Yes, you read that correctly. Adam Eaton, the minuscule 5′ 8″ leadoff hitter for the Chicago White Sox, is one of the best right fielders in all of baseball. Sounds crazy, right? Most think of Eaton as a solid, speedy outfielder for a White Sox team that has been rather underwhelming for the past several seasons. Few think of him as a star, especially at a position that features real star power in players like Giancarlo Stanton and Bryce Harper. Eaton’s power numbers don’t match up with those heavyweights, but he’s a different type of player. Jason Heyward showed us this past offseason that you don’t have to hit 40 home runs to be considered an elite player. So, let’s take a look at how Eaton stacks up to the $184-million man who plays right field some 10 miles to the north of Eaton’s home park.
Below is a table that compares each player’s stats since Eaton’s first full season in 2014 (per FanGraphs):
As you can see, Eaton’s numbers are at least as impressive as Heyward’s when it comes to most offensive categories. Eaton even has a higher slugging percentage despite hitting fewer home runs. Heyward is widely regarded as one of the better baserunners in the league, and FanGraphs’ Ultimate Base Running (UBR) metric shows that Eaton is an even better baserunner than Heyward.
The number that jumps out at me is that Heyward’s Wins Above Replacement total is a win and a half better than Eaton’s, and that is mostly because of Heyward’s elite defensive ability. In 2014 and 2015, Eaton played center field for the White Sox, and he was, statistically, one of the worst defensive outfielders in all of baseball during that time. In fact, according to Baseball Info Solutions, only 10 outfielders had a worse Scout’s Defensive Rating than Eaton’s -7.4 from 2014 to 2015. Meanwhile, Heyward posted a Rating of +19.2 in those two years, second only to four-time Gold Glove winner Alex Gordon.
In this past offseason, the White Sox signed free agent center fielder Austin Jackson and decided to move Adam Eaton to right field. Players’ defensive metrics almost always improve when they move from center field to right field, and Eaton has been no exception to that trend. Through the first two months of the season, Eaton has actually been one of the best defensive outfielders in all of baseball. He currently owns the third best Scout’s Defensive Rating among outfielders this season (+5.7), while also leading baseball with 15 Defensive Runs Saved.
Unlike many of my fellow Cubs fans, I still believe that Heyward is one of the better right fielders in baseball. But, I also remember receiving a text message from a White Sox fan who is a friend of mine after the Cubs signed Heyward. He pointed out that Eaton’s offensive numbers rivaled those of Heyward in recent seasons, and the White Sox are only paying him $4.7 million per year, a fraction of the $23 million the Cubs put into Heyward’s bank account each season. At the time, I believed that Heyward separated himself from Eaton defensively, but if Eaton can continue to play defense the way he has so far in 2016 and still produce offensively the way he has over the course of his career, he will soon be known as one of the best all-around players in baseball and a true star in this league.