Four Reasons Eric Thames Will and Won’t Win the MVP
Three weeks ago, the National League MVP conversation was a pretty easy one. The standard expected favorites were atop the list; Bryce Harper and Kris Bryant had the slimmest odds, upstarts Corey Seager and Nolan Arenado under +1000 and some familiar names in the +1000 to +2500 range like Anthony Rizzo, Paul Goldschmidt, Joey Votto, and Buster Posey. You could get ANY pitcher at +1200, not bad considering Clayton Kershaw’s MVP-credentials and you could take a flyer on a longshot like Daniel Murphy +2200, Freddie Freeman +2500, Giancarlo Stanton +4000, or Yoenis Cespedes at +3300.
One player not on the board at the time was the Milwaukee Brewers breakout sensation, Eric Thames. Thames was playing in Korea six months ago but has immediately vaulted into the early MVP discussion by belting 11 homeruns, batting .350 and driving in 19 runs in the month of April to help the Brewers get off to a surprisingly solid start. He would have been at least 500/1 in any book that even offered such odds, but has since closed to a super slim 15/1 – especially considering, you know, he has never played a full season as a regular everyday player in the Major Leagues and he is already 30 years old.
So, is this start Fool’s Gold? A really fun April story that proves to be little more than a mirage? Or is Eric Thames for REAL and still a good a value, even at the shrunken odds that have emerged the last few weeks?
Here’s Four Reason WHY and WHY NOT to bet Eric Thames to win the National League MVP Award this Fall.
#1. The Narrative
Writers LOVE a good story and compelling narrative. In this case, the writers are also the voters. How romantic is the notion of a 30-year old slugger, a forgotten prospect exiled to South Korea (where he is a revered Golden God, by the way An MLB.com story today tells of him having his own Korean Theme Song – much to the delight of his Brewers teammates) only to return to the Major Leagues and set the league on fire? His April was the stuff of legends and extrapolates out to a Barry Bonds in his prime, 66 HR and over 120 RBI’s. Will he regress to the mean? Of course. Does it mean a .305/42HR/104 RBI season isn’t possible? I’m not convinced it isn’t.
This guy has good plate discipline for a slugger and is hitting inside a quality lineup. He has walked 18 times this season against 23 strikeouts, far from the ‘swing from the heels’ slugger some might have expected. His OPS is an outrageous 1.296 as of the end of April and even as the league has begun to fear/adjust to Thames, he is still having success. The Brewers don’t look to have the pitching to make the postseason, but they do have an offense that can keep them relevant and potentially hovering around .500. Voters prefer their MVP candidates to be in the postseason mix, but with a story like this, if Thames can get closer to the 50 HR range and the Brewers are less than awful, he will get some real consideration.
We all love an underdog tale, and Thames, from a sheer wagering perspective, would easily be the biggest unknown in the modern era to capture the MVP Award.
#2. The Lineup
One of the frustrating things for outstanding offensive players in baseball is that the game can literally be taken out of their hands. All a pitcher has to do to avoid pitching to a Barry Bonds in his prime is put him on first with four wide ones. Teams were walking Barry intentionally with the bases loaded in 2001/2002. There are a few things that has to happen for that situation to arise: first, massive amount of horse steroids must be (allegedly) injected. Just kidding. It requires a player to be laser-locked all season and a lineup that provides precious little protection. Obviously, the first part relies on Thames defying some odds, but the second part should be in capable hands. There aren’t many safer places to hit than in the #2 hole with a healthy Ryan Braun batting behind you. Braun, suspension year aside, has been one of the most consistently productive hitters in the National League for close to a decade. He is off to a good April as well, hitting .298/7 HR/18 RBI for the first four weeks. That means lots of good pitches for Thames to hit.
RBI’s could be a weak spot for Thames. The good news for his MVP candidacy is that new-school MVP voters are more impressed with OPS and other statistics more than the ‘antiquated’ RBI column. Many look at it similarly to wins for a starting pitcher; a nice stat, but one whose primary measurement is things beyond the direct control of the individual player. Batting second takes away some of the prime opportunities to drive in runs; there is a reason MVPs tend to bat in the three or four hole. Then there are the struggles of leadoff hitter Jonathon Villar. Much like his division-mate Billy Hamilton, he can do some damage on the base paths but just doesn’t get on base often enough to be the leadoff hitter his team dreams of having at the top of the order.
But RBI’s aside, he has good protection in the order and will likely see pitches as long as Ryan Braun is healthy. That’s a big plus in the MVP chase.
