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Assessing Adam Eaton's place among leadoff men

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The White Sox center fielder provided a much needed spark to help turn around 2013's league-worst offense

Having "Spanky" as your nickname automatically wins you the "intangibles" category
Having "Spanky" as your nickname automatically wins you the "intangibles" category
Jerry Lai-USA TODAY Sports

Adam Eaton made a great impression on the White Sox from his first game in uniform, but he really took his game to another level in the second half of the 2014 season.

After the 2014 All-Star break, Eaton hit an outstanding .347/.396/.447 from the top of the White Sox lineup.  His excellence did not go unnoticed by Hawk Harrelson, who often surmised down the stretch that Eaton might be the best leadoff hitter in all of baseball.  Hawk is no stranger to embellishing White Sox players, but Eaton has been such an impressive catalyst for the White Sox offense that it’s fair to wonder just where he stacks up among the league's best.

By my estimation, there are 21 "true" leadoff hitters in baseball right now.  This is a bit subjective, but the general criteria used are as follows:

  • The player has batted first in the majority of the games in which he’s started for his team
  • The player has either been established in a leadoff role historically or has a reasonable expectation of continuing in that capacity going forward
  • The player started more games in 2014 in the leadoff slot than any other player on his team

The only significant player eliminated by this criteria was Jose Altuve, who batted leadoff for almost half the season but eventually yielded that slot to Robbie Grossman, who hit first in 43 of the Astros' final 47 games.

Before we attempt to find Eaton's place among baseball’s leadoff hitters, we need to define what makes a good leadoff hitter.  The criteria I will use, in descending order of importance, is as follows:

  • He should get on base often
  • He should be a good baserunner to maximize the utility of getting on base
  • He should have enough power to be a plus hitter overall.
  • He should work deep into counts to help wear out the opposing pitcher

Here’s how Adam Eaton stacked up against other leadoff hitters in 2014:

  • Batting Average: .300 (T-5th)
  • On-Base Percentage .362 (T-2nd)
  • wOBA: .340 (7th)
  • Base Running Runs Above Average: -0.6 (18th)
  • Pitches Per Plate Appearance: 3.89 (9th)

Eaton clearly excels at getting on base compared to his peers.  However, he doesn’t rate quite as highly at other things, particularly base running. Though it’s a bit surprising to see a guy with Eaton’s wheels grade out as below average on the bases, it’s pretty consistent with what we saw over the course of the season.  Eaton swiped just 15 bags in 24 attempts and was often overaggressive in trying to take the extra base, particularly trying to stretch singles into doubles.  It’s a key area for improvement as we head into 2015.

Another area in which Eaton fell short was isolated power. He posted the fifth-lowest mark among leadoff hitters despite notching a league-leading ten triples.  Optimists thought that he might be able to hit close to ten home runs over a full season, but he wound up with just one. Power isn’t of critical importance for a leadoff man, but it is a disadvantage if their guy can hit it out and your guy can’t.

Despite the secondary shortcomings, the season was a rousing success for Eaton and the White Sox seem to have found some long-term stability for a role that hasn’t had that since the days of Ray Durham. He’s certainly on the short list of the best leadoff hitters of the past season.  Speaking of which, here is that short list:

Stats_large

It’s really hard to call Eaton the best of the bunch, what with that meddling Carlos Gomez and all. I’d probably toss Danny Santana and his absurd BABIP, but where Eaton fits among the rest is open for debate.  Whatever his specific rank may be, Eaton is firmly in this top tier of catalysts and he’s ours all the way through 2018. Assuming he can figure out a way to avoid being a hazard to himself, it’s going to be a fun ride.