How Good of a Defender is Adam Eaton?

Even before all this recent activity, it was pretty apparent the White Sox had the makings of a good core. In fact, the existence of the core is probably in large part what drove all this recent activity. There’s an opportunity to be seized, and the White Sox had plenty of financial flexibility to play with. Clearly, Jose Abreu is a star-level player. Clearly, Chris Sale is a star-level player. Clearly, Jose Quintana is a borderline star-level player. And then there’s Adam Eaton. Eaton, unquestionably, is a part of the core. But how valuable he is depends on where you’re looking.

Looking at Baseball-Reference, last year Eaton was baseball’s fourth-most valuable center fielder, with a WAR over 5. However, looking at FanGraphs, he wound up more middle-of-the-pack, with a WAR under 3. There are a few different reasons for the disagreement, but mostly this is about defense. Here at FanGraphs, we make use of UZR. Over at Baseball-Reference, they make use of DRS. Most of the time, the metrics get along, but it’s both interesting and frustrating when they don’t, and with regard to Adam Eaton, they most certainly do not get along.

And this is important — Eaton’s offensive ceiling is limited by the absence of power, so defense is what will or won’t make him a star. According to DRS, last year Eaton was 12 runs better than average in center field. Yet, according to UZR, last year Eaton was three runs worse than average in center field. This took place in a little over 1,000 innings.

Let’s look only at defenders last season with at least 900 innings. On a per-1000 basis, no one had a bigger DRS/UZR gap than Eaton did, at roughly 15 runs. No one had a bigger difference in the same direction, and no one had a bigger difference in the opposite direction. So you could say there was no greater source of disagreement than Adam Eaton, at least as far as defensive metrics are concerned. That seems like the sort of thing that ought to be at least quickly investigated.

Now, I don’t care to try to find out how good Eaton was in 2014. What I want to come up with is a sort of defensive projection, or an evaluation of Eaton’s true talent. Talking about his 2014 is part of that, but it’s not the whole picture. Post-2014, how good a defender can we say that Adam Eaton is in center field? We’ve got to look at what evidence we have.

By DRS, Eaton just ranked fifth out of 21 regular or semi-regular center fielders. This functions as a data point.

By UZR, Eaton just ranked 12th out of 21 regular or semi-regular center fielders. This functions as another data point. We already went over this; this is the whole reason this post exists.

What about the earlier years of Eaton’s big-league career, though? The samples are more limited, but we do have more than 700 innings. Those innings were split between center field and the corners. DRS put Eaton at exactly 0. UZR actually put him at -10, and remember, these are innings in center and left, so it’s not a pure-center performance. Eaton’s brief earlier track record doesn’t support the idea that he’s an awesome defender.

Is there anything to be found at Baseball Prospectus? According to their Fielding Runs Above Average, Eaton was indeed mediocre in 2012 and 2013, and then he was most recently slightly above-average. Very slightly. These numbers side more with UZR than with DRS.

We can try to make some use of Inside Edge data. This time I’m isolating 2014 — the Inside Edge processes have changed each year, and I don’t want to blend inconsistencies. Eaton just made 312 putouts. Based on the batted balls he saw, as evaluated by Inside Edge, he would’ve been expected to make about 310 putouts. So that’s average, or very slightly better.

Personally, I always love taking a glance at the Fan Scouting Report. I know it’s not great science, but I’m a sucker for crowdsourcing, and I think the FSR is decently selective for people who genuinely give a damn and aren’t looking to make things chaotic. Last year, Eaton drew a 64 overall rating. That’s comparable to the previous year’s 59 overall rating. His greatest strength is his speed. The average center fielder last year had a 60 overall rating. Jacoby Ellsbury and Andrew McCutchen wound up at 62. Leonys Martin wound up at 65, and I should note his positive defensive ratings are almost entirely because of his arm.

Eaton has a strong defensive reputation, and he’s had one for a while. His style of play is sufficiently aggressive that it can get him into trouble, but he’ll run through walls if there are baseballs over there, and when you just read how people write about Eaton, or when you hear how people talk about Eaton, they love his intensity, and how much ground he covers. Definitely, the consensus is that Eaton is more of a plus than a minus. No one ever talks about Adam Eaton as a defensive minus. Granted, in order to play center field, you have to be damn athletic, or you have to be not very good and a member of last season’s Dodgers. Most center fielders are really good fielders. Visually it can be challenging to tell them apart.

How does Eaton do with the eye test? I can’t possibly provide for you a representative sample of plays, so here are three real good plays, accompanied by three plays that were less good. This is evidence that Eaton is talented, and also doesn’t not make mistakes.

Good play no. 1:


Good play no. 2:


Good play no. 3:


Worse play no. 1:


Worse play no. 2:


Worse play no. 3:


I don’t know how much that accomplished, but it felt nice to make .gifs. Feels like it’s been a while since .gifs.

Eaton’s 26 years old. Pretty much just turned that number. He’s seriously fast, and he’s never really talked about as a liability. Last year was his first full year in the majors, and unlike in 2013, the White Sox didn’t have Eaton bounce between positions. Nearly all the evidence from last year suggests that Eaton was at least a little better than average. So that informs our opinion of him going forward. Working against it a little is UZR, plus the fact that Eaton wasn’t a statistically strong defender in 2012 – 2013. But I think if I had to peg Eaton’s talent, that is his talent right now over a full season in center, I’d call him a small number of runs better than average. Or, I think he’s worse than last year’s DRS, but better than last year’s UZR. So this would make my opinion a few runs higher than Eaton’s 2015 Steamer projection. It’s such a small deal, ultimately, but then you’re talking about a WAR maybe rounding down to 2, versus a WAR maybe rounding up to 3. So there’s a small psychological effect, and I’m fairly certain White Sox fans would disagree with the assertion that Adam Eaton is a below-average defensive center fielder.

No matter what, this is a core piece. Eaton’s a center fielder with a .350 OBP. Those aren’t easy to come by. And when they add a few runs with the glove? That’s better than doing the opposite. Chicago’s not about to move Eaton to a corner, nor would there be any reason to do so.

Finally, just because I like polls, I’ve elected to attach a poll. Here, you can chime in with your own opinion, and while I know the Fan Scouting Report already exists, this is a little more direct, and I’m curious to see how the results are distributed. You know what I think of Adam Eaton. What do you think of Adam Eaton?

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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9 years ago

Worse play number was a really tough play, he mis-judged #2 and 3. Having played CF for years, you have to account for windy days, slick OF grass, the ball coming off the bat with spin etc. By the eyeball test, he looks like a plus defensive CF.

9 years ago
Reply to  Hurtlocker

Number one, sorry

Captain Tenneal
9 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Does Inside Edge know that the play brought him right to the wall, or does it just know that it was a fly ball hit x miles per hour to a spot 400 feet away? Basically, is it accounting for ballpark and the fact that he pretty much ran out of room?

9 years ago
Reply to  Jeff Sullivan

Inside Edge has no credibility for me. Whenever Jackie Bradley Jr. made a ridiculously difficult play this year I checked his Inside Edge stats a day or two later to see they had credited him with another “even” play.