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How is free swinger Eric Thames crushing his second act?

Here is a myopically male perspective: In life, there is a natural progression from youthful aggression to the patience of maturity. In fact, it could be argued that those are the defining traits of those particular phases of life. Strangely though, this bit of homespun wisdom has rarely seemed to apply to baseball, where aggression and passivity often are thought to be immutable traits.

This winter, two of the more interesting contracts of the offseason were signed by Eric Thames of the Milwaukee Brewers and Tim Anderson of the Chicago White Sox. Thames was returning after a three-year stint of domination in Korea. Anderson, a former first-round pick, was locked down by the White Sox even though he'd played fewer than 100 games at the big league level.

Thames got his deal because he seemingly became one of those rare birds who made the transition from aggression to patience. Anderson got his deal mostly because of his potential, but also because, in his rookie season, he showed the ability to put up numbers despite a complete lack of discipline at the plate, the thought being that as he learned the strike zone, his numbers would get even better.

The early returns -- very, very early -- are that Thames has morphed into an April version of Ted Williams. In fact, in Wednesday's game against the Cubs, he was being treated as such by meticulous Chicago Cubs righty Kyle Hendricks, who pitched around Thames in his first two plate appearances. That boosted Thames' on-base percentage at the time to over .500 and his OPS to more than 1.500. He leads the majors in weighted on-base average (wOBA).

Anderson, meanwhile, has struggled mightily out the gate, showing little at the plate other than a lot of wild swings at pitches out of the zone. Through Tuesday's action, he was hitting .157/.173/. 216. His wOBA rank? It's 185th of 192 qualifying batters.

We certainly can't read too much into two weeks of results. But the disparate paths of these hitters is worth exploring because of the larger implications. In Anderson's case, if the results don't improve markedly, can he really learn the modicum of discipline he needs to turn the corner? Is there a minimum threshold that even a free swinger cannot cross to remain a viable big leaguer? The answers to these questions about Tim Anderson might lie in the long, strange trip of Eric Thames.

The Korean Babe Ruth



Thames was a seventh-round draft pick by the Toronto Blue Jays in 2008, and is (or was) a very different kind of free swinger from Anderson. He's a powerhouse with a level of body fat that makes you doubt your own life choices. That has always translated to power at the plate. He hit 30 homers as a 23-year-old in the Blue Jays' system, then found himself in the big leagues the next season. Now, at 30, he has traveled the world, and in approach, age and life experience, he's older than Anderson in every literal and figurative sense.

Despite his flawless physique, what sets Thames apart is a cerebral hitting approach that suggests no matter what area of the game you ask him about, he has thought it through very carefully.

"I try not to get caught up in expectations and stuff," Thames said. "I'm trying to just have my routine and be able to stay mentally free. I mean, that's what happens when you play. It's almost like your mind goes on autopilot, and your body just reacts. That's how it feels right now."

Thames hit 12 homers as a rookie in 2011, but as a corner player with a .313 on-base percentage, he still found himself back in the minors the next season. He hit .330/.407/.528 in Triple-A, was recalled by the Blue Jays, but floundered again. He was subsequently traded to Seattle, then Baltimore, was waived by the Orioles and, later, the Astros.

The problem? He swung at everything. And it almost cost him everything. But he's back and emerging as the biggest surprise of the 2017 season. How did he climb back for this second act that most players never get?

"Plate discipline," Thames said, simply. "I learned in Korea that they won't challenge you as much as they do in the minor leagues and [majors]. And maintaining the strike zone and swinging at strikes, that's like the ultimate goal for everybody."

Thames signed with the NC Dinos of the South Korean League, then spent the next three seasons putting up Ruthian numbers on the other side of the globe. All told, he hit .349/.451/.721 with 124 homers, 382 RBIs and 64 steals in Korea, but Thames wasn't just dominating lesser competition; he was working on his game, making it more pliable for a return to the States. Part of it was metrics. Or at least one metric: Thames started to track the number of pitches he chased out of the zone, and mixed that with a little self-motivating tool.

"Starting in Korea, every time I chase, I put a dollar in the pot and I donate it at the end of the year," Thames said. "It's a challenge. I was a guy that swung at everything, so many balls out of the zone early on in my career. It's a big thing. That's why I couldn't handle it in Seattle. It's why I got sent down."

The work paid off this winter, when the Brewers signed Thames to a three-year, $15 million deal with a club option. Clearly his return to the majors is off to an amazing start. It's early, to be sure, and there will be challenges to come as pitchers build their books on Thames. Still, his mature approach gives him more than a fighting chance.

"We have to give Eric time to just re-acclimate to this game," Brewers manager Craig Counsell said. "There is a lot new for him. The pitchers are all new to him. The style of pitching is new to him. He's adapted well, but it's going to take him some time to fully adapt. Everything has been good."

