Two Martinez’, One Adam Eaton, and the Art of Pissing Off Pitchers

In the past month, I’ve discovered that two of my favorite things are scrappy left-handed slap-hitting center fielders and quoting Pedro Martinez. Thus it seems apt to begin another 1000 words about a wiry batsman with a paraphrased Pedro quote. At his recent Hall of Fame press conference, Martinez was asked about the toughest batter he ever faced. Without skipping a beat he replied, “Edgar Martinez.” Never one to leave it at just a name, Pedro then went on to candidly explain (and again I’m paraphrasing wildly), “I would get him out, but he’d make me throw 12 pitches.” Maybe he said, “so many” or a “million” or “more than I wanted to.” The fun of Pedro is his hyperbole makes for fun hyperbolic spin-offs. Either way, always folded into these quotes is a germ of truth that gets at a deeper understanding of the game. In this case, what Pedro was remarking upon is that the other Martinez was not only tough because he made solid contact and rarely took a chance on a risky pitch (surely those are qualities Edgar possessed in spades) but what “pissed [Pedro] off” was that he would work the great pitcher to a point where every batter that followed would have to be faced with that much less zip on the fastball or snap on the breaking stuff. In short, Edgar would make pitching to the rest of his lineup more difficult.

In a recent podcast, we went over the most important leadoff hitters in baseball. I mentioned that Adam Eaton should be included in the group of elite top of the order bats. My reasoning was he takes a lot of pitches or, more appropriately, a lot of pitches are thrown to him. His value lays not only in his ability to create havoc but to essentially “piss off” the pitcher. Admittedly, this observation was based primarily on my eyeballs and little on any real data. So, I decided to investigate a bit deeper.

Obviously a good place to start is at how many pitches per at bat Eaton took last season. Of all qualified batters he saw the 35th most pitches, good for an average of 3.89 each time he came to the plate. However, this number is a bit skewed, since it’s also important to consider the kinds of batters who often see the most pitches. For instance, Mike Trout saw more balls than any batter last season, mainly because pitchers are loath to throw him anything in the strike zone, meaning he’s likely to see more pitches that he knows to lay off of. Unlike a player like Eaton, Trout can rely more on the fear he imposes than the mind games of going against a pitcher he knows is coming right at him. Therefore, narrowing the list only to leadoff hitters makes sense. That’s where we find Eaton jumps to seventh. At a glance, still nothing special. But his .300 batting average is far and away higher than any of the six in front of him as is his gargantuan .359 batting average on balls in play – third amongst all hitters in baseball regardless of place in the batting order. Additionally, his Contact% stood tall at 88.8%, good for fifth amongst qualified leadoff hitters. Looking even closer, you see that where Eaton doesn’t miss is on balls thrown anywhere near the plate, making contact in the zone 96.2% of his at bats. Quite simply, Adam Eaton will not make it easy to beat him. He may not be as strong on pitches out of the zone, but at 76.1%, he’s not exactly whiffing. If Eaton comes to the plate, he will likely make contact (especially considering his strangely low walk rate) and if he does make contact there’s a good chance it will fall for a hit.

When looking at a pattern of contact numbers,  there’s still two kinds of contact. First, there’s the good kind. That kind where even an out is a scolding line drive or a purposeful foul punched the other way. And then there’s the kind that Andrelton Simmons makes (as numbers go: 87.2% Contact% and a paltry .263 BABIP). Without analyzing every at bat, Eaton’s looks like a paragon in the useful kind of contact. The kind, I suspect, Pedro is talking about when he says that Edgar “pissed him off.” Edgar being the patron saint of smart contact and maintaining guest appearances at first base a few times a game.

With zero to negative power value, Eaton plays table setter in the truest sense of the term, by chipping away at pitchers before the meat of the lineup comes to bat. He works counts, tires arms, keeps at bats alive, and alleviates momentum from opposing aces. There’s no way to measure the aggravation caused by a batter fighting off pitches or the extra exhaustion one particular batter might cause over another. Surely, as deep as analytics may go, almost nobody would take someone with gaudy quantifiable numbers over someone filled with intangibles like Eaton. To be fair, Eaton doesn’t have the best arm, his steals are low, and he walks about as much as Jose Reyes. He’s a unique leadoff/center field combo, if still a very valuable one. However, even with no two players meaning more to their team’s success than Jose Abreu and Chris Sale do for the Chicago White Sox, with Eaton may go the entire offense.

If there’s one major concern about Eaton’s game it’s his ability to stay on the field. Since being called up after monster numbers in the minor leagues, Eaton has never played more than 123 games. His 538 plate appearances a year ago disguises that he missed nearly 40 campaigns. While there’s no arguing the value of their two studs, Sox fans should hope that Eaton can stay healthy, where it’s a safe bet he will continue to devour pitches by making strong positive contact and remaining selective about swinging at balls out of the zone. Luckily, the contact tool isn’t one that often dramatically falls off, so it’s likely Eaton will enjoy similar success going forward. Additionally, the Sox hired Vince Coleman to work with Eaton on developing his base-running skills, a portion of his game that remains underwhelming. Yet as he finished with just 15 swipes, Eaton was good for exactly a 1.000 NBv (Next Base Value), roughly equating to one extra base per time he reached first. The explanation for Eaton moving to the next base may not help your fantasy team, but it leads at least this writer to believe he is as frustrating after he gets to first base as he is before he gets there.  If Eaton can spin his high On Base Percentage into moving bases more readily and continuing his unwavering contact, he’s poised to anchor a lineup that picked up more potential this past offseason.

Featured Image: Via South Side Sox

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