Adam Eaton’s Defensive Numbers Keep Getting Even Crazier

In 2017, I am probably more interested in Adam Eaton than I am any other player in baseball. As the centerpiece of a controversial blockbuster, coming off a monster season where a lot of his value was tied a huge swing in his defensive value, Eaton was always going to be a fascinating experiment for paying a perceived premium price for outfield defense. But it gets even more interesting, because the Nationals are switching him from right field back to center field, so we throw a position switch in the mix as well, and get another data point on whether his weird splits between RF and CF actually mean anything.

So when the MLBAM guys released their outfield catch probability leaderboard last weekend, Eaton was naturally one of the first players to examine. And when Jeff took an early look at the published 2015-2016 data, he found that Eaton ranked seventh in Catch+, or whatever we might want to call plays made above the averages of the buckets they had opportunities in. And when he looked at the catch data relative to the range portions of UZR and DRS, he actually found that the Statcast data showed that Eaton had the largest positive difference, suggesting that, by hang time and distance traveled variables, Eaton may have been even better defensively than the public defensive metrics thought.

So yeah, Eaton is really interesting. But the more I dig into Eaton’s defensive data, the more remarkable it all gets.

If you use the catch probability leaderboard and sort by “one star” opportunities, you’ll find Eaton at the top of the list, with 65 chances to catch a ball with an estimated catch probability of between 91-95%. If you sort by “two star” opportunities (76-90%), he’s tied for third, with 30 such chances. He’s not anywhere near the top on “three star” plays, but then, on “four star” plays (26-50%), he’s #1 again, with 35 opportunities. And on the hardest “five star” plays, the ones with a catch probability below 25%, he’s ninth, with 37 such chances to make a spectacular catch.

Of the five catch probability bins, Eaton is first in opportunities in two of them and third in another, with a top-ten also thrown in just for fun. So, if you simply add up all the binned plays on the leaderboard, Eaton had far more chances to add defensive value than any other outfielder last year, with 186 Statcast-tracked opportunities with a catch probability of 95% or less. That’s 15 more opportunities than the next highest guy, Odubel Herrera, and when you compare Eaton’s opportunities to players with a similarly high number of innings (1,362), he still comes out way ahead; Jackie Bradley Jr had 156 tracked opportunities in 1,375 innings, for reference.

In thinking through how Eaton would end up with so many chances, there seemed to be two obvious possible explanations:

1. He happened to play on a team with a bad pitching staff who gave up a lot of hard-hit fly balls.

2. He was exceptionally unusual at positioning, so that a larger percentage of his overall opportunities were graded out at higher difficulty levels.

The first one is the easier of the two things to check, so let’s start there. To begin with, we can just look at the distribution of balls in play for each team last year, thanks to the leaderboards here on FanGraphs. We don’t really care about the difference between an FB and a LD, since both could be chances for Eaton to make a play, but we do want to get rid of infield flies, which are not plays in which he would be involved, so I simply totaled up every team’s FB+LD-IFFB in order to see if the White Sox just gave him an inordinate amount of balls to work with.

The answer? Not really. With 2,282 outfield air balls, the White Sox did rank fifth highest in MLB in that category, but the league average for a team in 2016 was 2,193 outfield air balls, so they only allowed 89 more total outfield catch opportunities than average, and clearly not all of those were hit to right field. If just total team outfield air ball rates were a huge factor, we’d expect to see some Twins with a lot of chances here, since they led the league with 2,447 balls hit to their outfielders in the air. But we don’t really see that, as Max Kepler (the OF who played the most for MIN last year) grades out fairly run of the mill in terms of opportunities per inning played.

But maybe the White Sox pitchers just gave up harder-than-average airball contact, thus shifting more of Eaton’s plays to the <95% buckets? Nope, that’s not true either. Baseball Savant has the White Sox pitching staff allowing a 92.7 mph average exit velocity on air balls to the outfield, the sixth-lowest total of any pitching staff last year. And if we just look at balls hit to the OF over 100 mph, they allowed a below-average number of crushed balls to the outfield as well.

So it doesn’t seem to be a White Sox thing. They allowed more balls in the air than average, but not more well-struck balls than average, so we may actually suspect that their outfielders distribution of opportunities would skew more towards the higher catch probabilities. Since the catch probability leaderboard doesn’t show total chances, I asked Mike Petriello where Eaton ranked in terms of “zero star” plays, the ones with >95% catch probability. Perhaps we shouldn’t be surprised that Eaton ranks first overall here either, with 20 more such plays than Mike Trout and 24 more than Jackie Bradley Jr.

