For most baseball fans, when you hear the name Adam Eaton, the first person that comes to mind is probably the 36-year-old right-hander who played a decade in MLB from 2000 to 2009. That Adam Eaton, a Washington native, had himself a respectable career. A former first-rounder, he was once traded in a deal for Adrian Gonzalez, and he has a World Series ring as a member of the 2008 Phillies.
Here in 2014, the name Adam Eaton is again relevant in Major League Baseball, though not for a retired 6’2″ right-hander. Instead, it’s a 5’8″ outfielder also named Adam Eaton who is making fans do double takes when they read their lineup cards. The younger Eaton, an Ohio native with no relation to the former big leaguer of the same name, has become a fixture atop the lineup for the Chicago White Sox.
The 25-year-old Eaton already has something else in common with the 36-year-old Eaton besides their shared name. The younger Eaton was also traded for an All-Star, as he was acquired by the White Sox from the Arizona Diamondbacks this past winter in a three-team deal that sent Mark Trumbo to Arizona. Strangely enough, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers, who traded the younger Eaton in December, also traded the elder Eaton in 2006 when he was the GM of the San Diego Padres.
When the younger Eaton was in the minor leagues, he once accidentally got royalty checks intended for the elder Eaton. A former 19th-round pick, this Eaton is used to the confusion, and used to having his play do the talking. He was the Pacific Coast League MVP in 2012, hitting .381/.456/.539 in 562 plate appearances. Now, a full-time MLB starter for the first time, he looks like he’s found a home in Chicago.
Through the first 18 games of his White Sox career, Eaton has settled in nicely. He had gotten off to a blazing start over the first few two weeks of the season, and while he’s cooled off a tad now, (.282/.373/.394 in 83 plate appearances) there’s certainly a lot to like about the “other” Adam Eaton.
Eaton’s not stinging the ball, as his batted ball profile shows a mere 10 percent line drive rate and a remarkably high 71 percent ground ball rate. Among players with at least 70 plate appearances in 2014, only Milwaukee’s Jean Segura has a higher rate of ground balls at 75 percent.
Those batted ball numbers will almost certainly regress over the course of the season, as no player in MLB who got at least 100 plate appearances finished with a ground ball rate in the 70-percent range in 2013. Needless to say, Eaton would love to turn more of those grounders into line drives.
However, Eaton’s speedy enough to make those grounders count, as he’s reached safely on 12 of the 42 grounders he’s hit so far, a .286 batting average. That includes a 4-for-9 (.444) start on grounders he’s hit to the left side of the diamond so far this season. Conversely, he’s had a 1-for-11 start on fly balls.
That ground ball luck might not be particularly sustainable, but it’s only a small part of Eaton’s game. He’s shown pretty good plate discipline over his first 106 MLB games, and that’s a good foundation to have. Plate discipline is a more sustainable skill than success on ground balls, as batters simply cannot consistently control whether their batted balls find gloves, if they can control it at all.
Eaton’s laid off bad pitches, swinging at a league average 29 percent of pitches outside the strike zone so far this season, while making contact on a much better than average 89 percent of the time when he does swing the bat compared to the league average of 79 percent. In fact, Eaton’s contact skills are a real strength. When he’s swung at pitches outside the strike zone, he’s made contact 74 percent of the time this season (and 76 percent for his career) compared to a league average of 64 percent in 2014. Furthermore, he’s only swung and missed at four percent of all pitches he’s seen this year, well below the league average rate of nine percent.
But where he really excels is making contact on pitches in the strike zone. Eaton’s made contact on 96 percent of the pitches he’s swung at in the strike zone (Z-Contact%) in his career, including 97 percent so far in 2014, compared to the league average of 86 percent. Among players with at least 70 plate appearances this season through Apr. 22, Eaton’s Z-Contact% is fifth-best in all of baseball, behind only the Tigers’ Ian Kinsler, the Mets’ Daniel Murphy, former Diamondbacks teammate Martin Prado, and current White Sox teammate Alexei Ramirez.
By the time his first full season is completed, Adam Eaton won’t be putting up a .900 OPS out of the leadoff spot like he did over his first 13 games with Chicago. He probably won’t be an All-Star or an MVP candidate. But with a good approach at the plate, solid defense in center field, and a relentless full-speed-ahead attitude, the “other” Adam Eaton is a player to keep an eye on in 2014 and beyond.