In late April, Chicago White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton was under a great deal of heat. White Sox Twitter was calling for his job, and even into late May there were continued pleas for reserve J.B. Shuck to take over the starting duties.
I can’t help but think Adam Eaton hasn’t really gotten a fair shake in Chicago. Take last season for instance. Eaton slashed .300/.362/.401 with 26 doubles and a league leading ten triples, yet he was knocked by pundits for not allowing his speed to play up on the base paths, his poor power output, and for his injury-inducing radical play.
Then came a 5-year, $23.5 million deal for the 5’8″ outfielder over the offseason that from my estimation was widely under appreciated. Hahn was locking up a potential all-star for five seasons, plus two years of team control on the cheap, yet when Eaton hit .189/.240/.256 over his first 22 games , a portion of the South Side faithful was more than ready to label the deal a bust.
There were even rumblings that Eaton was an apathetic player that turned it down a few gears after taking it to the bank. Wait, isn’t this the same players fans were chastising for playing too hard just a year prior?
Local writers were even jumping in on the bandwagon. David Just of the Chicago Sun Times, wrote an article in late June titled “Adam Eaton’s effort epitomizes White Sox season”. He described a play where Eaton didn’t run the ball out saying:
"“The cameras caught manager Robin Ventura having words with Eaton in the dugout after the play, and Ventura certainly looked annoyed.And he should be. Eaton’s mistake is the sort little leaguers are taught not to make when they are 6 and hitting off a tee.”"
I remember this play. Adam Eaton scalded a ball that appeared to be caught by a Minnesota Twins infielder, and halted on his way to first. If you watch the footage closely, right when he realizes it had actually hit the ground, he starts sprinting to the bag. He only pulls up again when he notices he’s going to be out by a large margin. The first baseman wound up fumbling the ball, and Eaton was still out, yet the premise was that Eaton simply didn’t care.
By the trade deadline, the chorus of calls for J.B. Shuck had been drowned out by Eaton’s gappers and blistering on base skills.
Put yourself in the mind of a ballplayer. You’re struggling and you scorch a line drive that you think is caught. Then your mistake means you botched an opportunity. You have a right to feel a little listless in that moment, and despite all this he still nearly beat the play.
Eaton was brought in to embody the antithesis of the 2013 ball club, and if he epitomizes anything it is the life this team occasionally shows.
Nonetheless, a similar firestorm ensued when Eaton made a couple defensive miscues in a late April game. Well on May 1st, Adam Eaton shaved off his beard.
According to CBS’s David Brown, Eaton said of the change:
"“‘That guy sucks,’ Eaton said. ‘I’ve got to get rid of him.’”"
He got rid of him, alright. Even though Eaton’s hustle continued to be strangely questioned throughout the season, he chose to let the numbers do the talking.
He turned a solid May into an even better June (.814 OPS). He followed that up with a .957 OPS in July. By the trade deadline, the chorus of calls for J.B. Shuck had been drowned out by Eaton’s gappers and blistering on base skills.
There were still fan questions to be quelled.
“Where’s the power though?”
14 home runs, and the unbelievable designation of 2nd on the team’s home run list is how Eaton answered that one. Eaton finally took advantage of his plus contact skills by putting a little more loft into his swing, which reduced his ground ball rate. As a result, he actually showed signs of power to all fields and the balls that left the park weren’t all “cheapies” either, with the exit velocity on some of them cracking 100 MPH.
“Where are the stolen bases?”
Eaton responded by stealing 13 bases in the second half, giving him 18 on the year. His stolen base percentage improved to 72% in the 2nd half, which means he can add value in this arena. If there’s anything Eaton can work on, it’s improving his base stealing technique. The raw speed for 30 stolen bases is there. It is just a matter of refining his approach. If he can maintain about a 75% stolen base clip next season, then he’s a good bet to swipe 30 bags in 40 tries. That would be a welcomed sight for White Sox fans.
According to CSN’s Dan Hayes, the buzzword for Eaton in 2015 has been balance.
"“Whereas he played in 2014 like his hair was on fire, running into outfield walls at full speed and trying to beat out routine ground balls as if his life depended on it, Eaton has taken a more measured approach this season.”"
Dialing it back was a directive from management and Eaton’s new measured approach has seen him be aggressive but not to the point that it has inhibited him from staying on the field. Eaton played in 153 games this season as opposed to just 123 in ’14.
That’s surprising because Eaton apparently played through a shoulder injury for the better part of the year and it was substantial enough that it required offseason surgery. That just makes the numbers he put up all the more impressive.
According to Hayes, Eaton credits his success to adopting a conditioning program, outlined by White Sox trainer Allen Thomas, that emphasizes power and endurance. No wonder Eaton found a bit more of a power stroke in ’15.
Staying healthy saw Eaton hit to a tune of a .287/.361/.431 line with 51 extra-base hits over the course of the 2015 season. I don’t think anyone deemed that as a feasible output when Eaton was hitting below the Mendoza line in late April.
Apr 9, 2015; Kansas City, MO, USA; Chicago White Sox center fielder Adam Eaton (1) makes a diving catch to end the fifth inning against the Kansas City Royals at Kauffman Stadium. Mandatory Credit: Peter G. Aiken-USA TODAY Sports
His second half slash line of .335/.418/.486 (.904 OPS) is indicative of Eaton’s ceiling and if the 5’8″ outfielder can jump high enough in 2016, he might just be able to reach it.
Speaking of jumping high, we all know Adam Eaton has hops so why is his outfield defense so utterly bad. Well guess what, it isn’t. You know what’s worse; FanGraph’s UZR and DRS statistics.
I don’t know who Adam Eaton spurned at FanGraphs, but those metrics despise him.
For context, Adam Eaton was a Gold-Glove finalist last season yet his Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) on FanGraphs was -3.3 for 2014, which would make him solidly below average. FanGraphs gave Eaton a Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) mark of 12 last season. This year, – 14. So he’s gone from saving 12 runs to giving away 14 in just one year? Okay.
Such a bad DRS contributes to Eaton’s UZR being a whopping – 10.2 for 2015, which would classify him as an extremely poor defender, per FanGraphs.
Just so you know, FanGraphs rates Mike Trout as a below average defender as well. Mike Trout.
When you look at more conventional stats, like errors, put outs, and fielding percentage, Eaton hasn’t been that far off from last year’s performance. Again, a year he was a Gold-Glove finalist.
He still passes the eye test. The routes may be iffy when line drives are hit directly at him, but his speed plays up in the outfield such that he can make up for poor initial reads. Covering a lot of ground, (he made 77 out of zone plays last year, which FanGraphs does a better job at measuring) also enables him to make his share of highlight reel plays.
If anyone needs a better defense, it’s FanGraphs. That is, if Adam Eaton takes them to court for defamation.
The whole point is that whether criticism is coming from fans or FanGraphs, Adam Eaton’s not afraid to silence it. Eaton took his stature from lame duck status in April to a designation of a potent lead off bat by the end of 2015.
An All-Star, Gold-Glove caliber 2016 may cause critics to never speak again.