Eaton out to prove he’s still an elite center fielder

Ask anyone who has watched the Nationals through the season’s first two weeks to name Adam Eaton’s biggest contribution to the team, and you’ll get a bunch of answers about his offensive performance. The 28-year-old sports a .326 batting average and .946 OPS and has successfully reached base in all 11 games he has started.

Ask Eaton what he believes has been most consistent about his game so far, and you’ll get an entirely different answer.

“You know what? I don’t think there’s been much consistency, to be honest with you,” he said. “Hitting has been all right. I haven’t felt great at the plate. Defensively, I think if I can lay my hat on anything, that’s been consistent. Because all it really takes is focus and attention to detail, being focused every single pitch and having effort out there. I think if anything, it’s been defensively.”

The eye test certainly suggests Eaton has played well in center field. (We’ll get to what the metrics say in a moment.) He already has made a handful of above-average plays, has shown off his strong arm, and has generally looked quite comfortable in his new digs sandwiched between Jayson Werth and Bryce Harper.

Adam-Eaton-run-spring-sidebar.jpg“It’s been pretty smooth,” Eaton said. “I think anything transition-wise is just understanding your outfielders to your left and your right, understanding your middle infielders and understanding what your pitchers and your catchers are trying to do to hitters. ... I don’t think it’s so much adjusting to being in center again, but more or less the people around you, getting used to their habits.”

Given that Eaton is both new to the Nationals and back in center field after spending last season manning right field for the White Sox, there is something of a feeling-out process.

How long does it take for that to happen?

“It’s definitely not there yet,” Eaton admitted. “Honestly, it takes years to really have an understanding. I want to be able to look at Bryce and know exactly what he’s thinking on a ball hit to him.”

The Nationals took something of a chance on Eaton when they acquired him in a trade that was not met with 100 percent approval from various corners of the baseball universe. Some of that had to do with the package of top-tier pitching prospects general manager Mike Rizzo sent to Chicago. But some of it also had to do with questions about Eaton’s ability to move back to the middle of the outfield.

Only three seasons ago, Eaton was considered among the very best center fielders in the sport, a reputation bolstered by his Defensive Runs Saved rating of plus-12. But then that number plummeted to minus-14 in 2015, and that prompted the White Sox to move him to right field last season. The result? Eaton showed tremendous improvement and finished with a plus-20 rating.

The Nationals were convinced that 2015 season was something of an anomaly, though, and Eaton himself has pointed to a shoulder injury he tried to play through that year that hindered him in the field and perhaps contributed to his diminished performance.

So what do the metrics say about him in center field so far this season? Well, through two weeks his Defensive Runs Saved is minus-5. That’s worst among the 26 qualifying major league center fielders.

This early in the season, there’s an awfully small sample size of defensive plays for these numbers to carry a whole lot of weight. Eaton mentioned a couple of plays he wonders if he could have made during the Nationals’ blowout loss in Philadelphia last weekend, and perhaps those carry extra weight when the season is only 12 games old.

In the bigger picture, Eaton admits at least some motivation this season to show his detractors he still can be an elite center fielder.

“Yes and no,” he said. “A part of me thinks: Who cares what other people think? That’s kind of been my motto my whole life. You can tell me I can’t do something, and I don’t really care what you think. I’m just going to go out and do the best of my ability. That’s one of my thoughts.

“And the other one is: Yeah, tell everybody that I can still do something that they don’t think I can do. But five years ago, if you asked any scout if they thought I was going to be in the big leagues, they’d say no, too. So there hasn’t really been much praise throughout my career in most aspects. So I wouldn’t say it’s any different. I’m getting kind of used to that.”

It’ll be a while longer before anyone can draw any firm conclusions about Eaton as a center fielder. So we’ll have to wait and see what the metrics ultimately say.

Until then, Eaton can make only one promise. He can’t promise he’ll be a consistent offensive force each time he steps to the plate. He can promise he’ll give his full effort each time he takes his position in the field.

“That’s something I want to bring every single day,” he said. “Hitting’s not going to be there. That’s a given. But defense, that has to be there every day.”

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