There’s a romantic notion about the underdog making it in Major League Baseball, and another romantic notion about the hard-nosed kid willing to do anything to help his team. Both are cliches, and if that’s not your thing, that’s fine. Still, there is a reason why those cliches persist. Everyone loves the underdog, and it is so much fun watching an athlete put it all on the line for the sake of the team.
As the 632nd overall selection in the 2018 draft, Nate Eaton is both the underdog and the selfless utility guy who wants to help however he can. Considering how the 2020 pandemic-shortened season hurt low minors guys like Eaton the most—the guys who needed to prove themselves—it is a bit of a miracle that Eaton made it to the big leagues last year and held his own.
Can Eaton stick as a big league regular? It comes down to hitting, as it always does. Two of the biggest projection system, ZiPS and Steamer, don’t trust Eaton’s 2022 campaign and project a step back for him—ZiPS projects a wRC+ of 90, with Steamer at an even lower 84 wRC+. Interestingly enough, both projection systems think Eaton’s power figures and plate discipline are mostly sustainable; rather, it thinks that Eaton’s 2022 BABIP (batting average on balls in play) was fluky and high.
The projection systems are probably right. Very few hitters can regularly post a .346 BABIP across a full season. Furthermore, Eaton’s exit velocities aren’t great. Statcast’s figures put Eaton in the 28th percentile in max exit velocity, and his average exit velocity of 85.8 MPH just isn’t anything to write home about. If Eaton succeeds in the big leagues, it will be because he refines his approach as a line drive hitter and maintains an 8% to 10% walk rate. That’s just a tall order.
But even if Eaton never figures it out as a hitter, he might just become a fan favorite. Here are two numbers for you:
- 97th percentile
- 100th percentile
The first number is Eaton’s sprint speed, where he ranked as one of the 20 fastest players in MLB last year. The second number is Eaton’s arm strength, where Eaton was the fastest throwing defensive player in the league; Eaton boasted both the fastest throw of the year (103.3 MPH, lol) and the fastest overall average (98.1 MPH). There are a lot of athletic players in the league. To be at the top of two raw physical categories is quite the feat, and in practice, it’s amazing. From outfield dives...
...to this preposterously strong and accurate throw to nab a runner at second.
Eaton did these on back-to-back games, because of course he did.
Now, there are better individual options than Eaton just about everywhere. MJ Melendez, Kyle Isbel, and Drew Waters are younger and deserve outfield spots. Edward Olivares has a longer track record of hitting well. Nicky Lopez has established himself as a defensively excellent bench player. Nick Pratto has the pedigree and upside Eaton lacks—ditto Michael Massey, who has proven himself himself at every step in the minors. Samad Taylor is a year younger and has shown a stronger ability to take walks. Maikel Garcia is a sharper infield defender with a lot of upside.
Nevertheless, Eaton has a place on this team. He can play all over the diamond and the outfield except for shortstop, which is covered by a budding superstar. Somebody will underperform. Someone will get hurt. These things happen every year. There is enough playing time to see what Eaton can do in a second go round.
The chances that Eaton becomes the next Whit Merrifield aren’t super high. However, the chance is there. And for that reason, with the Royals in a “wait and see” mode, they deserve to do so with Eaton.