Before a recent game in Milwaukee, Thames returned to the clubhouse from a session in the batting cage. Instead of taking a seat in front of his locker to scroll through the messages on his phone, which is a common pregame pose for a ballplayer, he pulled a bat from his locker and for about 10 minutes practiced his stance, his lean muscles poised to spring into action while he stared down an invisible pitcher that he had created in his mind. This exercise in visualization is another part of Thames' heady process.

"You should see me at my house," Thames said, laughing. "I just always do that. I just feel like the more I do it, the more it becomes second nature during the game. I'm always touching a bat, always hitting. That's just out of habit. I get kind of stir crazy just sitting here. It's like, 'I should be doing something right now.' It always feels good to be always be pounding the habits in. In the game, it gets easier. I don't have to think about much, it just happens."

Mr. Anderson



Of all the hacktastic young players to come into the big leagues over the years, Anderson threatens to join a kind of pantheon of over-aggressive hitters. It has been a whirlwind of a year for Anderson. Heck, it's been a whirlwind half-decade for the former Alabama prep star, whose first athletic success came on the hardwood, not with the hardball.

In fact, even though Anderson didn't take up the game until his junior year of high school, he was so good, so fast, that he ended up as the 17th pick of the 2013 draft. Then after he climbed swiftly through the Chicago system, the Sox decided he had become so good, so fast as a big leaguer that they signed him to a six-year, $25 million contract that also has a pair of club options tacked on to the end, per Cot's Baseball Contracts.

In the grand scheme of baseball's inflated economics, this was a low-risk move for White Sox GM Rick Hahn that carries with it the upside of a master stroke. Is Anderson a sure thing? No. A worthy gamble? You bet. But the mere fact that the White Sox targeted him as a foundation player at the very least speaks to what they think not only about Anderson's ability, but in the work ethic they hope will allow him to take full advantage of his talent.

"I'm right where I want to be," Anderson said. "But I'm not satisfied. I need to get better each and every day. There is never a part of my game that is going to be good. I feel like I can always work on every part of my game. I could be way better than what I am."

How that turns out might largely depend on the evolution of Anderson's approach. So far, the plan has been straight forward: If someone hurls a white sphere in your direction, whack at it with that big piece of wood in your hands. As a rookie, Anderson struck out 117 times in 431 plate appearances while drawing 13 walks. Yet his slash line (.283/.306/.432) yielded a league-average OPS+ (100) -- a tremendous outcome for a 23-year-old shortstop. This season, he's at 13 strikeouts and one walk. The results that have followed have not been nearly as pretty.

"He's young," White Sox manager Rich Renteria said. "A lot of us would play winter ball and see a lot more breaking balls and sliders and changeups you go through a timeframe where that would kind of speed up the process. When you are trying to do that at the major league level, everybody has to understand that you're going to see pictures and start to adapt. They are going to adapt to him. He's going to have to continue to work through that process. I'm just trying to give him a chance to be good at that and swing at strikes."

Perhaps, in a way, the early success has sent the wrong message to Anderson. In addition to the lone walk he has drawn in the regular season, he also didn't walk a single time in 62 spring at-bats. Anderson now has a career walk rate of 2.90 percent. According to baseball-reference.com, there have been only 22 non-pitchers during the live-ball ear (minimum 450 plate appearances since 1920) to sport a walk rate of less than 3 percent. The list of names is enough to tell you that this isn't company that Anderson is going to want to continue to keep -- not a lot of All-Stars here.

"There is an immaturity level," Anderson said, showing admirable self-awareness. "You look back, I don't have many baseball years under my belt. For me to be where I'm at is such a blessing. I'm not a statistics guy. I don't pay attention to what other people have to say. At the end of the day, everybody has their opinions. I know what I'm capable. The White Sox know what I'm capable of."

The other list to look at is the one of those with Anderson's low walk rate but isolated to only the first two seasons of the players' career. It's a more forgiving list that includes three Hall of Famers: Roberto Clemente, Chick Hafey and Bill Dickey.

Clemente became one of the best outfielders of all time, won four batting titles and, while he never shook the label of bad-ball hitter, he did eventually push his career walk rate to 6 percent. That didn't make him Ted Williams, but it was just enough of a dose of patience to allow him to become one of the most indelible players we've seen. For Clemente, while he could often make contact on the bad pitches sent his way once his free-swinging tendencies became known, his power didn't fully develop until he introduced a modicum of patience.

In other words, pitchers dictated that Clemente evolve, something that at this point, Anderson doesn't see happening. As a young person, he's certain that it's all under his control.

