Brewers slugger Eric Thames is off to a ridiculous start in his return from three stellar seasons in Korea. Heading into Thursday, Thames is hitting .370/.489/.904 with 11 homers, 19 RBI and 27 runs. He leads the majors in runs, home runs, slugging and OPS.
Given that Thames was a career .250/.296/.431 hitter in the majors before departing for his Korean hiatus, it was all too predictable to see what was coming.
Yep, here come the PED accusations, whether indirect or direct. We can't post an article about Thames without the comments section becoming a cesspool of PED accusations. Any time anyone tweets something about him, multiple "needle" emojis pop up in the replies. A Reds fan account earlier this week used the word "steroids" and suggested that "this stuff doesn't just happen" in a wholly ignorant comment.
They weren't alone. Here's a sampling among the thousands of results turned up by a Twitter search of "Thames steroids."
"Do they test for steroids in Korea? Because I've got a hunch that Eric Thames is juicin (two needle emojis)."
"I know people who used to be MLB scouts in Korea and they believe that Thames used steroids while in Korea. No rules against it in Korea."
[Matt's reply: Liar. KBO uses the same testing system as the Olympics.]
"Folks, I don't know much but I would be willing to bet my life savings that Eric Thames is on steroids"
"If I could ask Eric Thames one question, it'd be 'how do you say steroids in Korean?' Dude is juiced worse than Ryan Braun."
"apparently Thames injured himself while injecting himself with steroids and making a play at the same time"
And on and on it goes.
It's not just the fans or opposition. Thames hasthis season by Major League Baseball. Here's his response:
Am I 100 percent sure that Thames is clean? Of course not, but he's innocent until proven guilty, like all players, for me. You can't prove a player is guilty based upon performance or size, either. Just ask Marlon Byrd -- who was hitting .210/.243/.245 the year he was suspended for testing positive -- or beanpole Dee Gordon.
As for Thames' body type changing, let's take a look. Here's what he looked like in 2012:
Does his upper-body structure look much different in 2017?
Not that I can tell. He has always been built like an NFL strong safety.
Ah, yes, a football reference. The unbelievably physically demanding sport where it seems like only a sliver of the population cares about PEDs. Google "Ryan Braun steroids" vs. "Shawne Merriman steroids" and see the result differences (over 337K in Braun's case to 11.7K in Merriman). You want a more recent in the NFL? That's cool. "Brian Cushing steroids" gets 107K.
Remember when there was controversy during Super Bowl week over Ray Lewis possibly using a banned deer antler spray? That same year (2012), I wondered what the circus around the World Series would have been like if the Tigers' Miguel Cabrera or Giants' Buster Posey had been implicated in similar fashion.
We don't need to see it happen to know the outcome here. The difference would have been exponential. If you disagree, you're lying to yourself.
It's an unbelievable double-standard.
People might want to argue that baseball has had a bigger problem with PEDs and that's possible, but I wonder if it's just because of more players getting caught due to a better system? Experts on the subject generally say that no league's testing is perfect or even great, but that MLB has the best one.
Further, that some players are trying to cheat the system doesn't mean that every time a player works hard to better himself that he deserves to be shamed.
What kind of nonsense is that?
Thames legitimately reworked his game in Korea and it has all been about the plate discipline (). He has always had huge power and has had the same body type. In his previous MLB stint, though, Thames struck out 175 times compared to 38 walks. He swung at bad pitches and got himself out on a regular basis. This year he has struck out 19 times but has walked 16 times. He's not swinging at many bad pitches and hasn't been missing mistakes. Through three years of playing on an everyday basis in Korea -- which wasn't happening in MLB, by the way -- Thames developed as a hitter.
But nah, we get tweets like "check Thames for steroids yesterday."
Let me repeat: In the span of three-plus years, Eric Thames worked on his game and grew as a player, helping pave the way to future success.
That never happens without PEDs? Really? Jayson Werth and Alex Gordon weren't late bloomers who eventually found great success? Jose Bautista didn't finally click and morph into one of the game's great power hitters for over a half-decade? Thames' case is rare because of the overseas trip, but it has happened before.
