Tuesday, March 20, 2012
Eric Thames: The Jeremy Lin of MLB
By David Schoenfield
Player No. 467 in our ESPN 500 ranking of baseball's best players: Toronto Blue Jays outfielder Eric Thames.
Player No. 467 when our NBA section did their 500 last fall: A certain point guard named Jeremy Lin. You may have heard of him.
Are the two comparable? In one sense, no. In the NBA, No. 467 means you're barely hanging around for a paycheck. NBA teams can carry up to 15 players; with 30 teams that means 450 jobs. Indeed, after playing sparingly as a rookie with the Golden State Warriors, Lin was cut in training camp, signed by Houston, cut again, and signed with the Knicks.
In baseball, No. 467 means you can earn a nice chunk of change. If you consider each team has 16 "starters" -- eight position players, five starting pitchers, a closer and two middle relievers -- that's 480 starting players before we start filling out the bench and the rest of the pitching staff.
But in another aspect, there are similarities. Lin was undrafted out of Harvard. Thames hit .407 his junior season at Pepperdine but a torn quadriceps muscle late that spring made him fall to the seventh round. In baseball terms, not a lot of major leaguers came from that draft.
Thames began his pro career in 2009 and hit .310 but was limited to 52 games due to more issues with his quadriceps. He adjusted his offseason workout routine before 2010, doing more yoga and less weightlifting to improve his flexibility. It paid off with a big season at Double-A, hitting .288 with 27 home runs. Despite those numbers, Baseball America ranked him just 12th among Blue Jays prospects. He was a prospect, but not a top prospect. Much like Lin getting overlooked perhaps because of his Ivy League pedigree, Thames was underrated due to his original draft status, injury history and concerns about his defense in left field.
But like Lin getting a chance to play due to injuries, circumstances opened up for Thames in 2011. Travis Snider was supposed to be the Blue Jays' left fielder. He didn't hit. Veteran Juan Rivera was given a chance. He didn't hit. Corey Patterson got some games out there. He's Corey Patterson.
Finally, Thames was given the regular job. From June 24 though July 29, he hit .313/.342/.571, providing a surprising boost to the Blue Jays offense. Sound familiar?
Thames slowed down after that but finished with a decent rookie season line of .262/.313/.456. Like Lin, he has plenty of room for improvement; he needs to draw a few more walks, hit left-handers better and improve his defense.
He is going to explode on the scene this season like Lin did? No, but the hitting skill is for real and he'll provide an underrated bat behind Jose Bautista and Brett Lawrie. And if the Blue Jays' pitching comes together ... well, don't be surprised if we get a small dosage of Thamesanity. Well, at least in Toronto.