WEST PALM BEACH, Fla. -- This is pinpoint accurate from Davey Martinez.
“Adam Eaton says a lot of things,” Martinez said.
Martinez had just been informed of Eatons’ personal defensive assessment from last season -- “I stunk” -- and gave a partial headshake and quip in response. He went on to say Eaton’s defense was solid. It wasn’t. Eaton is right. By most measures, he stunk.
Baseball’s defensive metrics remain on a developmental curve. They lack the precision of their offensive counterparts, allow more room for the eye test and continue to find new layers. In Eaton’s case, he failed the eye test, the metric test and his personal satisfaction test while he watched his young teammates learn and excel after daily work.
“Throughout the year, you saw some serious benefits you get from that,” Eaton said. “[Victor] Robles not running into walls as readily. If he’s going after it, kind of risk-reward mentality. [Juan] Soto, technique-wise, how he’s going to attack the ball, how he’s going to attack the ball on the wall. You’re still going to have your physical mistakes, but those mental mistakes really cut down quickly.
“I think that’s what gave us the best outfield, whatever it was, statistically or whatever it may be, and I stunk last year defensively, still coming with my leg. I’m really excited to see what we can do this year. I told the guys if we’re not the best defensive outfield in the big leagues, there’s a problem. It’s not going to be for lack of effort.”
Eaton’s defensive WAR slid to -0.8 last season. However, that was an improvement from his -1.1 of 2018. For comparison, Robles was 2.6 and Soto -0.6 (these are Baseball Reference measures).
Sports Info Solutions provides further insight: Eaton was -3 in Defensive Runs Saved last year, which is below league average and a massive fall from 2016, when he was plus-27. Robles led all outfielders with 25 DRS; his arm was a big part of that. Soto saved six runs with his catches, but cost five runs with lack of throwouts and allowing baserunner advancement. Still, his evolution from raw to solid was a massive leap.
So, what happened to Eaton in his eighth overall season and fifth in National League ballparks? He points to his leg. Eaton tore the anterior cruciate ligament and meniscus in his left knee in 2017. He also needed ankle surgery in 2018.
“I feel so much better,” Eaton said. “Even just bouncing around the outfield. I was still on one leg quite a bit last year. I think once July hit, that’s really when I kind of hit my stride with the leg -- August -- where I could really have my legs underneath me, I was really able to play full tilt. Early on, I was fielding ground balls on one leg. Peg-legging it.
“It’s so nice to have both my eyes steady. I tell people all the time, you bounce your head up and down, it’s really hard to focus on things, but if you have a good steady base in the outfield on your toes, it’s much better.”
When Robles and Soto approach him, they call him “Grandpa” and laugh. Eaton is 31, which gives him a decade on Soto and about eight years on Robles. Despite the experience gap, he has fallen behind both defensively. Why does that matter more this season? Because the outfield defense is a space where Washington thinks it can help reduce the loss of Anthony Rendon. In order to do so, Eaton needs to be on the same level as his young teammates, which he admittedly was not last year.
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