A KBO Thumper’s Path Back to the Majors

Korean baseball fans really liked Eric Thames. (via Sung-Min Kim)

Korean baseball fans really liked Eric Thames. (via Sung-Min Kim)

When Eric Thames appeared on the morning of Nov. 29, 2016 at a press conference to say he’d signed with the Milwaukee Brewers, it signaled the end of an era. Sure, you could say it was the Eric Thames era in the Korean Baseball Organization that ended, but the hitting prowess he put on display as the cleanup hitter for the NC Dinos had an impact not only statistically but also symbolically. He entered a league in the midst of a foreign-player rule change and left it with the rule solidly entrenched and very well-utilized by teams.

Starting in the 2014 season, the KBO added a new measure to the foreign player rule: Each team was allowed to have three foreign players but could use a maximum of two in a game. The new ruling also made it illegal to acquire pitchers or positional players exclusively for the three slots; teams had to mix it up with both.

This, by the way, was a major blessing for the Dinos. They needed hitting help. Because of the new regulations, they had no choice but to seek a foreign hitter. The team fared well with pitching in its inaugural 2013 season, posting a 3.93 ERA, third in the league. Hitting, however, was a problem. The team hit for a .244 average and got on base at a .320 clip, both ranked worst in the league. The team had a lot of young hitters who easily could improve in the 2014 season, but NC also needed a resurgent spark to compete.

It’s not easy to predict how a player will fare in the KBO. At the time, the KBO had not seen a star-like foreign hitter since Karim Garcia, who had a great 2008 season and played in Korea until 2011. Garcia, a former top major league prospect who hit 66 career home runs for seven different big league teams, became a fan favorite down in Busan as a Lotte Giants outfielder, but he became a one-dimensional slugger after his stupendous 2008 season.

Prior to 2014, 2011 was the last time teams had employed foreign hitters. Besides Garcia (Hanwha Eagles), the Samsung Lions had former Cleveland first baseman Ryan Garko, and the Nexen Heroes had a career journeyman in outfielder Cory Aldridge. Garcia and Aldridge stayed with their teams until the end of the season, but neither earned another contract. Garko? He was released after hitting only one home run with a .243 average in 189 at-bats.

Thames is the ultimate success story for KBO foreign players. Many players head to Korea for better pay and playing opportunities. If you sign a contract with a KBO team, you are likely to take a starting job right away. In the past, teams targeted older players whose abilities have diminished enough not to stick in the majors: Ozzie Canseco, Troy O’Leary, Tim Redding, Carlos Baerga and C.J. Nitkowski, to name a few.

Once the league started to generate more revenue, the teams started to seduce younger talents who were not cutting it in the majors. Instead of having to face the possibility of toiling in the minors for a low salary, why not get better pay and playing time in a different country’s top league? With such possibilities, teams landed several good talents in primes of their careers, among them Dustin Nippert (Doosan), Rick Vandenhurk (Samsung), Radhames Liz (LG) and Ryan Sadowski (Lotte).

Despite the new approach, the success rate of foreign players remained a crapshoot. Several players who had youth (and, some of them, major league experience) brought disappointing results. Edgar Gonzalez, who had pitched for the Diamondbacks as a spot starter and long reliever, signed with the LG Twins for the 2010 season as a 27-year old. He was released after only nine games pitched as he struggled to a 0-6 record and 7.68 ERA. Other players–like Jose Capellan, Chris Bootcheck, Caleb Clay and Jo-Jo Reyes–did not pull their weight in Korea either.

Before the Dinos took off as a franchise, almost none of the KBO teams wanted to employ a foreign position player. Many teams found it difficult to field a capable starting rotation if they did not employ two foreign starting pitchers. For instance, in 2012 none of the teams started their season with a foreign hitter on the roster. However, all eight employed two foreign pitchers each for their rotations (with the exception of the Doosan Bears, who had Scott Proctor as their closer).

