One of the ways Adam Eaton has endeared himself to the Diamondbacks: After hitting a hard single one day, Eaton took a wide turn around first base, inviting the outfielder to throw behind him. Eaton took a stutter step, but instead of retreating to first, he took off for second. He made it easily.
It was the kind of thing you might expect from a guy whose twitter handle includes the nickname “spanky.”
“He plays with his hair on fire, which you love,” Class AAA Reno manager Brett Butler said last month.
It takes one to know one, they say. The games of Eaton and his manager Butler, who spent 17 years in the major leagues, have been compared favorably as Eaton has worked his way up the D-backs’ system.
Eaton, 5-foot-8, combines a leadoff man’s skill set with an extra shot of adrenaline, and he has emerged as a prototype leadoff hitter who can hit his way on base and run his way to the next one … or two. He is a natural center fielder with an arm that is strong enough for right field, where he is playing these days now that A.J. Pollock is back in Reno.
Eaton remains a work in progress, but the work is so advanced that he led the minor leagues with 124 hits entering Independence Day games. He was hitting. 375, second in the league to teammate and No. 2 hitter Jake Elmore, and led the Pacific Coast League in runs. Eaton also was second in doubles, fourth stolen bases and sixth with a .973 OPS.
Imagine where he would be in the league rankings if he had not spent the first two weeks of the season at Class AA Mobile before being promoted to Reno when Pollock was with the D-backs while Chris Young missed a month with a shoulder injury.
“He’s a unique animal. He’s got this drive and determination that the little guys have,” Butler said. “He’s going to start the engine on the club. He’s going to be in the big leagues in a short period of time, and when he gets up there and you give him a chance to play every day, he will never come back. He’ll be up there, in my opinion, for 10 or 15 years.
“He adds that enthusiasm to a club at the top of the lineup and gets things going. It rubs off on everybody else, and you can see it.”
It has been quite a rise for Eaton, who was a 19th-round draft choice in 2010 out of Miami (Ohio) and immediately made his presence felt. He hit .385 with seven home runs, 37 RBIs and 20 stolen bases in 68 games with Missoula of the Pioneer League after signing that summer. He followed that with a composite .318 batting average, 10 homers, 67 RBIs and 34 stolen bases between Class A Visalia and Class AA Mobile.
Opposing managers have noticed. Eaton made the Pioneer League postseason All-Star team and the California League midseason All-Star team before his move to Mobile, where he started on the Southern League title team the second half of the season. He finished 2011 in the prospect-driven Arizona Fall League, where he was named by scouts and league observers to the all-prospect team.
Eaton, 23, was one of four Reno players named to represent the PCL at the Class AAA All-Star Game in Buffalo on July 11.
While the D-backs are deep in outfielders, Eaton gives them another option in the future — perhaps even the near future.
Butler, who hit .290 with 558 stolen bases in his long career, will leave the comparisons to others, although he believes Eaton will hit with more power than he did.
“He’s got some pop, which you wouldn’t expect, and the guy just knows how to play the game. He’s got the intangibles, too. He does some things that others won’t do. He’s still working on his bunting. He’s still working on understanding when to steal bases, even though he runs with a reckless abandon,” said Butler, who joined the D-backs as their first-base coach in 2005 and has been in the system ever since.
“He’s learning. He’s listening. He’s paying a lot of attention. The pitchers. What about this? How about that? He’s learned to see how guys swing at the plate and make adjustments where to play. He takes tremendous inventory and then applies it. He just has to hone his skills a little bit.
“Probably the best player, in my opinion, that I’ve had in my eight years is Carlos Gonzalez. And I am going to tell you right now he is right behind that kid. I think this kid is going to have a better career than I had. Eaton from the left side adds that extra energy that you need at the top of the lineup. You’ll see.”