In other words, Eaton had the most opportunities to make both routine and non-routine catches last year. For whatever reason, the ball seemingly just found him far more often than it found any other outfielder in 2016.

That leads into the positioning question. Perhaps the White Sox started Eaton in places where he’d be more likely to track down balls than other right fielders, and he was stealing balls that might otherwise go to the team’s center fielders. After all, both Austin Jackson and J.B. Schuck posted lousy UZR/DRS numbers last year in their time in CF for the White Sox, and if Eaton was getting lined up to catch balls that they might have otherwise gotten themselves, he could have been effectively stealing their chances to rank well by our defensive numbers.

Thankfully, Tom Tango is also obsessed with Adam Eaton, and used him as an example of a number of Statcast ideas he was working last year. And last July, he wrote about Eaton’s positioning over at his blog. The pictures are worth looking at, so you should follow the link, but I’ll quote his summary here.

On the left, you will see where MLB RF position themselves. That top image is the angle relative to home plate. Zero is up the middle (home to 2B bag to the wall). +45 degrees is the RF foul line. We can see therefore that RF position themselves at around 25-28 degrees. The bottom image is distance to home plate, and we can see MLB RF are around 285 to 300 feet from home plate. Not shown here is the split between v LHH and v RHH. I’ll talk about that in the future, as there’s something interesting there, in addition to the CF.

Adam Eaton matches the mode of the league, at 26-27 degrees, and rarely ventures outside that zone. How does that compare to other outfielders? I don’t know yet! But doing this for all RF is one of the next items on the agenda, not to mention seeing differences by park. Distance to home plate shows that Eaton definitely plays a bit shallower, at 275-290 feet, about 10 feet shallower than the league RF. Given the results that Daren tweeted the other day (see image below), those ten feet might be what he needs. Still too early for conclusions, but we’ll get there.

If Eaton was shading towards center field in order to catch more balls that Jackson/Schuck were theoretically responsible for, well, it didn’t show up in the data before the middle of July. The only unique positioning thing about Eaton is that he plays shallower than most RFs, which you wouldn’t think would allow him to steal balls hit to other OFs; the extra balls he’d be catching would be ones that would probably drop otherwise, at the expense of maybe having more balls hit over his head.

So the White Sox didn’t really give up way more outfield opportunities than most teams, they didn’t give up harder contact to the OF than most teams, and Eaton didn’t shade towards center field in order to steal balls from his teammates. No one else playing behind that pitching staff seems to have benefited from some undiagnosed team-wide bias towards more opportunities. But yet, Eaton led the league in both easy and non-routine chances, and because of that, he converted a center fielder’s level of putouts while playing mostly right field.

As always, there is still far more we don’t know about this topic than that we do know. But in the end, perhaps this is just one of those weird things that happens. In 2016, maybe the ball just got hit to Adam Eaton a lot for no reason whatsoever. Maybe this was just the year where the good defensive outfielder got a crazy number of chances, and that combination turned into one of the best defensive seasons we’ve seen from a corner outfielder.

Moving back to center field, he should get more opportunities in 2017 just due to the nature of the position. If he again gets more balls to try and catch than anyone else, then we’ll have a real mystery on our hands.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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7 years ago

As a Sox fan I am lucky to have the “eye-test” for Eaton, and obviously it confirms that Eaton was really good, and the ball went to him all the time. In Center the previous years, from what I have seen, his mistakes in the outfield seemed somewhat mental, not really rooted in ability. SOOO, I think he’ll be fine in the shift back to center, and this season provided the Nationals with the data to show how good Eaton could be, if given the opportunities.

Rational Fanmember
7 years ago
Reply to  Mattabattacola

Not sure I agree on the mental part in center – Eaton’s jumps were poor, and he continually let the ball beat him in center. His angles were poor and rounded in center, and he was consistently shallow on his routes.

Being someone who played CF and RF for 20 years of my life, I can say that I hated right field and loved center and the reads off the bat are very different. The tailing of the ball in right is something I didn’t like, and the angle the ball popped off the bat compared to center made early jumps more difficult for me. It’s very possible that the direct angle, and the depth perception aspects of center could be a weakness of Eaton while he gets great reads off the bat in right. Going back on a ball in right is more easily seen – imo – and I thought the ball was more likely to knuckle on you in center than right.

I don’t think Eaton being a below average CF’er was a fluke or something that was corrected last year. I think it’s possible that’s just who he is out there, and the Nats would be better off playing a position he’s proven to be very very good at instead of moving him back and seeing what he’s learned.