Adam Eaton Is the Nationals’ Newest Star Player

You might remember that, last year, the Nationals didn’t get who they wanted. They made a strong run at Yoenis Cespedes, but they obviously didn’t win. They made runs at Jason Heyward and Ben Zobrist, too, but they didn’t win there, either. They ultimately wound up with Daniel Murphy, and Murphy worked out fantastic. The season worked out fantastic. The Nationals pulled off a significant pivot.

There’s been more pivoting this week. The Nationals made a run at Chris Sale, and they lost to the Red Sox. They made a run at Andrew McCutchen, and they couldn’t reach an agreement. So the front office quickly turned to Adam Eaton. You could think of Eaton as being the Nationals’ Plan C, and he’s not so sexy a splash as the others. And yet he’s good, incredibly good, arguably even McCutchen-good, and he’s the newest star player on the Nationals’ roster. All the Sale talks made the deal move fast. It must have been an exciting trade to complete.

Why beat around the bush, right? Over the past three years, 235 players have batted at least 1,000 times. If you go by WAR per 600, Adam Eaton ranks in 40th place. That puts him in the top 20% out of players who have already been getting at least semi-regular playing time. I don’t know where your star cutoff is, and the whole thing is subjective and arbitrary, but are there, say, 50 star position players? Eaton fits. Statistically, if not by perception, Eaton fits, and now here’s a reference table. This is not the top of the list. Mike Trout is at the top of the list. But here are the five players on either side of Eaton’s rank.

Last Three Seasons
Player WAR/600
Russell Martin 4.1
Andrew McCutchen 4.0
Alex Gordon 4.0
Brian Dozier 4.0
J.D. Martinez 4.0
Adam Eaton 3.9
Odubel Herrera 3.9
Jose Bautista 3.9
George Springer 3.9
Brandon Belt 3.9
Robinson Cano 3.9
Minimum 1,000 plate appearances.

You can’t not notice that McCutchen’s right there. And what Eaton lacks in McCutchen’s ceiling offensive potential, he makes up for in well-roundedness and age. While McCutchen is 30, Eaton just turned 28 literally yesterday, so you’d think he should hold steady for a while. It’s a stable skillset he has, to go with the absolutely team-friendly contract.

To review that part:

  • 2017: $4 million
  • 2018: $6 million
  • 2019: $8.4 million
  • 2020: $9.5-million club option
  • 2021: $10.5-million club option

Eaton essentially has the Chris Archer contract. Add all those numbers up and you get $38.4 million. That’s five years at the cost of three for Chris Sale. Eaton is not an ace pitcher! These are different entities. But so much of Sale and Archer’s value is tied up in what they should provide at such modest costs. Eaton isn’t as good, realistically, but there’s also less risk since he doesn’t throw for a living. There’s a reason Eaton cost the Nationals around what one of the starters would’ve.

Like many players, Eaton has improved. As he’s gotten older, he’s moved away from his familiar slap-hitting, as shown in the table below:

Adam Eaton’s Offense
Years PA wRC+ GB% HR/FB% Contact%
2012 – 2014 918 108 59% 4% 89%
2015 – 2016 1395 117 52% 11% 84%

It’s not that Eaton has gotten dramatically better at the plate, but he’s hit 28 homers the last two years, after hitting a combined six before that. It doesn’t make him strong, it doesn’t make him someone who’s dinger-first, but Eaton has put more balls in the air, while sacrificing a certain amount of contact. A good number of players have done this, and Eaton is an actual offensive threat.

To go back to that well-roundedness again, over three years, Eaton has ranked in the 74th percentile in wRC+. He’s ranked in the 86th percentile in baserunning, and he’s ranked in the 65th percentile in defense. That’s how he’s propped up his WAR, and that’s how he’s stayed mostly off the radar. I’ll point out that, out of those 235 players over the past three seasons, just 15% of them have been at least average in all three categories. It’s actually a little striking to compare Eaton to new teammate Anthony Rendon. Rendon has somehow remained underrated as a National, even though his three-year WAR is north of 12. Eaton feels like a kind of outfield equivalent. He does at least a little bit of everything, even while the majority of people prefer to focus on Max Scherzer, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper.

If there’s one big question about Eaton’s value and his future, it concerns his defense. Specifically, it concerns his defense in center field, which it appears he’ll be asked to play in Washington. Very soon, Dave is going to publish a post suggesting Eaton should perhaps stay in a corner, but that’s more of a thought experiment, and it sounds like center is the plan. Eaton is greatly experienced in the outfield middle, but his defensive splits are astonishing.

Eaton’s cleared 3,000 innings as a center fielder. His UZR/150 is -8.7, and DRS hasn’t loved him, either. Eaton’s also easily cleared 1,000 innings as a corner outfielder. His UZR/150 is a hair over +20, and DRS supports that. The other week, all the attention was on Yoenis Cespedes, and since 2002, Cespedes shows the biggest difference between center-field performance and corner performance. Eaton’s right behind him. Eaton has played center more, so he’s more familiar with the position, but if we’re going to wonder about Cespedes, we have to wonder about Eaton, too. He’s a clear plus in right field. It’s not so clear he’s a plus in the middle.

We’ve had this conversation before about Heyward. Forever ago, this conversation took place about Ichiro Suzuki. The Cespedes point is relevant, but Cespedes and Eaton have different abilities and different builds. Eaton’s range in right is so very good, and he’s also taken pains to improve his throwing accuracy. Last year the arm turned into a major weapon, and that skill shouldn’t end up abandoned. The arm should play in center. There are just questions, is the point. Eaton’s defense has been at its best at a position he probably isn’t going to play with his new team. That means there’s some amount of risk.

