GLENDALE, Ariz. -- Who, or perhaps just as important, what is Adam Eaton? This isn’t just a nice problem for the White Sox to chew over during spring training, because the best possible answer for them could be that Eaton turns into more than “just” a good leadoff man; 2016 could be the year he puts it all together to blossom into a full-blown star.
Looking back at the first two seasons Eaton has delivered for the Sox, a .293/.361/.418 combined line already looks pretty good. And his batting average on balls in play for the White Sox across two seasons is an outstanding .351, so getting the barrel on the ball hasn’t been a problem. His .778 OPS ranks 13th among guys batting in the No. 1 hole -- good stuff, but not great stuff. Yet. The thing is, that combined line blurs two major developments in Eaton’s performance that could make this a breakout season.
First, there’s last year’s better power numbers, as Eaton went from hitting just one homer with a .101 Isolated Slugging rate in year one to .144 with 14 bombs. His new, longer swing led to a few more misses at the plate as his strikeout rate crept up to 19 percent, but it more than paid off in power without penalizing his ability to barrel balls to all fields.
“Pitchers last year may have thought I was just some scrappy guy who might hit one or two home runs a year,” Eaton said. “I kind of transformed myself and put the ball over the fence here and there.”
Getting a second season in the league was a major factor, as Eaton credited settling in as another big factor for last year’s power spike.
“Definitely getting familiar with the pitchers and seeing them every day,” Eaton said. “Just learning pitchers, understanding what they’re going to try to do, and how to beat them. If a guy’s going to try to throw a cutter in, and they have the last few times I faced them, if I can get to that pitch and barrel it, I’m going to have success. It’s a matter of understanding and trying to evolve mentally and physically and learning what I can do in certain situations.”
But what’s also really exciting about last year’s growth as a hitter is that it pretty much all came in the final four months of the season, as Eaton overcame a slow start and started putting together what he can do. In the last four months, Eaton hit .311/.390/.471, a clip that would rank second among all regular MLB leadoff hitters in OPS over the last two years if he could stretch that across an entire season, trailing just O’s slugger Manny Machado. Eaton's growth wasn’t just a power spike, either, as his walk rate nosed across 9 percent of his at-bats in those four months. And when you get into his pitch-by-pitch data to look for more areas of growth, you’ll find he was also boosting his line-drive rate against off-speed stuff last year.
When asked to dissect the difference and get into how he's improved outside of game experience, Eaton sees his development at the plate as something organic, a product of feel as much as anything else.
“I think you get too much information [from video]. In the end, I think your eyes tell you a lot more than any video screen, whether base running or hitting. Realistically, video is not going to be able to tell you how much is on a breaking ball. You’re going to have to see that ball and react to that ball; I have to learn through experience. With that being said, there isn’t a day that I don’t go looking at something to work on, but there’s a balance -- you don’t want information overload.”
Those last four months suggest the White Sox might boast having the best leadoff hitter in baseball. But how good does Eaton think he can be?
“From my standpoint, I’m still figuring that out,” Eaton reflected. “I’m still trying to figure out what kind of player I am, and what kind of player I’m going to be.”
In a White Sox lineup that has added Todd Frazier and Brett Lawrie to provide additional power beyond Jose Abreu, Eaton understands that his continuing development as he enters his age-27 season is a big deal for the season to come.
“There is a little bit of pressure,” Eaton said with a laugh. “But that’s the beauty of baseball -- there’s always pressure, pressure from guys who want your job, pressure you place upon yourself to do better. But I enjoy that, I enjoy that type of pressure, and I’ll really enjoy it with these big boppers behind me.”
Christina Kahrl writes about MLB for ESPN. You can follow her on Twitter.