Nate Eaton and the Royals’ Hole at Third Base

There aren’t many more intriguing players on the Royals’ 40-man roster right now than Nate Eaton, especially as we near the start of Spring Training.

Eaton has been a fast riser in the Royals system, as he was a pretty unheralded prospect in the Royals system at this time last year (he mostly was on the radar due to a solid 2021 AFL campaign). However, he got an opportunity during the series against the Blue Jays due to 10 unvaccinated Royals players, and he ended up producing a pretty solid rookie campaign, especially in the last two months, after the August Trade Deadline.

Last year, the 26-year-old VMI graduate hit .264 with a 101 wRC+ in 44 games and 122 plate appearances. In terms of counting stats, he only hit one home run (his first MLB hit), but he did steal 11 bases on 12 attempts, making him one of the more efficient baserunners on the Royals’ roster last season.

To further confirm his value to the Royals on the basepaths, in terms of BsR (baserunning runs above average), Eaton had the third-best mark of Royals batters with 50 or more plate appearances, according to Fangraphs. His 3.1 BsR was better than Andrew Benintendi (-1.3) and Whit Merrifield (2.2), both veterans who were eventually traded away at the Deadline in 2022.

Eaton brings a lot of potential value to the Royals in 2023, which is a big reason why Roster Resource is projecting him to make the Opening Day roster as a utility option off the bench. Considering new manager Matt Quatraro is coming from an org (Tampa Bay) that values positional versatility, it is likely that Eaton will not only have a spot on the Royals roster this season but could be heavily utilized in the lineup as well.

And this begs Royals fans to ask these two questions:

With the Royals lacking a clear-cut option at third base, could Eaton be the Royals’ everyday option at the hot corner? Or should Quatraro utilize him in a utility role, much like Merrifield was by Mike Matheny over the past couple of years in Kansas City?

Kansas City’s hole a third presents an interesting dilemma not only for Quatraro and the Royals but Eaton as well.


Can Eaton’s Bat Fit at Third Base?

In this day and age of baseball versatility, the expectation of what kind of “hitter” a certain position should be can get overblown. After all, as long as the player is productive, it shouldn’t matter if he fits the “stereotype” of what is expected at that particular position.

Nonetheless, corner infield positions are expected to be “power producers” in the lineup, especially if the lineup isn’t necessarily getting that from the outfielders on a regular basis.

Considering the outfield (for now) should consist of some kind of combination of Michael A. Taylor, Kyle Isbel, Drew Waters, Edward Olivares, and maybe MJ Melendez, it will be expected that the Royals infield will need to make it up on the power end in 2023 (though Witt and Massey should help).

And I’m not sure Eaton can do that at third base, just based on his Statcast data from 2022.

Now granted, his sample size is small, so it is possible that Eaton could have more in the tank on a batted ball end, especially if given a full season of time at the MLB level in 2023.

When it came to many hard-hit metrics though, especially categories like average exit velocity and barrels per plate appearance, he did rank near the bottom of Royals hitters with 25 or more batted-ball events in 2022, according to Savant.

In the table below, notice how Eaton ranked 12th in barrels per plate appearance with a 3.3 percent mark, better than only Isbel (3.2), Adalberto Mondesi (1.9), Nicky Lopez (1.3), and Cam Gallagher (0.0).

Some of the other marks weren’t all that impressive either. His hard-hit rate of 27.5 percent and average exit velocity on batted balls of 85.8 MPH ranked 13th, and his max exit velocity on batted balls (107 MPH) ranked 14th, ahead of only Mondesi and Lopez.

On the other hand, there was one category of Eaton’s from last year that could give Royals fans hope that some improvement in hard contact and barrels could be in store in 2023.

And that is his launch angle of 13.6 degrees, which ranked 7th of that group of 16 Royals hitters from 2022.

In fact, his launch angle was better than Hunter Dozier (13.1), Mondesi (7.8), and Lopez (4.9), all considered “options” who could fill in at third base for this upcoming season.

So why is launch angle important?

Well, when hitters are able to launch the ball more, they are able to hit more line drives or fly balls, which have higher chances of falling for hits (especially of the extra-base kind) when there is solid exit velocity behind them.

Eaton’s swing produces a natural loft under batted balls that can find gaps, which in turn can lead to extra-base hits in Kauffman Stadium’s spacious outfield or get out of the park in smaller ballparks on the road.

Here’s an example of Eaton able to find the gap on a hard-hit line drive against Joey Wentz at Comerica Park back on September 27th. His speed and ability to get the ball in between the Tigers’ outfielders in Comerica’s spacious outfield is a big reason why he was able to leg out a triple.

In this at-bat below, Eaton is able to find the right-center gap in Comerica off of Tigers pitcher Jason Foley on September 29th. Eaton’s launch angle is a big reason why he is able to produce a double on this batted ball which does plate O’Hearn.

