 25-30 homeruns in a season we may see a significant effect on his BABIP.
Even as he struggled in Toronto this year, though, his BABIP remained at .308, which is a realistic true-talent number, and his batted ball-type and power profile seems to justify it as sustainable. Thames hits about a league average amount of all three batted ball buckets, (line drives, grounders, and flies) and if we assume that he hits those harder than most, it’s not crazy to assume that his BABIP would be higher.
But what’s most noticeable about Thames is his enormous platoon split against right and left handed pitchers. He’s got a wRC+ of 110 compared to 72 against lefties. He hits 24 percent line drives and has a .188 ISO compared to .160 vs. lefties.
Considering the availability of right-handed corner outfielders, Thames makes a really natural platoon partner with several guys, and could combine to turn the right field position around from a position where Ichiro has posted a wRC+ in the low-80s in the last two years combined, to one of the stronger offensive positions on the team.
Eric Thames has about a full season worth of work in the majors, and he’s a league average hitter. He’s much better against righties than lefties though, and unless something unquantifiable happens—like Thames thriving in a change of scenery, or an expanded role—he’s probably never going to be much better than that in any full-time role. But if he’s given 450 plate appearances against righties, there’s a good chance he could be quite valuable to the Mariners.
Eric Thames has potential to be John Jaso 2.0, a guy that isn’t great defensively, but that can do a couple of things really well at the plate if he’s put in positions where he’s prone to succeed.