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Adam Eaton impresses in center

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In December, I said Adam Eaton was not the best trade target for the Nationals because of his “poor” defense. Now, I think he may actually be able to play center field.

Philadelphia Phillies v Washington Nationals Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images

Adam Eaton has shined in his first couple of weeks as a Nat. I am surprised, to put it mildly, but I shouldn’t be. Back in December, I asked “What will the Nationals do now?” After their top-two trade targets fell through. I shouted, “ANDREW MCCUTCHEN!” into the void.

If the Nationals receive McCutchen from the Pirates, their outfield next season will include the 2013 MVP (McCutchen), the 2015 MVP (Harper), and the only man on the roster with a World Series ring (Werth).

I thought it was the perfect match. Win now, before Bryce leaves town, and sell a lot of tickets. I had a lively conversation with one of my Uber drivers here in the District about our love for Cutch, and it devolved into, “Adam Eaton? Really?”

Really.

The Nats traded pitching prospects Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, and Dane Dunning to the White Sox for Eaton. He consistently batted above .280, with double-digit home runs in each of the past two seasons, with an above-average wRC+ in each of his three years with the White Sox. He was a very good right fielder.

Say what?

The Nationals have some guy named Bryce Harper, who I hear is pretty good at just about everything on the diamond. Oh, and they have a sophomore speedster named Trea Turner to hit leadoff. So when the Nats got themselves a right-fielding leadoff hitter I was confused.

Not anymore.

I went to Opening Day at Nats Park and sat in the outfield with a great view of Eaton. I was very “meh” about watching him play. Almost immediately he got a bad read on a ball that bounced off the center field wall, and I felt vindicated. “Ah ha! One bad play means he’s bad and I was right.” In researching Eaton, all I saw was bad center field defense. His numbers improved greatly when he moved to right field in 2016:

Year PA UZR
2014 538 -3.3
2015 689 -10.2
2016 706 22.5

Right out of the gate, he was confirming the narrative I’d written for him in my head.

Then he came up and worked a walk. Then he doubled. Then walked again. I left the game having to face the fact that Eaton is not as crappy an investment for the Nationals as I previously believed.

Then Turner tweaked his hamstring. Dusty Baker plopped Eaton into the leadoff spot, and boy has he ever made himself at home there. He’s had 25 plate appearances at leadoff this season, about half his total, and has hit .333 with three walks. Over 53 plate appearances this season, he’s batting .326/.434/.512 with nine walks and a rather high .406 BABIP.

Defense was the sticking point for me. He’s played 98.2 innings in center field so far, and that is much too small a sample size to make any sweeping judgments. But after watching him this past week against the Cardinals and then the Phillies, I’m coming around to the idea that this deal actually made sense. I think it may, in fact, be possible that Eaton can play center field.

As I’ve learned more and more about sabermetrics from my great co-writers here at Beyond the Box Score, defensive metrics still have me a little bumfuzzled. What I didn’t understand on December 7th was just how fluky defensive metrics can be. I saw that his overall defensive metrics were best in right field.

Here’s what I didn’t see:

Year DRS
2013 -2
2014 11
2015 -14
2016 20

I looked at one metric on FanGraphs, UZR, and surmised Eaton just sucked in center. He must be terrible because UZR says as much.

Actually, I was just misinterpreting the numbers. By looking at his Defensive Runs Saved, we can understand he had some good years and a couple bad years. It’s a roller coaster.

To get an idea of how his range has improved, we can look at FanGraphs’s Inside Edge Fielding data:

Year Position % Routine Plays Made
2013 CF 97.7%
2014 CF 99.7%
2015 CF 99.1%
2016 RF 100%
2016 CF 100%

When it comes to routine plays, specifically, Eaton has only improved since 2013. He hopped from 97 percent to 99 percent, then finally reached 100 percent at both center field and right field last season. My initial thought was that the move to right field is what prompted the increase in his overall score. That assumption doesn't necessarily hold up, though, because he made all the routine plays in center field last season as well. (With 114 opportunities.) It may not be the move that caused an uptick, but rather Eaton learning and steadily improving on the diamond year after year.

Eaton's progress isn't limited to range. If we hop on over to Baseball-Reference, we can take a look at how often he’s held runners over the past few years:

Year Position % of Runners Held
2013 CF 40.6%
2014 CF 40.8%
2015 CF 45.5%
2016 RF 54.2%

The conclusion I draw is that he steadily improved over the past four years, and runners are more hesitant to take an extra base.

I tend to use sabermetrics more as a way to interpret what my eyes are seeing and as a comparison tool. (Who was a better rookie baserunner, Billy Hamilton or Jonathan Villar?) Sabermetrics is the way to find that answer. However, I can’t use saber as the only lens to view the game. (It’s more like a garnish.) In the case of Eaton, I fell into the numbers trap. I found numbers I liked and didn’t look at the rest of the data. My Eaton narrative needed support, and I found one metric which said I was right. When put in context with the rest of his defense, though, it appears he’s on the up-and-up.

I am, in fact, “Eaton” my words. I would not have thought about how wrong I was, except I went to the Nats game on Friday against the Phillies. I chose the cover photo for this article because it was that play which caused me to reverse course.

Eaton made a great catch up against the board and, though he had the wind knocked out of him, made a good throw that held the runner. Had I looked at Baseball-Reference last December, I might not have been so stunned. This is a lesson in how to appropriately use sabermetrics: Don’t pick numbers to suit an idea; instead, look at broader trends and see what they tell you.

If the first couple of weeks are an indication of how Eaton will play all season, he will fit quite well here in the District.

. . .

Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter @highstarksunday.