"It's mostly me," Anderson said. "I'm in control of that at-bat. At the end of the day, this is one of the toughest games there is. Baseball is very special. Can't everybody just roll out of bed and hit a 95 mph fastball. As I mature and grow and see more pitches, those things will start to click."

For Anderson, walks -- or the lack thereof -- might not be the ultimate indicator.

"My take has always been, in my experience a guy that's more of a swinger, it's easier to get him to not strike out as opposed to accept the walk," Cubs manager Joe Maddon says. "That's just in your nature man, that's just who they are. You can get them somewhat better, but to get them to go from a free-swinger, that's rare. That's absolutely rare."

But it happens, and to see the benefits of that lesson, Anderson need only look 98 miles north, up I-94 to Milwaukee.

To chase or not to chase



While on-base percentage and walks will remain key parts of our evaluation processes, those old measures have been augmented by the flood of newer data generated by video tracking over the past few years. We know better than ever which pitches hitters are swinging at, and where those pitches are located, and how often (and how successfully) they chase outside the zone.

"It's great," Thames said at the new wealth of study aids at a players' disposal. "They have so many angles and video. I wish the fans could see the amount of detail. It's awesome, just another advantage for us."

And, really, this is the crux of it. Whether true plate discipline can be taught, resulting in lofty on-base percentages that lead to MVP votes, well that remains an open question. But perhaps the real message teams need to get across to young hitters is that they really need to stop getting themselves out, because the pitchers are really good at doing that for them. Forget walks -- just learn to recognize the pitches you can't hit, and lay off them.

"I keep emphasizing the power of zoning in on your pitch," Thames said. "It's a little more difficult now with the zone being so big, but we still have control over swinging at good pitches. If you're just constantly chasing stuff and chasing stuff, pitchers are smart. If they pound it in the dirt and you chase, they'll keep pounding it in the dirt."

Stop chasing pitches. Sounds simple, right? But it's so much easier said than done.

"It's a constant adjustment," Thames said. "You can study all you want, you have to actually step in the box and see how the ball moves and how they pitch you."

Big league hitters chase pitches out of the strike zone about 26.7 percent of the time. The most disciplined hitters can slice that under 20 percent -- last year, Dexter Fowler had the lowest qualifying chase rate (17.5 percent). At the other end of the spectrum, you have players getting into the upper 30s and low 40s. Salvador Perez and Adam Jones ranked last in 2016, both chasing pitches out of the zone 42.4 percent of the time.

"[Learning plate discipline] is probably the most difficult thing to do," Maddon said. "You want a guy that's really disciplined and knows the strike zone? You probably have to draft it or buy it. It's hard to create it or nurture it."

So far this season, Anderson's chase rate (38.3 percent) is about 12 percent higher than this season's big league average. Thames, at 16.3 percent, has the 10th-lowest chase rate in baseball. During his pre-Korea stint, Thames' chase rate was near 35 percent. So it seems as if his version of the swear-jar approach has paid dividends.

"I've also read that he's into visualization and meditation," Maddon said. "That's the thing that I think, when you're talking about the next-level offensive player, that's the part that's been underutilized, for me. It's just been about physical repetitions, which I think can be counterproductive, as opposed to what you're thinking and how you're seeing things when you are formulating your game plan."

There are never guarantees in baseball and exceptions always emerge. As Thames makes the rounds in the majors, his power and patience might not be enough to exploit major league stuff on a consistent basis. And Anderson might hack his way to a Jones-like All-Star career on sheer talent alone. Yet you feel a lot better about Thames because of his discipline, and you worry about Anderson because of his lack of it.

"[Anderson] swings the bat and he puts the bat on the ball pretty well, and he gets good results," Renteria said. "I think for the most part that experience and time will help them continue to cultivate and recognize pitches."

There is a divide in the majors when it comes to the issue of plate discipline. Some teams believe that many naturally aggressive hitters will eventually become as disciplined as they need to be, and they get there by flailing at different pitches in different locations, figuring out what they can do damage with, and what they can't. Other teams, and this group has grown in post-Moneyball years, think that if you value plate discipline as an organization, you have to uncover players who have that as an innate trait.

If the latter group is correct, then Anderson is what he is. Sure, he might not remain this extreme -- he's only 23 years old and came to the game late. But to expect Anderson to become, say, Bobby Abreu (an inspiration for Thames) is not realistic. However, three years ago, no one would have thought that Thames would go on to become the Korean Babe Ruth. Nor would they have thought that, if he came back to the States, he would emerge as the majors' best hitter over the first few dozen plate appearances of his return.

"His ability to, in a perverse way, to be able to walk away and go to another country to see baseball in a different light, actually has benefited him," Maddon said. "Obviously. My god, this is Murphy-esque. This is Bonds-esque. I have not seen anything like this, shoot, since Little League, I don't think."

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