Thames was speaking early in spring training at the Milwaukee Brewers’ camp in Phoenix. After his three spellbinding seasons in South Korea, the Brewers had met all of Thames’s requirements for returning: a three-year contract with an everyday player’s salary and a clause that forbids the team to option him to the minors.
For three years and $16 million (plus a team option for 2020), the Brewers, it seems, got the steal of the off-season. Through Friday, Thames had a .364 average and a major-league-leading 11 home runs, challenging the major league record for April home runs — 14, shared by Albert Pujols (in 2006) and Alex Rodriguez (2007).
If Thames keeps this up much longer, the Milwaukee-inspired nickname bestowed on him this month by MLB Network Radio — the Sultan of Brat — just might stick. Yet his celebrity may still not approach what it was in Changwon, the home of the Dinos, for whom Thames hit .349 with 124 homers in three seasons.
“Over there, he was almost like a comic-book superhero — big beard, big muscles,” said Zach Stewart, a pitcher for the Class AAA Norfolk Tides who played with Thames in South Korea.
“He’s nothing like they’d ever seen in that country; people just don’t look like that,” Stewart said. “And to have the kind of production he had, to be the M.V.P., that took it to a whole other level. He could hardly go anywhere without being hounded. We’d go out to eat after the game and people would just swarm the table. It was ridiculous.”
To Stewart, it was not much of a surprise. He was also teammates with Thames in 2010, with Class AA New Hampshire in the Toronto Blue Jays’ farm system. Thames was 23 that season, and he batted .288 with 27 home runs and 104 runs batted in, leading the Eastern League.
“It was unbelievable what kind of season he had,” Stewart said. “He was the heart of our team.”
Yet Thames did not make much of an impression as a rookie for the Blue Jays in 2011. He batted .262 with 12 homers in 95 games, constantly dreading the prospect of a trip to the bench or the minors. The Blue Jays traded Thames the next summer to Seattle, where he hit .220. He did not appear in the majors in 2013.
To Karon, the agent, the 2014 contract in South Korea represented more than a chance for Thames to make about $800,000. Karon had never encouraged a client so young to play there, but he made an exception for Thames.
“My view was, ‘Look, you’ve always been successful when you’ve played every day, and you’re not going to get the opportunity here,’” Karon said. “He was the last man on the 40-man roster of the worst team in baseball.”
That team was the Astros, who granted Thames his release after Karon finally persuaded him to try the K.B.O. Stewart compared games there to the last few innings of spring training exhibitions, with a few highly skilled players scattered among those with far less polish. Thames clearly stood out, overpowering pitchers who feared him so much that they ultimately sharpened his hitting eye.
“They tried to just throw junk at him all day,” Stewart said. “As a hitter, that would drive me crazy — ‘Oh, my God, just throw me a fastball!’ — and you can see how guys would want to just go up there and hack. But I think that made him more patient.”
The numbers support that theory. In his rookie season with Toronto, Thames swung at 34.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, according to PitchFX data. In his first 21 games this season, the figure had plunged by more than half, to 16.8 percent.
Thames also improved his technique while overseas, studying interviews with Miguel Cabrera and Victor Martinez about their approaches to hitting. Thames revised his swing by focusing on a flat bat path that would give his hits more backspin. His old, uphill swing was good for batting practice, but inconsistent thereafter.
“You don’t want, like, cage bombs,” Thames said. “That doesn’t translate into a game. But if you have a good, clean swing, with a good bat path and ball flight, that’s what you want.”
Credit Morry Gash/Associated Press
The Brewers noticed from afar, scouting Thames extensively on video as he launched 47 home runs in 2015 and 40 more last year. His prodigious start to this season, predictably, has led to whispers about performance-enhancing drugs. Thames laughed off the issue on Tuesday, after hitting his 11th homer and taking his third drug test since the start of spring training.
“If people keep thinking I’m on stuff, I’ll be here every day,” he told reporters. “I have a lot of blood and urine.”
Karon said he talked with Thames for a long time that night, concluding that there was nothing Thames could do to change perceptions.
“It saddens me that we’ve gotten to this point in baseball, where if someone has success, the immediate reaction is, ‘He’s got to be cheating,’” Karon said. “But it’s interesting: The old Eric would have been infuriated by it, and it would have affected him. Now there’s an inner peace he’s developed.”
Thames’s attitude — playful instead of defiant — is refreshing. He knew he was good, but his start has surprised even himself, a slugger who took the long route to become a sudden star.
World Classic’s Downside
It has been five weeks or so since the United States won the World Baseball Classic — a nice moment with a sense that the event was growing in popularity. Now it is time to consider the possible wreckage.
The Seattle Mariners’ rotation offers an intriguing perspective on the risks to a pitcher of exerting the arm so early. The Mariners had hoped to contend with a rotation led by Felix Hernandez, Drew Smyly and James Paxton. Instead, they are off to an uneven start, and they placed Hernandez on the disabled list last week with shoulder inflammation. He joined Smyly, who landed there in March with a significant elbow injury.
Hernandez started twice for Venezuela in the tournament, working seven and two-thirds innings, and Smyly looked dominant in his start for the United States, striking out eight in four and two-thirds innings. Smyly — who could miss eight weeks — regularly threw harder than 93 miles per hour at the W.B.C. after averaging only about 90 m.p.h. last season.
