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The Cardinals should be wary of Adam Eaton

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Eaton seems to have a precarious profile

MLB: Chicago White Sox at Cleveland Indians David Richard-USA TODAY Sports

While one Chicago team competes in the World Series, questions have continued to swirl around another. The last few years, the White Sox have been a perfect example of a team with too little talent to realistically compete for the playoffs, but is too stubborn to rebuild. From 2013 to 2016, the team has amassed 63, 73, 76, and 78 wins in that order. That’s despite having one of the best pitchers on the planet in Chris Sale making peanuts compared to his worth.

Sale has had little supporting cast in Chicago; Cuban professional Jose Abreu looked like he might be an amazing acquisition when he posted a 167 wRC+ in his first season in 2014. His 129 wRC+ last year was also strong, if not a bit disappointing compared to 2014. This past year he posted a 118 wRC+, which is good in a vacuum but not enough to stay an above-average player when considering his weak base-running and defense.

There’s also Jose Quintana, who has averaged nearly 5 WAR per season, and still has four years of cheap control. The point is, the White Sox have some very enviable players, yet still, a baseball team needs a lot of good players to be successful, not just a few. Chris Sale and Jose Quintana don’t provide the type of game-changing abilities that two similarly elite players would in say, basketball.

In my opinion, the Sox should be trading these elite assets to build a new contender in the near future. However, there is still speculation that they will try at least one more time, and if they again play mediocre baseball in 2017, they'll sell at the deadline. Still, you can bet rival GM’s will be blowing up White Sox GM Rick Hahn’s phone this winter, doing what they can to convince him otherwise.

If the White Sox do decide to sell, one asset they should be looking to move is Adam Eaton. Though he previously played center, he shifted to right after the team picked up Austin Jackson last year. That coincided with a huge gain in defensive value, though you have to be careful not to weight one season’s of defensive metrics too heavily. Let’s look at his stats the last few years:

Eaton is mostly average in terms of walks and strikeouts, with below-average power but consistently above-average results on balls in play. He’s also been a very strong base-runner. This graphic gives you a small glimpse in how much of an outlier Eaton’s defensive season was last year. This gives you a better idea: His 18 runs above average this year on defense was his best since being 0.4 runs above average in his rookie season in 2012.

By UZR (Ultimate Zone Rating, one of two best public metrics at measuring defensive value), Eaton had accululated 23.5 runs below average on defense going into 2016, over a little more than 3,000 innings. UZR judges the player against all other players at that position, and before this year Eaton spent a little more than 90% of his time in center. With a career -8.7 UZR/150 games in center, and a +2.5 positional adjustment for center-fielders, the metric saw Eaton as losing about 5 runs a year (or about half a win) as a center-fielder on a full time basis.

The story has been completely different in right, where he’s posted a 26.1 UZR/150 games, though over less than a full season’s worth of innings. Counting a -7.5 positional adjustment for right-fielders, the metric considered him 18.5 runs above the average player on defense when playing right-field. It’s easy to just discount this year, though the projections value it highly enough to see him as an above-average defender going forward.

There's the question of where Eaton plays. Maybe play him in right because that's where he's had success, maybe play him in center as long as you can consider Grichuk the weaker of the two. Either way, Eaton's defense is a big upgrade over the defense Matt Holliday and Brandon Moss provided in 2016, which is who he'll be replacing.

At the plate, Eaton’s value is very dependent on balls in play. Of 235 players with a qualified amount of plate appearances from 2014 to 2016, Eaton places 21st, inside the top 10% with a .343 BABIP. As we found out last week, Dexter Fowler is also very dependent on balls in play. We’ll do what we did last week with Fowler: break down his contact quality.

To do that, we’ll investigate Statcast’s data on Eaton. Using the information made public at BaseballSavant.com, I built an xBABIP calculator by finding the average BABIP for batted balls at each combination of Exit Velocity (to the nearest MPH) and Launch Angle (to the nearest degree). I can then put each of Eaton’s Statcast-recorded batted balls through this calculator to find a player’s xBABIP, based on his specific collection of batted balls. Here’s how Eaton grades out:

Statcast began recording data in 2015, so we only have two years of data so far. Unfortunately, Eaton’s contact quality doesn’t grade out all that special. Of course, my system does not take speed into account, and Eaton is very fast. Eaton was 24th of 146 players in Fangraphs’ Speed Score (Spd), so that should bump him up a bit. He also hits to all fields, which helps as well.