What is interesting to note is that Eaton began to produce more quality contact as he got more plate appearances at the Major League level, according to Fangraphs splits data.

Here is a look at his monthly batted-ball splits, and notice the spike in line-drive rate and pull rate in the second half and last couple of months of play.

After producing a 0.0 percent line-drive rate in the first half, Eaton produced a rate of 20.8 percent in the second half, which included a 26 percent rate in September/October.

Another positive sign that correlates with this growth in line-drive rate is his expected wOBA rolling line chart from 2022, according to Savant. Notice in the chart below how Eaton started his rookie year below average and became significantly above average on an xwOBA end toward the end of the year, right around that September/October timespan roughly.

If Eaton can continue that trend in his sophomore year, add a little bit more velocity on his batted balls from 2022 to 2023, and still keep that positive launch angle, he could find himself as a regular in the Royals batting order this season.


Would Eaton Be Better Utilized in the Outfield?

The hard-hit and exit velocity metrics aren’t great, but I think his last couple of months of line-drive rate data, as well as his season-long launch angle numbers, could give some hope for Eaton in 2023, especially for a guy with his speed tool.

Let’s look at the defensive data from his rookie season though, paying particular attention to his OAA (outs above average) data via Baseball Savant:

On a third-base end, the data isn’t too promising for Eaton.

He was four outs below average at third on 46 attempts in 2022. That number was particularly fueled by a success rate of 57 percent on plays, which was eight percent lower than his estimated success rate. Any time the success rate is lower than the estimated rate, it’s not a good sign defensively for a player.

In the table below, Eaton was particularly bad not just on plays when he was situated at third, but also when he shifted to the SS position in particular defensive alignments a season ago. His success rate at that location in the field was 26 percent below his estimated rate, which produced a -1 OAA.

Now let’s take a look at the OAA box plot data and notice a lot of the blue boxes around third base, which is not good.

On the other hand, look at all the red in right field, which IS good.

In right field last year, Eaton’s OAA was +3, and his success rate of 89 percent was seven percent higher than his estimated success rate. That demonstrates that Eaton was making plays that the average right fielder couldn’t make in 2022.

Here’s an example of Eaton making an incredible catch on a ball that Andrew Vaughn hits 104.4 MPH off of Zack Greinke in the gap at Kauffman Stadium on August 11th.

The plays don’t necessarily have to look “super” dynamic either to demonstrate Eaton’s ability to cover a lot of ground in right field, especially at Kauffman Stadium.

On August 4th against the Red Sox, JD Martinez hit a line drive to the right-center gap at 102.2 MPH. Eaton made the play look routine to end the inning, as evidenced in the clip below:

I am not sure Olivares or Dozier would come even close to making that play at the K. And that’s what makes Eaton intriguing in right:

Eaton, Waters, and Taylor could produce an outfield trio in KC that could be up there with the St. Louis Cardinals’ outfield of 2021 that consisted of talented defensive outfielders like Tyler O’Neill, Hunter Bader, and Dylan Carlson.


So Should Eaton Not Play Any Third?

Eaton legitimately could be a Gold Glove candidate in right field. And his throwing ability further justifies that case, as his arm strength rated the best in the league of ALL fielders in 2022, according to Savant. (Notice how Drew Waters also ranks 9th, which further justifies the potential defensively of a Waters-Taylor-Eaton outfield.)

That being said, the Royals shouldn’t totally close the door on Eaton seeing at least SOME time at third base in 2023.

It just may be a “revolving” door at third base for right now until the Royals eventually make that decision to move Witt back to third at some point. That change could be expedited if Maikel Garcia has a solid Spring Training and start in Omaha in 2023 (I believe Garcia will start with Storm Chasers initially in order to preserve some service time at least).

Of the current candidates, Mondesi is the best overall option, but considering his injury history he would be better off not playing every day. That means that someone will need to slide in at third when Mondesi needs those days off. It would be better for Eaton to be that option rather than Dozier, who’s been historically terrible at third, or Lopez, who would be better off coming off the bench and relieving Witt or Massey in the middle infield.

Plus, Quatraro slotting Eaton occasionally at third would also give opportunities to Isbel and Olivares in the outfield, who also could provide value offensively if given more plate appearances in 2023. Olivares has more upside with the bat, but his defense in right field not only lags behind Eaton but Isbel as well.

Eaton would be a true utility guy in that Whit-mold, but unlike Whit, there wouldn’t be that “franchise star” attitude where a certain spot in the batting order was guaranteed (even if it wasn’t always the best decision).

It should be a matter of time before Eaton “earns” the right field spot for good and hopefully, for a long time in Kansas City.

But for now, the Royals should continue to let him see some time at third sporadically to benefit their roster and defense overall in the short term.

Photo Credit: Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

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