Lately, we’ve looked at some players that appear to have made some changes to their approaches at the plate and how that has helped them reach the next level. Both Christian Yelich and Jose Altuve have made adjustments that have catapulted them to the top of the leaderboards this year. Today, we’re going to look at another player having a different kind of breakout: Adam Eaton, who is currently tied for 1st place for bWAR with Altuve, just ahead ahead of Mike Trout and Manny Machado.
At age 21, Eaton was drafted by the Diamondbacks in the 19th round in 2010 and tore it up in the minor leagues and hit over .300 at each level to earn his first call-up in 2012. Over 22 games, he hit .259/.382/.412, good for 0.8 bWAR/0.7 fWAR. As always, small sample size caveats apply, but extrapolated over a whole season, that’s a 5 to 6 WAR season, so you would think that’s the kind of young player you would either practice patience with or at least factor into a mammoth trade.
In 2013, after suffering a UCL injury during spring training, Eaton was out until July and only played in 66 games. His .252/.324/.360 line and below-average defense in centerfield that year pushed him into negative WAR territory, so the Diamondbacks decided they would rather have Mark Trumbo and shipped him off to the White Sox as part of a three-way trade also involving the Angels. We’ll refrain from turning this article into a diatribe on Kevin Towers’ tenure as GM in Arizona and just say that the trade looked questionable at the time and it doesn’t look any better now. But, hey, it worked out for Chicago, right?
In his first season with the White Sox in 2014, Eaton struggled with various injuries and only made it to the 123 game mark. However, in the appearances he had, he hit .300/.362/.401, which was good enough for 5.2 bWAR and 3.0 fWAR, a fairly sizable difference. In 2015, he had his healthiest season to date and hit .287/.361/.431 over 153 games, earning 3.9 bWAR and 3.6 fWAR. Those numbers are much closer, but what’s the story with the difference between the difference in his bWAR and fWAR in 2014 and does it tell us anything about his current season?
The reason that Eaton’s bWAR and fWAR are so different is that Eaton gets very different grades on his defense from DRS and UZR when he’s playing in centerfield. Eaton is fast, one of the reasons that he’s been able to maintain a career .336 BABIP across the minor and major leagues and a .359 BABIP in 2014 and .345 BABIP in 2015. It’s also one of his strengths on defense, but the defensive metrics were still split on his ability up the middle in the outfield. Now that the Sox have moved him to right field, though, all’s right with the world.
If you look at the fielding leaderboards, you’ll see that Eaton leads all outfielders in putouts (122) and assists (7) and leads all of MLB in Total Zone Runs (14). He leads MLB in UZR (11.3), as well. He has yet to commit an error and, if you look at his Inside Edge Fielding stats, you can see why. According to IEF, he’s not making impossible or remote plays, but once you get past remote plays (where he has made 66.7% of the plays), he’s at 100% in every category. If you hit a ball to right field against the White Sox, it better be very, very carefully placed.
To be fair to Eaton, he’s not slumping at the plate either, hitting .295/.378/.426 and leading the league in triples with 4 with an OPS+ of 128. He’s striking out almost half as much as he did last year but walking about the same amount. He’s making the least amount of soft contact since his initial breakout in 2012. Eaton’s been very good at the plate, but he has been spectacular on defense since he moved to right field full-time, which has pushed him up into the top tier of valuable players.
The White Sox should be commended for their moves to shore up their defense this season. They were the worst fielding team in 2015, and it wasn’t particularly close, but they’re now in the middle of the pack in 2016. They’ve cooled off from their strong start since we last checked in on them, and the Indians, Royals and Tigers are all nipping at their heels, at 1.5, 2.0 and 3.0 games back respectively. That being said, it probably wouldn’t be this close if their defense was as bad as it was last year, thanks to smart moves like moving Eaton to right field where he’s one of the most valuable players in the game.