Going Deep: Have We Forgotten Adam Eaton?

Two years ago this past Monday, the Nationals pushed all their chips into the pot by trading top pitching prospects Lucas Giolito and Reynaldo Lopez for Adam Eaton  a move that was widely praised as giving the Nats a piece they were missing: an everyday center fielder.

Eaton’s early returns were very positive in 2017, slashing .297/.393/.462 through his first 23 games before tragically tearing his ACL and ending his 2017 season before the calendar could flip to May. Unfortunately, 2018 was filled with much of the same, as Eaton missed time with an ankle injury and was sidelined until June. For most, 2018 was considered a lost season, and now, we enter the 2019 season having clearly soured on the 30-year-old who sits at an NFBC ADP of 202 (No. 55 OF) and FantasyPros ADP of 207 (No. 50 OF). The reason Eaton is going so low is very clear: Just look at the past two seasons. He’s played a total of just 118 games with a total of seven home runs. Typically, with those players, we expect elite stolen bases, but Eaton has returned just 12 over that span.

It must also be mentioned that there is a chance for Eaton to platoon in 2019: Juan Soto is locked into a lineup spot every day, but Eaton and Victor Robles must compete with Michael Taylor, who has recently implemented a swing change. (Check out this awesome piece on Michael Taylor from the Nationals’ subreddit.) However, it appears that Taylor is competing more with Robles than Eaton. That said, if Robles heats up, the Nats are going to find a way to keep hot hitters in the lineup so there is a risk for playing time for Eaton.

So why am I writing this article? Because there is a LOT of value to be had in a healthy Adam Eaton. Why can we assume his health? Because he finished 2018 healthy and has had a whole offseason to recover. I’m willing to chalk up 2017 to a freak injury and 2018 to complications of that initial injury that he is completely past. So now, let’s get into all the reasons you should be excited about Eaton in 2019 and not wait until near pick 200 to pounce on him.

 

Two Categories of Elite Production

 

For much of this article, I’m going to use a prorated version of Eaton that is a combination of 2017 and 2018 stats scaled out to 155 games. Why 155? Because that’s the average of his 2015 and 2016 seasons, which were unencumbered by injury. You can call it optimistic if you want, but I call it a prediction.

Let’s play the player comp game  it’s everyone’s favorite game come draft season. All ADP is from FantasyPros Consensus rankings.

 

2018 Stats ADP^ AVG xAVG OBP xOBP SLG xSLG HRs SBs xOBA
Player A 67 .308 .311 .395 .398 .417 .404 10 30 .357
Player B 66 .304 .297 .341 .345 .415 .408 10 20 .321
Adam Eaton 2o7 .301 .296 .394 .390 .411 .398 9* 16* .350

*HRs and SBs are from 2017-18 scaled Eaton

 

Rather than hide the ball with this comp, I’ll just tell you flat out which one is Eaton, whereas the other ones are going about 140 picks higher. On an initial glance, both of these players put up excellent AVG and OBP numbers that appear to be supported by Statcast numbers. Just how good are those AVG and OBP numbers for Eaton? The AVG, if it qualified, would’ve been 15th-best in baseball, whereas the OBP would’ve tied for eighth-best with Alex Bregman.

A closer look at this comparison indicates a glaring difference  stolen bases. But what if I told you that Player A was three years older than Eaton? Would you have some concern about a 33-year-old’s ability to maintain those stolen base numbers? Granted, there is also concern for a 30-year-old with lower leg injury issues, but it depends on whether you believe Eaton is over his injury.

I’ll admit, Player B is not an outfielder, rather he’s an infielder, which changes ADP slightly, but these players should not be 141 picks apart. For reference, Player A is Lorenzo Cain, and B is Jean Segura. Both great players, and both do have guaranteed everyday jobs versus Eaton’s playing time risk. But they highlight that Eaton should be picked higher than outside the top 200.

In case you think this was a fluke, take a look at Eaton’s 2014-17 seasons:

 

Year PAs AVG BABIP
2014 538 .300 .359
2015 689 .287 .345
2016 706 .284 .329
2017 107 .297 .347

 

Batting average is an end-result statistic, but a .290 average over 1,800-plus plate appearances is pretty statistically significant. But for the sake of thoroughness, let’s look at the BABIP because some of those numbers seem a little high.

