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Nate Eaton: two-way superstar

Well, superstar may be a bit of a stretch

MLB: Kansas City Royals at Texas Rangers Raymond Carlin III-USA TODAY Sports

Nate Eaton has had a rough 2023 on the diamond. After impressing in a small sample in 2022 with a league-average batting line paired with strong outfield defense, the regression monster has arrived. Eaton has reached base just once in 19 trips to the plate and has walked back to the dugout bat-in-hand in ten of those. He hasn’t even really had the opportunity to flash his elite speed on the basepaths yet, with just one stolen base attempt. But despite the struggles, Eaton has gotten to show off one of his tools this season.

The M101A1 howitzer is an American artillery piece capable of firing 105mm high-explosive semi-fixed ammunition over two miles. I’m no expert on military hardware, but I’m fairly confident Eaton has one attached to his right shoulder. No position player in baseball threw harder than he did last season. In 2022, 414 position players made at least 50 qualified throws measured by Statcast. Eaton led all of them in both average and max velocity. His hardest throw was a blistering 103.3 mph. Would you like to see what a 103.3 mph throw from the outfield looks like? I would too, but for some inane reason, Statcast captures throw velo but doesn’t show individual, sortable throws on a player’s page. If you pull up a specific play, it will only show pitch and exit velo.

As an aside: I find myself screaming anytime I write any article involving metrics because so much data that I want to access is either unavailable to the public or captured by Statcast and not shown on their website for no discernible reason. Look at this Statcast page. They have a pretty little graphic up top that allows one to actually see individual throws sorted by velo. The only problem is Nate Eaton, who throws harder than any other position player, is NOT EVEN SHOWN ON THE DAMN GRAPHIC. Dudes who made fewer throws in 2022 are shown but for some unknowable reason, he isn’t. I feel like I’m losing my mind over here. Anyway...

I’m not sure exactly when Eaton unleashed his maximum throw, but we can see an approximation. Old friend Michael A. Taylor had the second hardest outfield throw captured by Statcast last season, clocked at 102.4 mph:

That throw might have had a shot of nailing Andrés Giménez if it hadn’t three-hopped to the plate.

Flash forward to this season and Eaton is still showing off the arm. A year after recording three outfield assists in 182 innings, Eaton has already gunned down two runners in just 45 defensive innings. He is one of just ten outfielders that has recorded multiple assists in 2023, and only Will Brennan (Kansas State legend) has also done it in fewer than 50 defensive innings. Granted, one of them wasn’t an outfield assist in the traditional sense, but a result of how the Royals are aligning their outfielders:

Nothing special here: a groundout into the shift that we’ve seen plenty of in past years. The other one, however, is Eaton showing off his arm:

Daulton Varsho, who is not a slow guy, had to hold up near first initially as he couldn’t tell if the ball would be caught. He realized about a half second before the ball dropped that it would fall and took off for second. Eaton was able to quickly field the ball, set his feet, make the transfer, and deliver a bullet that just barely beat Varsho to the bag. Not many outfielders can make that play, and Eaton is one of the few with the arm to do so. With an arm like that, one has to wonder: what could he do on the mound?

Seven years ago, second-year head coach Jonathan Hadra of the Virginia Military Institute baseball program had the same thought. MLB fans have been dazzled in recent years by the two-way prowess of Shohei Ohtani, but two-way players have long been a factor in college baseball. So much so that there is an annual award for the best two-way player in Division I baseball: the John Olerud Award. While there are special cases like Paul Skenes and Brendan McKay, most two-way guys function as an everyday position player and a reliever on the side.

Such was the case for Eaton. As a freshman on a young VMI team in 2016, Eaton predominantly played second base while getting a little action at third as well. He also took the mound several times, which did not go well. In 20.2 innings, he walked 18 batters and allowed 21 earned runs. He ended up sitting out the 2017 season for reasons that I cannot find on the internet.

It would have been understandable for Hadra to pull the plug on the two-way idea given Eaton’s success at the plate, but he got another opportunity in the bullpen in 2018. Things went much better that year. He still struggled with walks, giving out 22 free passes in 24.1 innings, but he cut his ERA from 9.15 to 4.44. He was much less hittable and put up decent strikeout totals.