Cecil Fielder went to Japan a career .243/.308/.472 hitter with 31 home runs in 558 career plate appearances over the course of four seasons. He came back after a one-year hiatus and hit .277/.377/.592 with 51 homers. He would be one of the most feared power hitters for the next seven years.
And what if Thames is just temporarily hot? He has hit home runs off the following pitchers (with eight of his 11 bombs coming against the Reds, who after a hot start on the hill appear to be bad again):
Lackey hasn't been good this season while Martinez has been inconsistent. Chatwood isn't bad, but he leads the majors with seven homers allowed. Anyone else really stand out there?
It's not like Thames is the first player to surprise with a hot April. Chris Shelton hit nine home runs in his first 13 games in 2006. Thames has 11 in 21 games right now (Shelton was hitting .359/.419./846 through 21 games that year, by the way).
So maybe don't lose our minds with PED accusations after just three weeks?
And, hey, if Thames does hit like one of the best in baseball all season, there's still precedent. We have the Bautista example in the bank. Guys come from nowhere for big seasons, sometimes even fluky seasons.
Davey Johnson's career high in home runs before 1973 was 18. He hit .221/.320/.335 in 1972. In '73, Davey hit .270/.370/.546 with 43 homers. He never again hit more than 15 in a season.
Bob Cerv in 1957 hit .272/.312/.420 with a career-high 11 homers. The next year, he hit .305/.371/.592 with 38 homers.
There are dozens examples of stuff like this through baseball history, but you know what none of them have? Three years in another country where the player learned plate discipline, which enriched a skill he already possessed (raw power).
But, hey, by all means, shame him.
After all, I'm sure Jeremy Lin had to deal with accusations that he was cheating in 2012, right? Draymond Green was an also-ran his first two years and then became a star, so it had to be PEDs, right? What about Kyle Lowry's first four years compared to what he is now? That all just came natural and through hard work?
I would be inclined to say all those NBA players just got better by working hard (and it appears Lin was of the "temporarily hot" variety, which it's still possible Thames is). Fortunately for them, they don't play in a league where good players are shamed for improving themselves.
In major-league baseball, if a player comes back "too early" from an injury and stars, he must have had help. If Adrian Peterson returns from a torn ACL to be the best running back in the NFL eight months later, he's a BEAST! Remember when Priest Holmes came from seemingly nowhere to become everyone's favorite fantasy football commodity? Did he just start juicing to get there?
If James Harrison was supposedly too small or slow to succeed in the NFL but morphs into a Hall of Famer, he's somehow just awesome. When the diminutive Jose Altuve works on his power for his first few years in MLB, he has a former player accusing him of PEDs.
Let's not even get into the injuries NHL players play through. I know, I know, it's only because they are the toughest people on the planet and they couldn't possibly be doing anything that is banned by Major League Baseball.
This isn't to say that the other leagues don't test or that they even seem to profile at times. Kawhi Leonard wasin March. Steelers kicker in a game this past December. But after about a day or so of being fodder for sports talk shows, these became merely anecdotes. There is no PED cloud over Leonard or Boswell and for good reason. The PED cloud always seems to linger in the case of MLB players.
I'm also not accusing anyone of doing anything. I'm simply presenting cases where I believe players would have been questioned if their situations happened in baseball, but instead there's nary a word. The leagues might be similar, but fan and media scrutiny when it comes to PEDs in baseball dwarfs other sports.
The double-standards in how the leagues are viewed through this prism is mind-boggling.
We've gone through this junk with Bautista, Jake Arrieta, Thames and countless others. Hell, I've even seen people accuse Mike Trout and Bryce Harper. We'll continue to go through it in baseball. I don't have a solution as to how it can change. People are stubborn and this is ingrained in people when it comes to baseball, unfairly tilted in comparison to other pro sports leagues.
We can try to make things better, though, fellow MLB die-hards. I urge every one of you to join me on the "innocent until proven guilty" train. Shame Starling Marte if you want. He made his bed. But Eric Thames? Enjoy that dude. It looks like he busted his ass to get better and so far that is paying off. That's something that should be celebrated without qualification.