New Mariner Eric Thames added power by getting smaller
Eric Thames, the outfielder the Mariners acquired Monday from Toronto, worked on getting leaner and looser during offseason workouts.
Seattle Times staff reporter
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His python-like forearms are the only remaining outward indicator of the power Eric Thames can generate with a bat.
Mariners fans got to preview that power Wednesday night when the team's newest outfield addition sent a towering fly ball over the center-field fence. But for the longest time, the forearms were only part of a massive, muscular upper body that the all-work, no-play Thames spent hours honing in the gym, earning him the nickname "RoboCop" from teammates.
Then, this past offseason, Thames opted for an approach quite different from what one might expect for a power hitter. Thames and a neighborhood hitting coach he'd trained with since age 12 figured out that to hit for more power: Thames would have to get smaller.
"I don't do much upper-body lifting now," said Thames, 25, acquired from the Toronto Blue Jays on Monday for relief pitcher Steve Delabar. "I stick to a lot of cardio stuff, I do a lot of yoga. The idea was for me to be quicker. And to do that, I had to get smaller."
Thames had been a workout fanatic since his father installed a pullup bar in his bedroom door frame and told his preteen son it would help him hit more home runs. At his muscular peak a few years ago, Thames stood 6 feet 1, 230 pounds, with about 3 percent body fat.
But the bulk wasn't helping his baseball career. Thames wanted to be more flexible, so he shunned weightlifting after the 2010 season and took up yoga workouts.
He hit .262 with 12 homers and an on-base-plus-slugging percentage of .769 in 95 games his rookie season with Toronto last year. But he also seemed to run out of gas in August, attributing it to the lack of weight training.
So, as he does every winter, he went home to San Jose, Calif., to meet with private coach, mentor and friend Joe Bettencourt to map out a new workout strategy. Bettencourt runs the Triple Crown Art of Hitting baseball instructional school in the backyard of his home and had tutored Thames for more than a decade.
The pair decided to combine weightlifting and yoga, but with limits. They'd watched video of his games and discovered that his biceps, shoulders and chest were still so muscular that his elbow was forced into sticking up whenever Thames swung a bat.
That caused his swing to take a longer path to the ball than it had to. As a result, Thames kept missing pitches he should have been hitting.
"We wanted to get his swing shorter," Bettencourt said. "He's always been a free swinger, a lowball hitter. So, we just thought we'd tighten things up a bit."
So, while Thames did weight training again, it was lower-weight, higher-repetition, to avoid adding bulk. He stayed away from his biceps and chest as much as possible and is now about 205 pounds with leaner muscle.
"Even in college, he had the genetics where he's the kind of guy who just looks at weights and he gets big," Bettencourt said. "So, he's got to be careful. What was happening was that his upper body was triggering his swings instead of his hands."
Thames did plenty of jump-rope workouts, trying to increase his endurance and lower-body strength. He figures that will help him avoid leg injuries that slowed his rise through the minors after being drafted in the seventh round in 2008 out of Pepperdine.
Bettencourt spotted Thames in a Pony League tournament when he was 12.
"He took three hacks and misses and I walked up and told his dad, 'He's going to be special,' " Bettencourt said. "I told him, 'Here's my number, have him call me and we'll see if we can figure something out.' "
The next day, Thames was knocking on his door ready to get to work.
"Every day after that, he would run three miles to my house, wanting to work on things," Bettencourt said. "He's just got a work ethic second to none There was no going out, no dating, no partying with him. It was all business."
Bettencourt's home has batting cages out back as well as a complete workout facility with weights and other equipment.
"He taught me the importance of work ethic and that you have to put in blood, sweat and tears to hone your craft," Thames said. "I've always liked to work."
They would start sessions by poring over videotape to monitor progress. Then, they'd get to work, spending about 90 minutes to two hours daily honing his newer, more-compact swing.
"During the season, you have to be smart," Thames said. "You have to be lean and quick. You can't get tight. That's the worst thing you can be, is tight."
Thames beat out Travis Snider for Toronto's left field job in the spring, but says he got away from some of what he'd practiced this winter once the season began. The Blue Jays shipped him to Class AAA Las Vegas after a slump in May.
In AAA, Thames worked with hitting coach Chad Mottola, a former No. 5 overall pick by Cincinnati in the 1992 draft, to get back to his looser, more-compact swing. Thames went on to hit .330 with a .935 OPS at Las Vegas before the trade to Seattle.
That swing was unveiled in his second Mariners at-bat, when he hit a 411-foot home run.
"It was a cool feeling," Thames said.
One that should help him feel even more loose as he adjusts to his new team.
• Mariners pitcher Jason Vargas on Thursday was named AL pitcher of the month after going 5-0 with a 1.64 earned-run average in six July starts.