After the 2018 season, Kansas City selected Eaton in the 21st round of the draft and he signed on with the club, ending his collegiate career. He was drafted as a position player, which seemed to signal the end of Eaton’s life as a two-way player.

Or so it seemed. We arrive now at why this article exists in the first place. On April 10 in Arlington, the Royals were getting shelled by the Texas Rangers. Entering the bottom of the eighth inning, Kansas City was staring down an 11-2 deficit. Not wanting to burn a reliever in the midst of a twelve games in twelve days stretch, they turned to their rocket-armed outfielder to finish out the game. Eaton had never pitched in a professional game; this was his first competitive action on the mound in almost five years.

Another quick complaint before we breakdown this inning: here is a video on MLB Film Room entitled “Nate Eaton Called Strike to Travis Jankowski.” Let’s check it out:

Thanks MLBAM, very cool!

Anyway, first up is Travis Jankowski. We find out very quickly that this won’t be any ordinary position player pitching appearance.

That’s a four-seamer at 94 flat painted on that outside corner. An absolute beauty. He goes 94.4 on another four-seamer on the next pitch, but it’s just outside and called a ball. On 1-1, he throws something that Statcast classifies as a slider, but it doesn’t really do anything and stays outside for ball two. On the fourth pitch, Eaton finally gets a swing.

That’s 93.4 on the four-seamer and once again dotting the corner as Jankowski pulls it foul. Eaton then throws something at 70.2 that Statcast calls a changeup, but it’s nowhere near a strike. After another foul, he manages to record his first out in pro ball with a four-seamer up.

That pitch was a pie, but luckily Jankowski got on top of it and bounced out. With that, Eaton tied an MLB record with a 0.00 career ERA. Congratulations Nate! Next up is Ezequiel Duran. Eaton started him out with a pitch that caught people’s attention. It’s not on Film Room because MLBAM is a fucking joke dropped the ball on this one, but here it is in .gif form:

That’s a sinker at 93.3 with some proper movement. Position players aren’t supposed to throw pitches like that! He follows it up with a similar pitch with an extra tick of velo that Duran fouls off, and suddenly it’s 0-2. Eaton’s next pitch is his hardest: a four-seamer at 94.9 that misses up and away. With the count 1-2, Eaton decides to try another breaking ball. He executes this slider far better than the previous one.

Its shape is much more that of a curveball, but it hums in there at 81.7. Alas, all good things must come to an end. Eaton tried another slider and this one didn’t really break as Duran pulled it through the 5-6 hole for a knock. This brought up a much tougher assignment: Corey Seager. Eaton started Seager with a low sinker for a ball, and then followed it up with a nothing pitch at 68.9 that Statcast calls a changeup. Seager pulled it through the infield for a hit, but it would not have been a hit if the Royals had been playing their shifted outfield!

With two runners on, Eaton needed to bear down, and bear down he did. He retired Brad Miller on just two pitches, bringing up Adolis García. Eaton tried all four of his pitches and missed the zone thrice, running the count to 3-1. Quit playing with your food Nathan. He gets a called strike to run the count full before blowing García away with a dandy of a four-seamer at 92.5.

In total, Eaton needed 22 pitches to complete a scoreless eighth inning. Between four-seamers and sinkers, Eaton threw 15 fastballs and averaged more velo than everybody else that pitched in this game save Brock Burke and Dylan Coleman. He also mixed in four sliders and three “changeups.”

This was a bright spot in an otherwise abysmal loss, but is there anything to take away from this? Not really. If Eaton finds himself on the mound again, hopefully it will be because Kansas City has a big lead rather than the inverse. If he were counted on for regular innings, that would indicate many things have gone terribly wrong in the bullpen (as an aside: in a prospect report a year ago, Eric Longenhagen wrote: “he has one of the best throwing arms in professional baseball, a rocket launcher that might merit a look on the mound if/when Eaton and the industry declare him to have plateaued as a position player.”)

That said, the novelty of position players pitching has worn off in recent years with it happening so frequently and guys generally just going up there and lobbing in meatballs at 45. It’s refreshing to see a guy go up there and throw some proper heat. Every team should have a bench guy that pitched in college for situations just like this.