#3. Voter Fatigue
Everyone KNOWS the Cubs are really good and that the Nationals should be excellent as long as they are healthy. Kris Bryant and Bryce Harper have won the last two awards and everyone EXPECTS them to be very good this year and expects their team to win the division. If they were to both be in the .300/35/105 range and their teams “merely” win 90-92 games, will voters be appropriately impressed? And as for other fringe candidates; Freddie Freeman, Paul Goldschmidt, Nolan Arenado/Trevor Story – will their teams be in similar non-playoff positions as the Brewers? Quite possibly, at which point counting statistic begin to matter more, and Thames appears to have the power to outpace them.
#4. Vote Splitting
Bryant has some real vote-splitting potential with Anthony Rizzo and perhaps even another popular big-bat like a Kyle Schwarber. The Nationals Bryce Harper is off to an insanely epic start and has dropped to as low as even money in most sportsbooks for the MVP Award with five months to go. But Ryan Zimmerman and Trea Turner are off to jaw-dropping starts as well, and Daniel Murphy was been in the discussion the last few years. And while Thames also has a prolific teammate off to a good start, do you think the writers want to vote for Ryan Braun?!? The sanctimonious baseball media who lords over the Hall of Fame as if it were entry into sainthood? Not a chance. Of all the legit candidates off to a hot start, Thames has the least inter-squad competition.
There’s four compelling reasons to consider Eric Thames, but there are some good counter-arguments as well. Remember he is still 15/1 for a reason. Here’s the Top Four:
Save Your Money
#1. The Grass is Always Greener (or at least less Red)
Of Eric Thames 11 homeruns, a whopping eight of them came off Cincinnati Reds pitching in just seven games. He homered in his first six against Los Rojos, including two multi-homer games. The Reds have already started a league-high nine different pitchers and have their top three starters in the organization (DeSclafani, Bailey and Finnegan) all on the DL. They have the highest starting pitcher ERA in the National League by nearly a full run. He is going to face a lot better pitching this season, and we have yet to see how well Thames will handle the increased scrutiny.
#2 The League is SMART
Speaking of increased scrutiny, there wasn’t much tape on Thames prior to this season (scouting departments tend to be lax on their Korean film watching). That is no longer the case. In general, when a guy – a virtual unknown – comes out of the blue to wreak havoc on the league, pitchers adjust within a few weeks. Thames has already survived longer than that small window, but it has still only been one month. In the week since torching the Reds for five homeruns, he has gone just 2 of 13 with no big flies. Small sample size, sure – but so is April when you are considering about the first month of regular everyday action for a 30-year old Major Leaguer.
#3 Vegas is Rarely Stunned
Over the last ten years, the highest opening odds for the eventual MVP of the National League was Joey Votto at around 50/1 in 2010. No one else was higher than Buster Posey’s 25/1 in 2012 going back to the beginning of the century. Thames opened at 500/1. Vegas corrected almost immediately after seeing the ball rocket off the slugger’s bat in the opening week, and presumably next to no potential damage was done. But Vegas is rarely, if EVER caught with their pants down (Leicester City’s Premier League being the only crazy one I can think of in major sporting recent history). The sharps know there is a regression to the mean coming, and getting in a 15/1 or even 12/1 in some books on a player on a team that is most likely finishing under .500 is pretty crazy, actually…
#4 Bryce Freaking Harper
Sure, he has a host of teammates doing crazy damage with the bats right now. Zimmerman (.420/11 HR/29 RBI) and Turner are MVP candidates in their own right and Anthony Rendon just had one of the greatest days in MLB history at the plate to turn a mediocre first month into a very respectable one. Add in Daniel Murphy, and the Nats have no shortage of stars. Which could be a very good thing for Bryce Harper and his MVP candidates. His season seemed to sour after an early series with the Cubs last year where they Barry Bonds’d him right out of the series, sending him to first base over and over without ever seeing a pitch to hit. Such treatment is NOT an option this year. Harper is going to get pitches to hit, and this looks like the year where this generational talent entering his prime isn’t going to waste many of them.
There’s a reason Harper is all the way down to even money at The Westgate. The MVP Trophy is Harper’s to lose.
Overall Value Assessment
The Eric Thames story is a really likeable one, and he is easy to root for; a charismatic yet humble slugger with a fascinating backstory. But with the league sure to adjust quickly now that there is some tape on him, a disproportionate amount of his success coming against the Reds who have the highest starting pitching ERA in the National League by a full run, and the unlikelihood of the Brewers contending, Thames seems like quite an MVP longshot. I like longshot wagers when the value is right. If he were hovering in the 40 to 50 to 1 range, I’d take a shot. But at 12/1, he is priced as the fourth most likely winner on the board. That’s way too slim for my liking.
I think Thames is a 2017 All Star, and I’ve seen enough to be convinced he is a legit Major Leaguer, but an MVP? In 2017? I’ll pass.