Paxton did not join Team Canada, which was short on pitching and was forced to start the long-retired Ryan Dempster in two of its three games.
“The advice I was getting was that it wasn’t a good time for me to take on those extra innings that early,” Paxton told reporters in January. “I got married this off-season, so my training program got pushed back just a little bit, and I didn’t want to sacrifice getting ready for the Mariners’ season by shortening that to get ready for the World Baseball Classic. Also, I wanted to take a jump in innings this year, a significant one, and I want to save those innings for the Mariners’ season.”
So far, it looks like a wise choice. Canada was winless in March, but Paxton has thrived in April. In his fifth major league season — none of the first four yielded more than 121 innings — Paxton has a 3-0 record and a 1.39 earned run average. Hernandez and Smyly can only watch from the disabled list.
Working Against a Faster Game
Commissioner Rob Manfred will soon begin meeting with players as they come to New York to play the Yankees or the Mets, hoping to glean their opinions on what he can do to accelerate the pace of play. This has been a prominent item on Manfred’s agenda, and he must have been heartened by Thursday’s game in Boston.
At 2 hours 21 minutes, the Yankees’ 3-0 victory over the Red Sox was the shortest game between those two teams since 1994. A glance at the box score shows the main reason: Neither team drew a walk, and the game required only 217 pitches.
The main issue with pace of play is obvious — the more pitches thrown, the longer a game takes. And the main obstacle facing Manfred is the financial incentive for hitters to work deep counts. In doing so, hitters tend to deaden the action, risking strikeouts in order to find just the right pitch to launch over the fence.
Curtis Granderson, the veteran Mets outfielder, last week explained the basic calculus that can make games drag: A lot of walks and a lot of power lead to a strong on-base plus slugging percentage, which teams crave.
“Now the talk is, ‘If my on-base percentage is this and my O.P.S. is this, that’s how I get rewarded financially in this game — then I’m going to do that,’” said Granderson, who has not spoken with Manfred about the pace of games. “Well, that means I need to see a lot of pitches, and when I do swing, I need to do damage with these pitches out there. You’re telling me that’s what you want. That’s the philosophy across the board.”
The commissioner has a noble goal — a crisper pace for the long-term good of the game. But front offices want something else, and major league hitters are skilled and shrewd enough to provide it.
Painstaking Journeys to the Majors
Nearly 19,000 people have played at least one game in the majors. Before last week, none of them had come from Lithuania or South Africa. The Pittsburgh Pirates changed that in one series against the Chicago Cubs.
Dovydas Neverauskas, a right-hander from Lithuania, made his debut by pitching two innings Monday. When the Pirates returned him to the minors Wednesday, they replaced him with Gift Ngoepe, an infielder who made his debut that night, went 1 for 2 and turned a game-ending double play at second base.
Credit Justin K. Aller/Getty Images
“Everything is breathtaking right now,” Ngoepe (pronounced n-GO-pay) told The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. “This just shows it doesn’t matter where you come from. No matter where you are, who you are, you can still make it.”
For Ngoepe and Neverauskas, the promotions capped painstaking journeys to the majors. Ngoepe — the first major leaguer born on the continent of Africa — signed with Pittsburgh in September 2008, and Neverauskas signed 10 months later. Neverauskas spent nearly three full seasons in the Gulf Coast League, living in a dormitory at the team’s training complex in Bradenton, Fla.
“Everything was hard the first three years,” he said in a telephone interview. “I was 17, 18, 19 years old, far away from home, no friends, no family. Playing in the G.C.L., it’s not the life you expected. It was a grind, and it was hard to get used to it.”
Neverauskas learned baseball from his father, Virmidas, who played as a boy, while the sport was being introduced to the country. Virmidas founded a national youth team in Lithuania when Dovydas was young, and took him on trips all over the world. On a visit to the United States in April 2006, Dovydas saw the Oakland Athletics host the Yankees.
“At the time, I probably just knew Derek Jeter,” he said. “I saw him from far away.”
On Monday, Neverauskas was at the center of the action, finally ascending to Pittsburgh after having moved to the bullpen in 2015. Now that he pitches for shorter stints, his fastball plays up — it averaged 97 miles an hour in his debut — and he mixes in curveballs and cutters.
Like Neverauskas, Ngoepe, now 27, attended Major League Baseball’s European Academy and had a family connection to the game. His mother, Maureen, worked for a recreation-league team in Randburg, South Africa, and raised him and his brother Victor around the ballpark. Ngoepe attracted the attention of scouts, began competing internationally and has for years been considered the best defensive infielder in the Pirates’ system.
Credit Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press
South Africa competed in the World Baseball Classic in 2006 and 2009; Ngoepe played on the 2009 team and had two triples in one game. Lithuania is further behind in its baseball development.
“I hope it’s going to grow the game, to see a Lithuanian guy who made it all the way from there to here,” Neverauskas said. “The main thing is the fields. We don’t have baseball fields, and to get youth tournaments and engage with other countries, that’s the only issue.”
Developing an unfamiliar sport can take decades for a country, but the Pirates, in particular, have been eager to explore. Their signing of two pitchers from India, Dinesh Patel and Rinku Singh, inspired “Million Dollar Arm,” a 2014 film starring Jon Hamm. Neither pitcher advanced beyond Class A, and both are retired.
However the careers of Neverauskas and Ngoepe unfold, they have already made an indelible mark: After their debuts, both players donated their caps to the Hall of Fame.