Over those plate appearances, Eaton posted a .345 BABIP, which would’ve tied for 18th in the 2018 season. Maybe that’s a bit high, but the average was high with it. In fact, the gap between Eaton’s BABIP and batting average ranked 72nd over that span  not an obvious red flag. But that’s not enough. We want to see if the BABIP is really valid. To do that, I use this test that Chaz Steinberg posted on Reddit last year. Basically, we want:

  • A low number of pop-ups.
  • A low number of fly balls in general.
  • More line drives (for multiple seasons).
  • Pulling the ball less often.
  • Being fast.

We can see pop-up rates in the single digits, fly-ball rates generally below 30%, an even spread of batted balls, and a speedy player. All of that is a recipe for a decently high BABIP. All that said, his BABIP in 2018 was .364, well above that mark, so it wouldn’t be crazy for his batting average to fall by 15 or so points in 2019 but still remaining elite.

So that’s one stat of elite production (batting average/on-base percentage), but I promised you two and I intend to deliver on that.

It’s no secret that the Nationals are one of baseball’s best lineups, even without Bryce Harper. Where there’s a good lineup, there are run-scoring opportunities. How many? Our 155-game scaled Adam Eaton would’ve scored a whopping 104 runs that would’ve tied for 10th in baseball in 2018. But for that to continue, we’d want to see him maintain his leadoff spot moving forward. As a matter of fact, Roster Resource has him hitting leadoff again ahead of Trea Turner, Soto, and Anthony Rendon. Sure, Harper is gone, but that’s still a great trio of bats to be hitting in front of.

But it’s not all where he slots in the lineup. If you play in league that scores batting average (like most), you were probably wondering why I focused on Eaton’s OBP at all above. Well, it’s because it is a huge factor in his ability to score runs. Not only does Eaton hit for a near .300 average, but he’s got a career 8.9% walk rate that has been over 10 for each of the past two “seasons” (obviously acknowledging the lack of plate appearances in the 2017 season).

It’s necessary to mention that, while his walk rate went up, nothing in his plate discipline profile suggests a significantly increased walk rate. For reference, I wrote about understanding FanGraphs plate discipline metrics this past May. He did lower his O-Swing marginally, but it’s hard to say if he should sustain a double digit walk rate moving forward.

Despite that, the factors are all there for a healthy Eaton to be a stud when it comes to scoring runs. So we’re looking at a guy who can produce top-20 results in average/on-base percentage and runs.

 

The Other Three Stats

 

So he must be a liability in other stats, right? Well, not so much. Granted, Eaton is not a home run guy. Our scaled-out Eaton, even with 155 games, still comes in below 10 home runs. Eaton has never hit 20 home runs in a season. He’s near the bottom of the league in barrels, exit velocity on FB/LD, and near any other predictive stat for home runs.

However, if you’re looking for optimism in Eaton’s batted balls, there is some to be found in 2017 and 2018. In his abbreviated April 2017, Eaton posted an elite 12.2% high-drive rate. However, that was on merely 74 balls in play. In 2018, Eaton’s high-drive rate fell, perhaps because of not seeing MLB pitching for about 12 months, but his line-drive rate rose to more than 20% and his dribble balls, the lowest-quality batted balls, fell to a career low. I don’t expect him to become a 20-home run guy for your squad this season; I think his peak is around the 14 he posted in 2015 and 2016. But there are a lot of players you draft in the top 100 who won’t give you 20 home runs and still deserve to be picked.

What about the remaining two 5×5 stats? Batting leadoff typically doesn’t lead to a ton of RBI and that’s a fair critique, but it hasn’t stopped Eaton. Our scaled-out Eaton, who hit leadoff for all but nine of his starts over 2017 and 2018, produced more than 60 RBI. That’s more than digestible from a leadoff hitter who can put up the batting average and runs that Eaton can. Granted, some of that strong RBI production came from Eaton’s .323/.421/.477 slash in 2018 with RISP, a number that could be hard to repeat. Factoring in potential regression, that puts him around 135-165 R+RBI which is not bad at all, especially considering his ADP.