It wasn’t different in 2013, the inaugural season for the NC Dinos. Nine teams started the season with all pitchers as their foreign players. Meanwhile, as expected, the Dinos’ inaugural season did not go great. They won 52 games, lost 72 and tied four, a seventh-place finish. At the time, the league gave an exemption to NC on the two-foreign-player-rule and allowed the team to sign three.

changwonThe Dinos are based in the city of Changwon in Gyeongsangnamdo province, located in the southeast of the Korean peninsula. The city used to be the alternative home field for the Lotte Giants, a team based in Busan (only a 20-minute drive from each other). It is a team owned by the NC SOFT Corporation, a company known for developing computer games. You may be familiar with some of them–Lineage, Aion, Guild Wars and Blade & Soul.

In 2010, however, NCSOFT wanted to extend its brand by expressing interest in starting a new professional baseball team for the KBO. There were many reasons to go for it. First, baseball has grown to be the nation’s favorite sport. Attendance has been climbing steadily since Team Korea made an unprecedented semi-final run in the 2006 World Baseball Classic, beating talented teams like Japan, USA and Mexico on the way. Korea also won the gold medal at the 2008 Beijing Olympics.

As a result, overall attendance shot up. At 2.33 million total for the 2004 season, attendance had reached 6.81 million by 2011, the year the Dinos began as an KBO organization. After losing the top sports throne to soccer in 2002 due to the Korea/Japan World Cup, baseball was on its upswing in the late-2000s — enough to motivate NC SOFT to create a new franchise.

The Dinos had some youth among their veteran bats. For instance, outfielder Seong-Beom Na, who was a top prospect as a two-way player for the Yonsei University, was touted by many as the next five-tool player in the KBO. In his first professional season, however, he hit .243/.319/.416, not a bad performance but certainly not enough to be counted on immediately to turn the franchise around.

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A comparative study on an unwritten rule of baseball.

Meanwhile, in the U.S., Thames had just finished an uninspiring 2013 season buried in the Mariners and Orioles minor league systems, hitting a combined .283/.367/.432. An eighth-rounder out of Pepperdine in 2008, Baseball America ranked him as the no. 12 prospect in the Toronto organization before the 2011 season. Thames hit .342/.419/.610 in Triple-A, earning a call-up with the Blue Jays. He held his own in his first trial, as he posted a .769 OPS in 394 plate appearances.

However, in an extended look in 2012, Thames did not live up to the promise. Starting out as a possible future outfield bat for the Jays, Thames hit only .243/.288/.345 and was shipped to the Mariners for relief pitcher Steve Delabar. He did not fare better in Seattle, as he hit .220/.256/.439 in 130 trips to the plate. After one more year in Triple-A, Thames left for Korea.

Around the time Thames came over to NC, KBO teams were starting to bring in players in, or entering, their primes. In the Dinos’ first year, they had three foreign pitchers: Adam Wilk (25), Charlie Shirek (27) and Eric Hacker (30). Only Wilk failed to re-sign with the club, leaving behind a bitter taste on his way out. Shirek stayed with the Dinos for about two and half seasons and threw a no-hitter. Hacker has remained a Dino and completed his fourth season with NC in 2016. In a league where foreign players are expected to step up and perform right away—in a completely new setting—the Dinos can consider themselves blessed with their scouting prowess.

Still a fresh face to the league entering their second season of play, the 2014 NC Dinos were allowed to keep four foreign players. Along with Hacker and Shirek, there were Thames and right-handed pitcher Thad Weber. The Dinos were to be restricted to three foreigners, like the rest of the league, starting in 2015. The best-case scenario was that three of those four would perform well enough to take the team to the next level and earn another contract.

That is exactly how things turned out. Shirek pitched to a 12-8 record with a 3.81 ERA, fourth-best in the league. Hacker also turned in a solid season, with an 8-8 record and 4.01 ERA in 30 starts. Weber became an easy odd man out, thanks to his 4.58 ERA. Thames? Thames performed, all right. In fact, he was monstrous. He hit for a .343 average (eighth in the league), had 152 hits (13th), 37 homers (third), 121 RBI (second) and 6.14 WAR (eighth).

