Bryce Harper may have slumped recently, but that doesn’t mean he hasn’t had a fantastic start to the season. He’s two homers shy of the league lead, and both the league leaders above him play half their games in Colorado. He simultaneously owns one of baseball’s best walk rates and one of baseball’s best isolated-slugging percentages. Bryce Harper is the man. Numbers weren’t necessary to make this point. All in all, Harper’s offensive performance to date has been worth nine runs above average.
Adam Eaton‘s been better. Not with the bat — Eaton’s just putting up his typical 117 wRC+ again. No, Eaton’s been better than Harper’s bat with his glove. Using Ultimate Zone Rating, our default defensive metric here on the site, Eaton’s glove has been worth a league-leading 9.6 runs above average. Use Defensive Runs Saved, where Eaton is running laps around the league with 12 runs saved, and it gets even better — Eaton’s defensive performance becomes equivalent to Mike Trout’s season at the plate.
So this funny thing is going on with Adam Eaton in right field — a position he’s playing on an everyday schedule for the first time, having moved over from center field to accommodate Austin Jackson — and, especially considering Eaton’s outfield defense has been something of an enigma in the past, this development is something that’s begging to be explored.
Adam Eaton’s made 10 noteworthy plays this season, which, combined with all the other routine ones, have already been worth 12 Defensive Runs Saved. That’s more than Josh Donaldson had all of last year. Eaton’s number might not (probably won’t?) stay that high all year, but it’s that high right now. Let’s watch Adam Eaton save 12 runs.
Play No. 1
According to Inside Edge (whose fielding data will be used throughout the entirety of this post), this was Eaton’s first opportunity on a non-routine play, occurring back on April 13. It’s a sinking liner in the gap, a tough play, and while Eaton’s route doesn’t look ideal — first breaking back and then correcting course on the fly — he ends up in a fine position to make the sliding catch.
Play No. 2
Good first step. Fine route. Made the catch. A challenging play, but not overly difficult. Inside Edge had this in the 60-90% bucket. A play that should be made more often than not.
Play No. 3
Eaton’s range and error prevention have both been pluses, but the arm is arguably what’s stuck out most. His five kills lead all outfielders, and his three runs saved with the arm are tops among right fielders, and trail only Leonys Martin when you include the rest. What stands out on this play is how close Eaton is to the plate when he fields the ball. Seven of his nine plus plays in the field have come on balls marked “shallow” by Baseball Info Solutions, so it stands to reason that Eaton’s shallow positioning is to thank for being able to make this play. That, and a good throw.
Play No. 4
You didn’t think we were going to get through this without something wacky going on, did you? One of Adam Eaton’s five outfield kills happened because Ian Desmond doesn’t know where first base is, or when he should stay on it.
Play No. 5
The most impressive thing about this play might be the masterful camera work. Good on you, CSN Chicago, for showing us the throw! We get a helpful cut to the runner before Eaton starts his throw, and then get to witness a superb heave in its entirety, knowing that Edwin Encarnacion is chugging toward third base all along. Well done, team. Well done, Adam Eaton, too, because this throw is beautiful. Eaton was one of 15 outfielders who had a throw clocked north of 100 mph by Statcast last year. The arm strength is legit.
Play No. 6
From later in the same game, another 60-90% play. Really more about not screwing up than making a great play. Didn’t screw it up!
Play No. 7
The Blue Jays have probably had enough of Adam Eaton. Now they know what it feels like when opposing teams hit balls toward Kevin Pillar.
Play No. 8
Joey Rickard blew it. Forgot how many outs there were, and Eaton gets another outfield kill gifted to him. This is why defensive outliers are defensive outliers, and why it can take a while for these things to even themselves out.
Play No. 9
Which isn’t to say Adam Eaton isn’t still making great throws! We’ve already seen two, and here’s another one right here! Perhaps a bit of an aggressive send, but Eaton still puts it on the money to get Rickard at the plate. Rickard wanted to get one back. It’ll have to wait another day.
Play No. 10
Was that a dunk?
* * *
So that’s how Adam Eaton’s already saved 12 runs this year. Two plus plays with the glove (Nos. 7 and 10), three impressive kills (Nos. 3, 5, and 9), two additional kills handed to him by poor base-running (Nos. 4 and 8) and three harder-than-routine-but-still-expected-to-be-caught catches (Nos. 1, 2, and 6).
That’s not the entire story, though. Eaton also has 73 putouts without an error, and base-runners have only taken eight extra bases in 24 opportunities. In other words, in addition to his league-leading five kills, base-runners have respected his arm, too, which is another positive for his defensive ratings.
But those two numbers — 73 and 24 — reveal something else about Eaton’s defensive season: he’s had more opportunities than anyone else. His 73 putouts lead all right fielders, with a whopping 10-putout lead over second place. He’s had 48 balls hit to his zone — second-most in baseball. His 24 base-runner advancement opportunities rank sixth. All fielding opportunities are not created equally, and Eaton’s been fortunate in how many he’s received. He deserves credit for making all the plays that have been thrown at him, of course, but his season might look a bit different if White Sox pitchers hadn’t induced so many line drives to right field this season.
Eaton has graded out as something like a -5 run defender per season in center field throughout his career, and when we consider that center field is roughly 10 runs more difficult than right field, we should have expected Eaton to be a plus right fielder. The arm appears legitimate, and if Eaton likes to play shallow, perhaps that’s an endeavor better suited for right field, where a ball over the head doesn’t hurt quite as bad as it would in center. Eaton’s also had the good fortune of getting more action in right field than anyone else, which certainly hasn’t hurt his numbers, because he’s made all the plays. Get a ton of balls hit to you, and don’t screw anything up. That’s how Adam Eaton’s already saved 12 runs.
August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at email@example.com.