However, I find it hard to believe that makes up all of the difference. He’s not Billy Hamilton/Dee Gordon fast, and he probably needs to be to maintain those BABIP’s when his contact quality is only a bit above average. By contrast, last week we found out that in 2016, Fowler ranked 7th in speed score, and scored a .328 xBABIP by my system. The projections see little difference between the two however, with Fowler at a .324 BABIP going forward and Eaton at .326.

Let’s look at Eaton's contact quality a bit closer, using BaseballSavant.com’s angle graphics:

Eaton has two peaks in terms of where he hits most his batted balls: 15 degrees and 0 degrees. Those are both good angles for hits, and are the bread and butter of his contact qualities. It’s not all good though, as his number of batted balls in between those angles drop off quite a bit.

Statcast counts any ball over 50 degrees a pop-up, and Eaton hits extremely few of those in 2016 (just 2.1% of Statcast-recorded batted balls). So Eaton benefits from avoiding those. On the other side of the spectrum though, he’s hit a decent chunk of balls at -10 degrees or lower, which generally are too low of an angle to escape the infield. To better visualize this, here’s an image showing the BABIP ability of each type of batted ball:

The bluer the area the lower the BABIP, the redder the area the higher the BABIP. As you can see, by the time you get to 0 degrees (or an angle parallel with the ground), you have to hit the ball pretty hard for it to have a better than average expectation. From the angle graphic above, Eaton’s average Exit Velocity from about 0 to -10 degrees is around the low 90’s. So he’s not hitting automatic outs, but he’s definitely losing some value there.

Still, the worse part comes below the -10 degree point. He hits a not insignificant chunk of batted balls under -10 degrees, and as you can see from the graphic above, they’re very poor performing balls in play. Eaton can make up for some of this with speed, but I think you can see why he graded out at only .307 xBABIP by my system, which doesn’t count speed.

So, I’m lower on Eaton than the projections at this point. Let’s get a look at what the projections consider Eaton’s contract to be worth. Eaton is guaranteed just under $20M over the next three years, followed by two options at $9.5M (with a $1.5M buyout) and $10.5M (also a $1.5M buyout) respectively. Using Fangraph’s depth chart projections, along with an average aging curve, an $8M price of WAR with 5% yearly inflation, here is Eaton’s valuation over his guaranteed years:

$48M is decent chunk of value. It’s not quite what I calculated Luke Weaver to be worth over his pre-free agent years, but it’s also significantly better than say, public estimates of a back of the top 100 positional prospect such as Harrison Bader, which is more like $20M. Jack Flaherty, a top 100 pitching prospect, is worth around $15.6M on average, using the same estimates. So according to the public estimates, Harrison Bader and Jack Flaherty shouldn’t be enough. Of course, I’m not friends with Rick Hahn, maybe he feels differently.

As I mentioned, I’m not as high as the projections on Eaton. Between the one year extreme shift in defensive value, and modest contact quality, I’d take the under on his projection of 3 WAR per 600 PA. Start him off with a half a win less, and he’s a $35.2M asset, or a match in value with the public estimates for Bader and Flaherty. Add a lottery ticket or two in there and that’s about what I’m comfortable with trading for Eaton. I certainly wouldn't want to have Weaver involved, unless more than just Eaton was involved on the White Sox side.

Unfortunately, all indications are that Bader and Flaherty plus wouldn’t get it done. Whether his BABIP is real or not, Eaton has been worth 3.7 WAR per 600 plate appearances over the last three years, after a 6 WAR performance this year. Players with strong walk years tend to get paid more than expected, so it stands the reason that a player can be traded for more after a strong walk year.

The Sox don’t have to sell, and despite all the evidence to the contrary, they think they can compete in 2017. They’re only going to if other teams making it worth their while. If they wanted to trade Eaton, they can probably trade him for a package better than one headlined by two back of the top 100 prospects. With the results of this analysis, it would be hard for me to give up more than that.