Adam Eaton’s shift by a couple of spots to the left on the defensive spectrum follows a normal baseball pattern of moving a player who has struggled at a more demanding position.
In Eaton’s case, the move has been a bonanza for the White Sox so far. Now primarily playing right field, Eaton is at 12 runs saved as listed at billjamesonline.com, leading major-league fielders at all positions. That comes after a minus-14 last season put him 33rd among center fielders.
Jason Heyward led major-league right fielders with 22 runs saved last season and 32 in 2014. Eaton’s on a pace for 75 runs saved, and that’s extremely likely to level off over a full season.
Still, Eaton’s value on defense has been across the board. Baseball Info Solutions charts every play for how hard a ball is hit, where it’s hit, whether it’s a grounder, line drive or fly ball and more. Eaton stands at seven runs saved on plays he has made against those an average right fielder would be expected to make, three runs saved for his arm and two runs saved for good plays against defensive misplays.
The defensive spectrum was presented by Bill James in his Baseball Abstracts of the early 1980s, lining up non-pitcher defensive positions from the least demanding on the left to the most demanding on the right. That spectrum starts on the left with designated hitter, then progresses to first baseman, left fielder, right fielder, third baseman, center fielder, second baseman, shortstop and catcher.
The defensive spectrum reflects how players have been used since long before James put it in graphic form. It’s rare for veteran players to move right on the spectrum. Outfielders who are losing their range move to first base, but aging first basemen aren’t reborn as outfielders.
Rightward shifts are reserved mostly for young players waiting for their natural positions to open, as when the Cubs’ Addison Russell moved from second to short last season.
For leftward shifts to work well, the player has to be able to carry an offensive load. There are more players who can handle right field than center or who can handle first base than third, so it’s easier to find good hitters at the leftward positions.
Eaton’s primary offensive contribution has been getting on base. His .357 on-base percentage stands up well against the American League averages of .313 for all positions, .330 for right fielders and .333 for leadoff men.
By total runs, billjamesonline.com lists Eaton second in baseball at 28, tied with Cubs center fielder Dexter Fowler behind Rockies third baseman Nolan Arenado (35). Eaton’s total breaks down into 13 runs created at the plate, 12 runs saved in the field and a three-run adjustment for position.
Eaton’s previous-best season for runs saved was 2014 with 12. If early returns come anywhere close to holding up, his leftward shift to right field definitely was right for the Sox.
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