Eaton’s steals are only slightly better than home runs. A look at Eaton’s career stats will show he won’t give you 20-plus steals, nor will he win you a week on the basepaths. But a healthy Eaton is a solid bet for 15 stolen bases, which amount to a little under one a week in H2H leagues, and that helps. There is some moderate concern that must be noted with respect to his speed in that Eaton was about a full mile per hour slower in 2018 than he was in 2016 and 2017, but it’s hard to know if that is because of age or injury. However, his nine steals in 95 games this past year would put him on pace for about 15 over a full season.

It’s true, Eaton will not be a significant asset in home runs, stolen bases, or RBI. He’s not the sexiest name out there and he won’t be the most “fun” player to own, but what Eaton gives you is all-around talent. Of the 846 players with at least 400 plate appearances in a season since 2015 (plus our scaled out 2017-18 Eaton), here are the only players with 100 runs, 60 RBI, 15 stolen bases, a 10% walk rate, and a .300 average:

 

 

That’s quite a group to be in, as each of those players was a potential league winner.

To be clear, I’m not saying Eaton is of the same caliber as any of these players above. Eaton obviously doesn’t possess the power that the rest of that group has, but this proves that he has the ability to be incredibly valuable for your fantasy team as a two-category stud who can give you above-average production in at least two others. At the very least, Eaton will not be a flat out liability in any category except perhaps home runs.

To give you an idea, I would take Eaton over Billy HamiltonByron Buxton, Hunter Renfroe, and Nomar Mazara, who are all going 30 to 50 picks before Eaton. Health and playing time are the only thing standing in his way of being a potential top-20 outfielder on the season, and at an ADP in the 17th round of 12-team drafts, I’m willing to bet he’ll have both.

(Photo by Tony Quinn/Icon Sportswire)

Dave Cherman

Pitcher List Content Manager, also a former player and umpire and Brooklyn-based law student who spends his free time studying advanced statistics and obsessing over fantasy trades. Will debate with you about most anything.

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Comments


Justin D

I think his ceiling is more early Michael Brantley than Lorenzo Cain. Segura isn’t a bad comp. Still, when Segura is the ceiling, the floor is 200 PA, and the likely result is Gerardo Parra, this feels like overselling the reward and underselling the risk. Hamilton the only of your four I would pass on for Eaton, but I think they are similar types of risk/reward.

His ADP seems right. Eaton should not be in the top 15 rounds.

Justin D

Checked his comps and saw David DeJesus. That’s exactly what I expect from Eaton, until he shows more.

Dave Cherman

I don’t really understand saying “until he shows more” because he already has shown more. 2015 and 16 he had a low of .284/91/14/56/14. And that was in an atrocious White Sox lineup. I get he hasn’t done it over the last two seasons though.

Dave Cherman

I just can’t get behind saying he’s a huge injury risk when he played the last 3.5 months of the season fully healthy and had a whole offseason to recover. He had a freak traumatic injury to his ACL and an ankle injury that was likely unrelated. It’s so easy to get focused on the last few years and let that blind you to what could in front of you- that’s why so many people missed out on Michael Brantley in 2018. So in terms of me underselling the risk, it’s because I don’t really believe it unless you’re talking about playing time risk.

If you’re saying the floor is 200 PAs, that’s based on injury which I don’t want to predict for the reason above. His playing time floor is probably closer to 350 PAs (I’d be very surprised if it was this low), which is about the same as, if not better than, Renfroe’s playing time floor with Margot and Reyes fighting for OF reps.

His ceiling is definitely similar to Brantley’s 2015 and that was one of the best players in fantasy that year, so I see the reward as far higher than that of guys like Hamilton, who hasn’t flashed significant fantasy relevance in years, and Mazara.

Overall, I abide by the mantra of floor early, ceiling late. Eaton is the ultimate late ceiling kind of guy and should be going well before the 17th round IMO.

Ender

He has never hit 15 HR, he has never reached 100 R, he has never reached 60 RBI, his high in SB is only 18. Even his highs in all of those stats would be hard to stomach in a small league, it is almost impossible to own him in say a 12 team 3 OF league. You need to go to at least 15 teams or 5 OF to make him a late round guy. Sure the guys you mentioned he can beat because outside of taking a risk on Renfroe they aren’t worth owning either.

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