The Dinos started to thrive. In only their second season, they made it to the playoffs, placing third in the regular season. Not only Thames showed up, but the younger players the organization had worked to develop blossomed as well. Outfielder Na broke out to a .998 OPS season, fulfilling the expectations of being the first-ever Dinos franchise star. Second baseman Min-Woo Park became one of the best speedsters in the league, swiping 50 bags while hitting .298/.392/.399 and earning Rookie of the Year honors.

In the big picture, Thames was having a good time. He had just become a huge star for a burgeoning and charismatic new-kid-on-the-block franchise. Changwon is not really one of the landmark cities of the nation, ninth overall in population. There are only 10 teams in the league, and three of them congregate in Seoul. Changwon is also very close to Busan, the second-largest city in the country and home to one of the most storied franchises, the Lotte Giants. (Needless to say, the Giants franchise vehemently opposed the idea of having another franchise set up in its territory.)

To turn heads and win people over, the Dinos used exceptional marketing strategies. For instance, they remodeled 1,600 of the infield seats for the comfort of family fans at the game. To the delight of children, they signed a contract with the popular children’s cartoon franchise “Pororo the Little Penguin” to sign their dinosaur character “Crong” up as one of their mascots. (The Dinos made sure to hype it up, making a video of players saying congratulations to the cartoon character.)

The team also hosted various themed nights for different demographics. For example, on every last Friday home game of the month, the team ran a “Friday Night For Twenties,” which put seat discounts for students, hosted de-stress events for those studying for exams, and ran raffles for backpacks, restaurant coupons and more.

Thames, worth 6.14 WAR (based on Statiz metrics) in 2014, was a big part of all the winning for the Dinos. Thames was a guy with an appealing track record—young, experienced in the majors, full of power—but fans knew anything could happen to foreign players.

One reason Thames was able to excel in the KBO was his smooth adjustment to the culture. In a July 2014 interview recorded by his team, Thames said “I feel like I work hard on [adjusting], and so far it’s working well.” “Working well” may have been an understatement. He embraced what was around him. In an interview in June, he praised the food. “The beef and pork all seem to be high quality and taste. I love them.” Thames said, “I don’t eat them too much during the season, but because there are so many road games, I get fueled by Korean food.”

In the same interview, Thames said he always kept an open mind about being in a new setting. “Some players worry about different atmospheres that they will be in,” Thames said, “but this is baseball. Baseball is the same everywhere. So open your mind and enjoy it.” Fans could see his effort to learn their own culture as well as the Korean language:

Study! study! study! #한글 #NC다이노스

A post shared by Eric Thames 테임즈 (@ericthames) on

Another example was when he appeared at a local orphanage for a fundraiser:

The KBO has had a history of foreign players faring poorly due to their unwillingness to adjust to the new culture. The open-minded attitude just may be the x-factor for success—and Thames had it.

Thames also got along well with his teammates. “I am a very lucky person,” he said, “I love every player in NC.” He noted that catcher Tae-Gun Kim was his best friend. Their friendship could be illustrated in the dugout after every time Thames hit a homer.

Here is the routine: Thames hits a dinger, runs around the bases, gets cheered on by the giddy teammates and Kim awaits on the very end of the greeting file. Kim and Thames exchange air gunshots, Kim pulls Thames’ goatee, and they salute each other, like this (celebration starts ~:29 seconds):

Given that Thames hit 124 career homers in the KBO, they got to do this routine quite a bit.

After hitting 37 out of those 124 home runs in 2014 (and stacking up well in other offensive categories), Thames signed a million-dollar contract for the next season and most observers thought he would excel in 2015. But no one knew how good he would be.

There are so many numbers to throw out. A .381/.498/.790 line in 595 PA is a good place to start. Accomplishing 40-40 (HR-SB) for the first time in the KBO history is another. How about his 222.3 wRC+? To put that into context, Barry Bonds, in his MVP 2004 season (.362/.609/.812, 45 homers), had a 233 wRC+. Thames closely matched the best modern hitting performance season—just in a different league.

