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Oakland Athletics Free Agent Target: Eric Thames

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The A's desperately need left-handed hitting.

I said this before, in my Matt Joyce article last week. But man, it remains true. The Athletics' best hitters are all righties –Khris Davis, Ryon Healy, Marcus Semien. Their two top prospects, Matt Chapman and Franklin Barreto? Both righties.

All great players! But in a league where around 70% of the starting pitchers are right-handed, you're going to need some lefties, even if left-handed people are bad luck and probably inherently evil.

The A's best lefties are Stephen Vogt, Bruce Maxwell, and, uh, Matt Olson, I guess. Matt Olson probably needs another year in AAA. Maxwell and Vogt can't be in the lineup at the same time without some out-of-position shenanigans. After that you've got Joey Wendle, who is a lineup presence like Eric Sogard was a lineup presence.

The A's need to get lefties, and to get them from outside the organization.

In a case like this -€– a clearly open role on a team that's not likely to contend in 2017 – gambling on upside is usually the move. But there's nothing inspiring here: Matt Joyce and Brandon Moss are both human embodiments of the word "fine". Dexter Fowler is expensive and has no reason to sign with a bad A's team.

Why not gamble? What do the A's have to lose? Why not go with Eric Thames?

Who the heck is Eric Thames?

Unless you've been extremely online during this offseason, you probably haven't heard of Eric Thames. Thames had an marginal MLB career, ending in 2012 with a DFA from the Mariners. Which is unfortunate, because the most embarrassing thing possible is to be DFA'd off of the 2012 Mariners.

After bouncing around the minors for a year, he left American baseball at age 26 and joined the NC Dinos in Korea. There, he became a legend.

His first season in Korea, 2014, he hit .343/.422/.688 with 37 HRs. In 2015, he hit .381/.497/.790 with 47 HRs and 40 stolen bases, and took home an MVP. In 2016, he hit .317/.425/.676 with 40 HRs. Cumulatively, that's 124 homers over 1634 plate appearances with a .348/.450/.720 line. That comes with a 14.4% walk rate, and a pretty low 17.9% strikeout rate. All this to say, he did okay for himself.

Thames flunked out of American baseball and now is the best player in Korean baseball. What do we do with that? How do you judge his MLB career against his KBO career?

Thames is clearly a changed player, so the best thing you can do is judge him like a generic Korean baseball player who has never played in the MLB before. You're not going to puzzle this out by dwelling on the player he was five years ago. For the purposes of this article, his pre-2014 record is expunged.

The biggest issue with his stats is that the KBO is extremely hitter friendly, with a .800 OPS being about league average (MLB average was .739). The difference in the leagues is especially pronounced on the high end. It's not abnormal to have players reach Barry Bonds level stats. About six players per year put up a 1.100 OPS or above in the KBO. In the MLB, only Albert Pujols and Bryce Harper have hit that threshold since 2005.

That said, Thames is still the best hitter currently in the KBO, and that counts for quite a bit. In 2015, he blew everyone out of the water, leading the league in OPS by about .100. In 2014 he was third in OPS, in 2016 he was second. Say what you will about the KBO inflating your stats, he's still got the best inflated stats.

There have been three major players to come over from the KBO since 2013, so we've got a bit of data about how they translate. Here's their stats from their last year in Korea, compared to their MLB stats. Thames hit .317/.425/.790 with a 19.6% K rate in 2016, for reference.

Player KBO stats KBO K% MLB stats MLB wRC+
Jung Ho Kang .356/.459/.739 21.1% .273/.355/.483 131 wRC+
Byung Ho Park .303/.433/.686 25.9% .191/.275/.409 80 wRC+
Hyun Soo Kim .326/.438/.541 12.3% .302/.382/.420 119 wRC+


What did we learn from this exercise? Well, just that stats translate from the KBO unless they don't. I guess that's useful? Hyun Soo Kim was not a premier hitter in the KBO, but his batting average and OBP only took a minor hit. Meanwhile, Byung Ho Park, a legitimate superstar, fell on his face. Jung Ho Kang was both a superstar in the KBO and a star in the MLB.

It looks like K% matters to a certain degree, and power translates. Both points in Thames's favor, with his relatively low K% rate and monster power numbers.

There are a few other notes to make about Thames. One: he's entering his age 30 season, which is younger than anyone else you're going to get in free agency. That matters, especially if you're going to sign him to a multi-year deal.

Two: he's not going to help defensively. He's a pure 1B/DH, with some experience in LF. He did win a gold glove in the KBO for his work at first base, but I'm not sure if I'd trust that to mean anything. He's a bat, pure and simple. He has to hit to have any value whatosever.

Three: He stole 40 bases in 2015, but that's such an insane outlier season (he's never stolen more than 13 in any other season) it's probably worth ignoring.

Verdict:

Maybe?

This is going to feel like a cop out, but I don't know. You don't either. There's simply no way to look at his stats and judge whether he's going to be Jung Ho Kang or Byung Ho Park.

This is a case where you're going to have to put your faith in the A's scouting department to know better than you. We haven't seen him play, and we don't know if he's an illusion created by the hitter friendly KBO or a legitimate superstar. The numbers aren't going to tell us, and we don't really have anything other than the numbers.

Personally, I prefer Matt Joyce, but that's mostly because I'm a coward and I like the safe options. Eric Thames is likely to be the cheapest source of legitimate upside on the market, and if there's one thing the A's need, it's upside.