For Adam Eaton, 2014 went about as well as it could have. A UCL injury had plagued him in the previous year, and contributed to his 84 wRC+ and -0.6 WAR in 277 plate appearances. After a journey to Chicago in The Great Arizona Prospect Exodus, he bounced back phenomenally, netting a 115 wRC+ and 2.9 WAR in 538 trips to the dish. He so impressed the White Sox that they gave him a five-year, $23 million contract, in the hopes that he'd continue playing like he did in his AL debut.
2014 is over, obviously, and 2015 Eaton doesn't live up to the standards set by his predecessor. In the 115 times he's batted this season, he's hit a measly .224/.278/.299, translating to a 59 wRC+ and -0.7 WAR; every other hitter in the Junior Circuit (save Matt Joyce) can top the latter mark. His disintegration has played a large role in the team's sluggish start — through Tuesday, they've won only 43.3% of their games, and have a mere 8.4% chance of making the playoffs. So what gives? Why has he melted down, and will he return to form any time soon?
Let's look a little deeper at his stats. Breaking down offense into four metrics — walks, strikeouts, isolated power, and hits on balls in play — simplifies the evaluation thereof, and in this case, illuminates the cause of Eaton's struggles:
Eaton's plate discipline has stayed mostly the same, and while his power has declined marginally, he's never predicated his game on clout. We can thus attribute most of Eaton's poor start to the latter number: BABIP. Eaton's suddenly seen far fewer hits when he puts the ball in play; his rank in that regard has tumbled from 3rd in the majors to 131st. We'll dig deeper into his splits to find out more.
Upon glancing at Eaton's batted-ball profile, many will surely point to his fly balls as the reason for his depressed BABIP. Indeed, he's already popped up four times this year — more than the three he had in all of last year. But his fly ball production hasn't taken a hit: He actually owns a slightly higher fly ball BABIP in 2015 (.158) than he did in 2014 (.114). Together with a moderate uptick in fly ball rate, this means that the balls he's put in the air haven't hurt him.
Or at least, the balls Eaton's put high in the air haven't hurt him. His line drive output has dropped off, with his BABIP on those decreasing from .738 to .563. And hitting fewer of those — his line drive rate has sunken to 18.6%, from 20.2% last year — only makes matters worse. Nevertheless, we'll probably see more liners fall in for hits as the season progresses. Eaton has made more hard contact on line drives in 2015 than he did in 2014; while that doesn't offer much predictive power, it does tell us that he's fared unfortunately on those batted balls, and that we shouldn't expect him to do so for the remainder of the year (assuming, of course, that his hard contact ability remains the same).
But line drives can't account for all, or even most, of Eaton's evaporated BABIP. The primary culprit resides not in the air, but on the ground, where Eaton lives and dies. Over the past two seasons, his 59.6% ground ball rate comes in at fifth in baseball, and it's stayed level from year one to year two. His yield on grounders, however, has done anything but: He's now accrued a hit on 21.6% of them, compared to 30.4% last year. (As a point of reference, noted speedster Kendrys Morales has posted a .228 BABIP in that regard for his career.)
In the end, those ground balls have the largest hand in Eaton's springtime shortcomings. Will they continue to plague him come summer? Fully convalescing from the illness that has hampered him lately would certainly help matters. With that said, sickness probably hasn't robbed him of his ability to hit grounders to all fields — a skill that he appears to have lost dramatically:
|Year||GB Pull%||GB Center%||GB Opposite%|
The opposite-field ground balls have all but vanished; suddenly, he can only pull the ball or slap it to center. Keeping all the infielders honest allows hitters such as Eaton to thrive, so this level of predictability probably has something to do with his slow start. Given the rise of shifts against predictable batters, I'd say this trend will harm Eaton even more if he sustains it.
Despite everything that's transpired so far, the season's still young. Perhaps Eaton's renewed health will grant him some spunk, and allow him to pound out ground balls to all fields like he once did. Then again, this could just be the new normal for him. Like his close contemporary Elvis Andrus, Eaton may have fallen off a cliff, never to resurface as the player he once was.
But who really knows? Baseball is weird, man.
. . .
All data courtesy of FanGraphs, as of Wednesday, May 13th, 2015.
Ryan Romano is an editor for Beyond the Box Score. He also writes about the Orioles on Camden Depot and on Camden Chat that one time. Follow him on Twitter at @triple_r_ if you enjoy angry tweets about Maryland sports.