Not only could Thames hit but he also could steal bases. He swiped 40 bases while being caught only eight times. The KBO had seen 30-30 before, but not 40-40. Simply put, Thames had the best offensive season in the history of the league.

Thames’ 2015 season ranks first in many single-season offensive categories: 1.288 OPS, 12.03 WAR, 175.7 wRC, and .790 slugging percentage are just four of them. His .498 on-base percentage is second to 2001 Felix Jose’s .503 mark. Prior to Thames, it was the former Kia Tigers shortstop Jong-Beom Lee’s 1994 season that boasted the best single-season offensive numbers.

The NC Dinos also soared higher in the 2015 season. The team motto for that year was “Let’s go relentlessly, sprint!” Even without any big free agency acquisitions, they managed to make a big leap with the familiar cast. Their record jumped to an impressive 84-57-3. They placed second in the regular season, earning a playoff trip, and, of course, more respect among other teams for the third-year franchise.

In the only playoff series they played that year, the Dinos faced the third-place Doosan Bears in a best-out-of-five battle. After taking a 2-1 series lead, NC needed only a win for their first ever Korean Series berth. However, in Game Four they were shut out by fifth-year Bears ace Dustin Nippert and the series advanced to the do-or-die Game Five.

The Dinos had ex-White Sox righty Zach Stewart on the mound, and the Bears countered with left-hander Won-Joon Jang, who had been a big free-agent acquisition by Doosan in the previous offseason. NC held on to a 2-1 lead into the top of the fifth. However, the Bears scored three in span of only five hitters, knocking Stewart out. Doosan scored two more in the inning to take a 6-2 lead. The Dinos scored two more later on, but it was not enough.

Once again, NC fell short of clinching a playoff series victory. Thames, the cornerstone bat of the NC lineup, hit a robust .375 in 16 at-bats in the series, but baseball, as they say, is a team effort. Doosan would eventually down the defending champion Samsung Lions in five games to take the 2015 Korean Series title.

Many raised questions whether Thames’ phenomenal 2015 season would attract offers too good to be true from the Japan’s Nippon Professional Baseball or the U.S. NPB salaries generally are higher than those of KBO’s. If an NPB team wanted Thames badly, it easily could outbid the Dinos. Likewise, if a stateside team were to sign him to a major league deal, it would have been game over. Several publications speculated Thames could have returned to the U.S. However, to the joy of fans in Changwon, Thames opted to sign another one-year contract with the Dinos, with the amount announced at $1.5 million.

Notably, other teams were benefiting from the new foreign player rule change. In 2015, foreign hitters left their fingerprints all over the offensive category leaderboards. Infielder Yamaico Navarro of the Samsung Lions placed third in WAR (6.69) and second in homers (48). The late Andy Marte of the KT Wiz hit for a .348 average, which ranked fourth in the KBO. Outfielder Jim Adducci of the Lotte Giants established himself as a solid power-and-speed guy by knocking 28 over the fence and stealing 24 bases.

Sure, the KBO recently has earned the label of being an “offense-happy league” (especially when hitters like Jung-Ho Kang, Hyun Soo Kim and Jae-Gyun Hwang were evaluated), but the league itself is doing just fine. In 2016, the KBO broke the 8 million attendance barrier—a result of good marketing, a good game atmosphere for the fans and an increase in number of games and teams in the league. It is difficult to see why the league would bring a drastic rule change to slow the beat down.

As for Thames, his 2016 numbers came out as well as expected. It was probably too much to ask him to duplicate his 2015 performance (secretly, many Dinos fans probably wanted a 50-50 season), but he still performed at a premium level. For the third year in a row, Thames hit for a 1.100 OPS (1.106, to be exact) and ranked third in the league in WAR (5.68), behind Lions outfielder Hyeong-Woo Choi and Giants third baseman Jae-Gyun Hwang.