But if that’s it, that’s perfectly manageable. Eaton feels pretty safe, because he isn’t a pitcher. Eaton feels pretty safe because he isn’t a boom-or-bust type, and he feels pretty safe because he’s a 28-year-old who makes consistent contact. He’s signed to a contract that’s good for the Eaton family but outstanding for the Nationals family, and this is about as good as a Plan C could get. How valuable is Eaton actually going to be? We’ll see how much defense he takes with him to center. There are an awful lot of shades of Heyward here, Heyward pre-collapse, Heyward without the janky swing mechanics. If everything goes right for the team, the club just added a 5-win player. More realistically, Eaton should settle somewhere between 3 and 4. You know, like a lot of the better players in the game. Eaton’s still far better than the credit he gets.





Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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Da Bum
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Da Bum

Considering the lack of depth in pitching staff in Washington this seems like a big overpay. Eaton’s defense is the reason or a high WAR and that disappears in center. He’s a league average player if he plays center. That’s a haul just a step below what was paid for Sale. Crazy.

tz
Member

Lesson from all this: when having a fire sale, make sure your first deal is with Dave Dombrowski. That sets the bar nicely for everyone else you’re trying to move.

Brock244
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Brock244

Did DD really overpay though?

tz
Member

Not really, when you consider how much he had to offer in terms of top prospects who wouldn’t help him win now. It’s his willingness to not mess around and aggressively offer a top package that I was referring to (like the Kimbrel deal for example)

victorvran
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victorvran

Please explain how he is a league average player in center.

evo34
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evo34

Slightly below average defensive CF + slightly above average offensive CF. You do the math.

MikeD
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MikeD

We don’t have to do the math. It’s already done. Your consistent use of the word “average” to describe Eaton suggests you don’t understand what average is in MLB, which is surprising if you are a visitor to a site such as Fangraphs.

Eaton has put up wRC+’s of 118, 119 and 115 the prior three seasons. That is above average if you understand wRC+. He has put up fWAR’s of 3.1, 3.7 and 6.0. All are above average, including when he was in CF. His rWAR numbers are even more impressive during that span, coming in at 5.2, 3.9, 6.2. He rates positive as a base runner. His OBP’s of .362, .361 and .362 are quite high, and as John Autin noted, puts him in the 90th percentile of players. That is also significantly above average.

I’m not a fan of this deal, but you’re significantly underrating Eaton by claiming he’s league average. League average players, who can play in both RF and CF, are good base runners, post high OBP’s, above average wRC+’s and 3.5+ WARs are not average.

RonnieDobbs
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RonnieDobbs

Nice use of numbers to prove your point. He is much more above average than anything else – I think calling him average is a reasonable perspective. This is isn’t calculus, despite people’s best efforts.

lock12j
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lock12j

Eaton’s 2016 115 wrc+ was 59th best: Above average.
His .362 obp was 32nd best: good, not 90th percentile.

Daniel Murphy had 2016 WAR of 5.5. Eaton is not a 6 WAR player.

JediHoyer
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JediHoyer

His arm is his most valuable asset defensively, if he throws out a ton of runners again I could see him being above average in center in combo with batting, base running and relative durability puts him at roughly a 5 win player. His arm made him a 6 win player this year.

Teej
Member
Teej

Even if he’s not a plus center fielder, an above-average hitter and baserunner who doesn’t embarrass himself in CF is not a league-average player. That’s a three- or four-win player, for five years, getting paid way below market rate.

jdbolick
Member

Well, he’s almost certainly not going to be a three or four win player in center over each of the next five years. Steamer has him at 2.6 for next season, which appears to be based on a regression in power that wouldn’t be surprising but certainly isn’t a given either. Let’s say that he’s a 3 to 3.5 WAR player in center. That’s still a massive drop from what he was in right, if you believe the defensive metrics, and defense declines earlier than offense. Since Eaton’s range in center is already bad, I simply cannot imagine him playing there for more than another year. That would be acceptable given that Robles or Stevenson will be able to handle center in 2018 and beyond, except that now you have Eaton and Harper both being most valuable in right field. That leads me to the conclusion that this move was made because the Nationals do not believe that they will be re-signing Bryce Harper.

Teej
Member
Teej

Eaton as Harper’s eventual replacement definitely makes sense. I don’t really understand why Steamer is so down on Eaton’s offense as he turns 28 with a steady track record, but fair enough. If he’s a 105 wRC+ guy instead of a 115, then yeah, I could see him being an average player if the CF defense isn’t good. But I’m taking the over on the 2.6 WAR next year, even in center.

jdbolick
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Me too, but it’s going to be downhill from there.

Da Bum
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Da Bum

He was a below average CF all but cancelling out his above average offense. That makes him an average player in center.

Rational Fan
Member

A 3-4 WAR player is not average in any sense of the word.

Teej
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Teej

He was a 3.7-win player the year he was a below-average CF.

victorvran
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victorvran

You do know that this site has plenty of information proving that your statement is wrong, correct?

jianadaren
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jianadaren

No, average hitters who play center are not average centerfielders. The average centerfielder is a below-average hitter.

jianadaren
Member
jianadaren

OTOH, bush of the bird is worth two of the hand