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Adam Eaton putting big finish on breakout 2016

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White Sox outfielder finds rare territory with combination of leadoff-man skills and Gold Glove-caliber defense

Jose Abreu is having an excellent September, and he could really use one. He’s chasing a couple benchmarks within reach — a .300 average, 100 RBIs -- and he also needs a chaser to make everybody forget about his largely moribund first four months. It may make no difference for the White Sox’ 2016 postseason odds, but it’s nice to count on him again.

Adam Eaton did not need to finish his 2016 with a flourish. He’s been remarkably consistent for the White Sox, as his monthly OPSes show:

  • April: .762
  • May: .751
  • June: .758
  • July: .777
  • August: .791

He’s brought last year’s combination of pesky on-base skills, threatening on-base speed and surprising pop, and traded iffy center field defense for an ironclad Gold Glove candidacy in right. This kind of player is already immensely valuable. This kind of player received an $184 million contract from the Cubs.

Yet there he is, keeping pace with Abreu in September regardless. He went 2-for-4 with a double and a walk against the Indians on Tuesday, good for his fifth consecutive multi-hit game and fourth with an extra-base hit over this stretch. Through Tuesday ...

  • Abreu: .407/.431/.648
  • Eaton: .400/.464/.640

... their Septembers have taken complementary courses to the same shape. Eaton has 16 runs in 11 September starts. Abreu has 20 RBIs in 12 September starts. Eaton is setting ‘em up. Abreu is knocking ‘em in .

While Abreu’s final month is necessary to salvage a down year, Eaton’s grand finale is merely excessive and gratuitous in the best way possible, because Eaton just reached 6 WAR for the season according to Baseball-Reference.com.

It may not be as tangible a benchmark as 100 RBIs — there isn’t a specific time when Eaton can tip his cap to a standing ovation -- but 6 WAR is certainly more rare. And unlike two years ago when his bWAR tried to double the assessment from FanGraphs, there is no glaring defensive discrepancy in play here. Instead, FanGraphs is lockstep with its assessment (5.8 WAR).

This is a big deal, as a White Sox position player hasn’t been worth 6 wins above replacement since the rejuvenation of Frank Thomas in 2000. Here's the list of 6-WAR White Sox position players in the New Comiskey Park era, which is also the same as the list since 1973:

  • Thomas: 2000, 1997, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1991
  • Albert Belle: 1998
  • Lance Johnson: 1993
  • Tim Raines: 1992

This field says there are two ways to reach 6 WAR: Hall of Fame offensive production, or a combination of a leadoff-man toolbox and standout defense. This being the case, I was surprised that Robin Ventura failed to qualify since his power could compensate for the lack of speed. It turns out he basically does make the grade for his 1992 season. He hit .282/.375/.431 with a Gold Glove at third, which was good for 5.9 bWAR and 6.1 fWAR. Whether you average them or round them, you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference.

Which brings up another point -- if you need B-Ref and FanGraphs to agree with each other to determine a true 6 WAR player, then the list is smaller still:

  • Thomas: 1997, 1994, 1993, 1992, 1991
  • Belle: 1998

And that’s it. Raines’ 1992 fell short by a small margin (5.5 WAR), while FanGraphs was comparatively unimpressed by Johnson’s defense in 1993 (4.7 WAR).

Eaton has not yet reached this threshold, and it’s important to note that a season-ending slump could knock him below it. The number is not locked in like other counting stats, but if the second half of his September is anything like the first, he should clear both bars with room to spare.

That has great implications for Eaton, and it turns what’s already the biggest feather in Rick Hahn’s cap into a tricked-out spoiler.

But because it’s the White Sox we’re talking about, it’s also kind of damning. Abreu might’ve been searching over the first four months, but Eaton compensated with a career year, and Chris Sale and Jose Quintana are as valuable as they’ve ever been despite zero help from the catchers. As a whole, the core produced within the range of expectations, and yet the front office has failed to figure out a formula that makes the team as a whole meaningfully closer to contending.

Sale Quintana Abreu Eaton Total W-L
2014 6.6 3.5 5.5 5.2 20.8 73-89
2015 3.3 4.5 3.8 3.9 15.5 76-86
2016 5.3 5.0 2.6 6.0 18.9 79-83*

*projected

And so Eaton’s emergence can be viewed through the same two scopes as everything else approaching the offseason. Either the White Sox have figured out how Eaton can best succeed and now can plan accordingly, or the waste of the first 6-WAR season in 16 years further highlights how much the White Sox’ system is broken. Regardless, with Eaton under team control through 2021 for $29.4 million, you can start by elevating him to the Sale-Quintana tier of unbelievable deals, and do with it what you will from there.