The Dinos, with the new slogan “Let’s go relentlessly, march!,” turned in another winning season. They again placed second in the pennant race with a 84-58-3 (.592) record, 8.5 games behind the Doosan Bears. Other foreign players, such as righty hurlers Eric Hacker (4.89 WAR) and Stewart (3.29 WAR) turned in solid seasons for the Dinos, and other regulars such as third baseman Suk-Min Park (3.85 WAR), outfielder Seong-Beom Na (4.86 WAR) and second baseman Min-Woo Park (4.01 WAR, .343 AVG) flourished under manager Gyeong-Moon Kim’s leadership.

However, both Thames and the Dinos experienced dark times that tarnished both legacies.

September of 2016 marked the low point of Thames’ career in Korea. He suffered the worst slump of his KBO career, hitting just .217/.284/.317 line in 67 PA, by far the worst hitting month during his three-year stint with the Dinos. He also had just come off a stupendous .354/.442/.756 August and was expected to help the second-place Dinos push for the top spot in the pennant race. However, the lack of hits wasn’t the worst thing about his month.

On Sept. 29, Korean media reported that Thames had been arrested for a DUI few days earlier. According to reports, Thames’ blood alcohol level was at 0.056 percent, just above the 0.050 percent threshold in Korean regulations, though lower than the American limit. Per a team statement issued by the NC Dinos general manager Seok-Hyun Bae, Thames was caught by police after having “two glasses of cocktails” during a dinner with his mother.

The news was reported in midst of the Dinos’ doubleheader against the Samsung Lions. Thames played the first game but was subbed out during the bottom of the first during the second as the news broke. The Dinos were criticized for their “incompetent maneuvering” of the incident. Team officials claimed that the manager, Gyeong-Moon Kim, was not aware of the incident until it was reported.

The KBO office handed Thames a nine-game suspension. That meant missing all eight games left in the regular season and a playoff game. In addition, Thames was sentenced to 50 hours of community service and a $5,000 fine. At the time, the Dinos were all but assured of finishing second in the pennant race, so it was meaningless for their best player to miss all the rest of the regular-season matches. Therefore, many were not thrilled that he would miss only one playoff game.

As for the Dinos, they had been dealing with another matter—a much more disastrous one. One of their steady starting pitchers, Tae-Yang Lee, was arrested on suspicions of game-fixing. Lee, a 23-year-old right-hander, had a breakout 2015 with a 10-5, 3.67 ERA in his first full season as a starter. He also was chosen to the Team Korea roster for the Premier 12 tournament. He was a young pitcher expected to carry the Dinos—and perhaps the Korean national team—for a long time.

However, when news broke on July 20 that Lee was involved in the scandal, NC voided its contract with him. The court sentenced Lee to 10 months in prison and two years of probation and he was handed a lifetime ban from the KBO. (Another one of their starting pitchers, Jae-Hak Lee, was questioned over the same scandal but was cleared of charges.)

Despite all the chaos, the Dinos reached their first-ever Korean Series, a project only five years in the works. After sitting out the first game of the playoff round, Thames struggled for the most of the series, with two hits in 12 at-bats. However, one of the hits turned out to be crucial. In Game Four, with the LG Twins leading 1-0, Thames hit a solo home run to tie it up, his first time getting on base since the suspension. He also added an infield single later on, and the Dinos beat the Twins, 8-3, to advance to the KBO finals to face the Doosan Bears.

While the LG Twins didn’t have a bad rotation, the 2016 Doosan Bears rotation was otherworldly. Led by two former major leaguers in Dustin Nippert and Michael Bowden, prized lefty signee Won-Joon Jang, and junkballer extraordinaire Hee-Kwan Yoo, the top four starting pitchers combined for 70 wins (out of the 93 team wins) and 20.56 WAR.

And those pitchers absolutely mollywhopped the Dinos lineup. Not only was NC swept in four games, but the Dinos managed just two runs, the lowest ever for a team in the Korean Series. Thames didn’t fare much better. He had only two hits in the entire series.

