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Don’t Call Him Scrappy: Adam Eaton Has Been One of the Best Outfielders in Baseball

Getty Images
Getty Images

In this era of initials-based, corporate nicknames like OBJ and A-Rod, you know who’s got a great nickname? Adam “Spanky” Eaton. It’s a little racy, and chock-full of strong consonant sounds. Plus it’s short, fun, energetic — not unlike Eaton himself.

After popping onto the scene as a decent prospect in Arizona in 2012–13, Eaton has been an afterthought for most of his career. First, he became the third- or fourth-biggest name in the Mark Trumbo trade (three Mark Trumbo trades ago). Since then, he’s been stuck on a team that (1) hasn’t been very good and (2) plays in the shadow of the Cubs. Even within the White Sox bubble, he’s been overshadowed by José Abreu and Chris Sale. He’s never made an All-Star team or received a single MVP vote. Hell, if he’s the most famous Adam Eaton of the past 10 years, that happened only recently.

Now, in the early months of this season, the 27-year-old Eaton has found himself at or near the top of the FanGraphs WAR leaderboard, serving as the position-player avatar among position players for a White Sox team that is itself atop another notable leaderboard: the AL Central. So, what’s changed from 2015 to 2016?

Not much, actually. He’s striking out a little less often, which is good, but his 2016 wRC+ (118) is the same as last year and only a point higher than in 2014. In fact, the fWAR jump has a lot to do with his defense: After grading out as an average-ish defensive center fielder over the past few seasons, ultimate zone rating has him as a plus-11-run defender in right over two months. While it makes intuitive sense that an average center fielder would be an above-average right fielder, such an extreme number over a small sample probably exaggerates his impact so far.

Rather, he’s likely been this good all along. FanGraphs, Baseball Prospectus, and Baseball-Reference all rate him as being, at minimum, a three-win player in each of the past two seasons and at least a two-win player so far this season. That might not get you into the Hall of Fame, but it’s enough to make you a first-division regular.

Eaton’s relative obscurity, then, might have something to do with that nickname, which connotes an undersized, scrappy player who gets by on force of will instead of talent. In the days of sites like Fire Joe Morgan and the early sabermetric revolution, players like these were lauded by traditional sportswriters and reviled by the newcomers who have since gone on to become some of baseball media’s biggest voices. Here’s to you, David Eckstein.

There’s likely been a little bit of an overcorrection since. Players like Eaton, who look like grinders, get labeled as such even when they bring more to the table. He gets his jersey dirty, sure, but he’s really an above-average on-base bat who hit 14 home runs last year and can play center field. Not bad for a guy named Spanky.

This piece originally appeared in the May 25, 2016, edition of the Ringer newsletter.