However, Thames did have his swan song. In Game Four, at the Dinos’ home field, Masan Baseball Stadium, the Bears had a 8-0 lead going into the bottom of the ninth, needing only three outs to seal the deal and defend their KBO championship. Thames led off, facing Bears reliever Yong-Chan Lee. On an 0-2 count, Thames drilled a 142 kmph (~88 mph) fastball right down the middle over the center field fence. His solo home run spared the Dinos from the embarrassment of being shut out for the third time in the Korean Series.

However, it was too much for the team to come back from a seven-run deficit. As designated hitter Ho-Joon Lee popped out to Bears second baseman Jae-Won Oh to end the game, the Doosan players rushed to the mound to celebrate, and the NC players lined up along the first-base line to say thanks and acknowledge their fans’ support. It would be the last time Thames faced the Dinos fans.

Without Thames, the Dinos are tasked with a new challenge for 2017. Can they evolve beyond the Korean Series berth despite not having one of the best hitters in the KBO history on the roster? Can their team image recover from the game-fixing scandal that saw one of their pitchers banned for life?

Had NC been a team that struggled to make the playoffs, these would have been tougher questions to answer. But because they have very solid base of players to build a championship team, the consensus is that the Dinos still have a bright future. In addition to bringing back the ever-so-consistent right-hander Eric Hacker, NC signed another righty, Jeff Manship, who pitched for the Indians during their World Series stretch and outfielder Xavier Scruggs, who has had cups of coffee with the St. Louis Cardinals and the Miami Marlins.

At the risk of sounding like a broken record, it is a crap shoot to predict how new foreign players will perform in the KBO. Even for guys like Manship, who was trusted enough by Terry Francona to pitch in relief during the 2016 World Series, success is far from guaranteed.

Those who are optimistic on Scruggs say they see some Thames in him—a player in his prime who can hit for power (.565 slugging percentage in Triple-A in 2016) and has some major league exposure. At this moment, it would be amenable for Scruggs to be able to adjust to the KBO pitching and end up a solid everyday outfielder. Becoming the next Eric Thames? That’s a pipe dream, but who is to blame those who want to see the second coming of the best hitter the KBO has ever seen?

Meanwhile, every KBO team is counting on its own foreign hitter to produce a bulk of the offensive output, a huge contrast from the era before Thames set his foot on the ground in Korea. Back in the majors, Thames is looking forward to another shot to make it big. Sure, there have been other players who played in the KBO and made it back to The Show (Dana Eveland, Julio Franco and Lucas Harrell, for example), but Thames is bringing with him a new kind of expectation. He has a three-year deal that guarantees him $16 million. If the hype is real, he will have more than earned it. Will Thames get Brewers fans happy and cause Bernie Brewer to slip down his slide as frequently as Tae-Gun Kim pulled his goatee? Only time will tell.

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Sung-Min Kim writes for River Ave. Blues, and has written for MLB.com, The Washington Post, Baseball America and VICE Sports. Besides baseball writing, he is also passionate about photojournalism and radio broadcasting. Follow him on Twitter @sung_minkim.
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Paul C.
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Paul C.

Excellent. I really enjoyed learning more about the story.

Jetsy Extrano
Guest
Jetsy Extrano

Thank you! There’s so much going on the world that I don’t usually get to hear about.

tung_twista
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tung_twista

This is really good.
One point that you missed is that it is widely believed that Thames had a two-year deal with NC Dinos spanning 2015 and 2016.
https://twitter.com/MyKBO/status/649853069237207040
It is illegal for KBO teams to sign a multi-year deal with foreign players but teams tend to get around that.
If it wasn’t a multi-year deal, Thames would definitely have gotten a better offer from Japan in the winter of 2015.
In the end, though, it worked out for Thames, because if he had gone to Japan, he probably wouldn’t have made it back to the majors this season.

nickolai
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nickolai

Great read, thank you! KBO games look like such awesome events — so animated, family-friendly and just fun. I think MLB would do well to infuse some of that energy into its games.

Looking forward to seeing how Eric Thames does with the Brewers. If JH Kang’s performance is any barometer, he should be a pretty successful hitter this year.

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