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Some people just like to go first.
There's usually the zany kid who has to be the first one to run into the frigid waters of Lake Michigan on a day like Saturday, the first balmy day of spring. Or how about the joker who inhales a jalapeño martini while friends stand back and wait for the reaction. Then there's the skydivers and bungee-jumpers who thrive on being the first out of the plane or off the bridge.
Apparently Adam Eaton relishes being first, and luckily for the White Sox, he's a ballplayer.
The new Sox leadoff man appears destined to start things. His energy dictates, "Let me set the tone. I'll go first and show you how this is done."
Eaton is a man in constant motion. If you hired him to clean your house, he would wash the dishes, vacuum the floor, dust the furniture, clean the bathrooms, change the sheets, finish mopping, and be out the door within an hour.
Thirteen games doesn't a season make, but Eaton has given fans a taste of a competitor who has only one speed. Whether he's sprinting to first base after walking, legging out a double or triple, or circling the bases after his first homer of the season on Saturday, the kid doesn't stop. He's irrepressible, and his attitude and demeanor just might be contagious.
The most effective leadoff men get on base and score a lot of runs. If they go deep in the count - taking a chunk out of a starting pitcher's quota - they're doing their job. Stealing bases, hitting .280 or better, and being able to bunt all add to the leadoff man's value. Eaton has many these abilities.
So far the centerfielder - obtained from the Diamondbacks last December
as part of the deal that sent Addison Reed to Arizona - has led off 30 innings for the Sox, who lead all teams in runs scored. You read that correctly. Last season they ranked 29th, outscoring only the Miami Marlins.
Of those 30 plate appearances, Eaton has reached base 13 times and scored nine runs. That's just when he's led off an inning. For the young season, his 14 runs scored lead all of major league baseball, a huge factor in the Sox's 7-6 record after Alexei Ramirez's walk-off two-run homer on Sunday that gave the Sox a 4-3 victory over Cleveland, their third win in the four-game series.
Eaton's slash line for the 13 games is .327/.414/.900. Let's not get carried away. The greatest leadoff man of all time, Rickey Henderson, finished his 25-year career at .279/.401/.820, so Eaton will come back to Earth.
(Henderson's 2,295 runs scored are more than anyone in history.)
And while Eaton will continue to see a lot of pitches - he's averaging 4.11 so far - but pitchers who think they can throw a fastball right down the middle on the first offering might be surprised. Take Saturday, a 12-6 loss to the Indians. Eaton saw six pitches from Justin Masterson to coax a walk to lead off the Sox's first when they batted around and scored four times.
Leading off the second, Masterson might have assumed that Eaton would take a strike before getting down to business. So he grooved a first-pitch fastball, and Adam took it over the right-field fence. Obviously Eaton had a plan when he walked to the plate.
The Sox have had some pretty good leadoff men in the past. Scott Podsednik filled the role in 2005 when they won it all. Scotty Pods hit .290, scored 80 runs and swiped 58 bases. He also worked the count, averaging 3.89 pitches per at-bat.
The 2000 team that won the Central Division had Ray Durham, who had some pop, slugging 17 homers and driving in 75 runs from the leadoff spot. More importantly, he scored an eye-raising 121 runs.
Rudy Law crossed the plate 95 times for the 1983 Winning Ugly Sox. He also stole 77 bases so that the likes of Ron Kittle, Carlton Fisk, Greg Luzinski and Harold Baines could drive him home. The Sox averaged almost five runs a game that season.
Perhaps the best leadoff man in the team's history was Nellie Fox, who scored more than 100 runs in four consecutive seasons, 1954-57. He lacked Eaton's speed, but he hit .288 lifetime and was the American League MVP in the pennant-winning 1959 campaign. Fox's ability to foul off pitches until he got one he liked never showed up in the box score since pitches per at-bat weren't recorded in those days. But that was one of Nellie's strengths.
Eaton appears to share Fox's ability to keep chipping away until the pitcher accommodates him with something he can drive.
Playing at the same time as Fox was Eddie Yost, who earned the title "The Walking Man" during an 18-year career on nondescript teams in Detroit and Washington - the Senators, not the Nationals. Yost hit just .254 leading off for these second-division clubs, but he averaged 124 walks a season by swinging only at strikes and driving pitchers nuts by fouling off pitch after pitch.
Playing at the same time as Ted Williams, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra and other future Hall-of-Famers, Yost led the league in walks six times. All this from a guy who basically was a .250 hitter.
Okay, enough history, but you get the idea of what the quintessential leadoff hitter needs to accomplish, and Adam Eaton has shown that he has a working knowledge of this role.
Let's just say that Alejandro De Aza, a good hitter and the Sox's leadoff man the past two seasons, not only lacked the tools to bat first - he swings at far too many bad pitches - but seemed uncommitted to the role in the first place. He seems far more suited to hitting lower in the order, looking for RBIs and hitting the long ball with runners on base.
The season-ending injury to Avisail Garcia will hurt the Sox's ability to score runs, and the team is less fun to watch without Garcia in the lineup. Nevertheless, Conor Gillaspie batting third followed by Jose Abreu in the cleanup spot has been a good combination so far.
Maybe because he's surrounded by some good hitters and doesn't feel as much pressure, Adam Dunn is hitting the ball to all fields. His 14 strikeouts don't even lead the team. Marcus Semien, who slugged a huge homer Sunday to put the Sox ahead in the 8th inning, has that dubious honor, having fanned 16 times.
And what's up with Ramirez? If the All-Star Game were next week, he'd be the starting shortstop for the American League. He's a different player both at bat - for crying out loud, he's leading the league in hitting at .420 - and in the field.
At the same time, if the '83 team won ugly, this crew is on the edge of repulsive.
Cleveland helped out Friday night by walking nine Sox in the South Siders' 9-6 win. So-called closer Matt Lindstrom blew his second save (out of three opportunities) yesterday before Ramirez's heroics bailed him out. Abreu's error leading off the top of the ninth inning couldn't have come at a worse time.
Felipe Paulino is one of baseball's most awful starting pitchers, and pitching coach Don Cooper all but said that the team will give him one more chance to remain in the rotation. But as bad as Paulino has been - an ERA of 7.98 and a WHIP of 2.11 - he's no worse than some of the relievers.
So far the season has been a rollercoaster. Careless defense and pitchers who can't throw strikes are cause for indigestion, but once the team comes to bat, happy times return.
Maybe Adam Eaton can pitch. He seems to be able to do just about everything else.
Roger Wallenstein is our man on the Sox. He welcomes your comments.
1. From S. Corman:
Great column, Roger. I just hope he keeps it up.
By the way, if I recall, Reed wasn't in the Adam trade. Reed went to AZ straight-up for
third base prospect Matt Davidson.
Adam came over in that 3-team trade where Trumbo went from the Angels to AZ, Hector Santiago and I believe someone else from the Sox wound up in Anaheim and Adam joined us.
As for the Sox pitching woes, I couldn't believe what they were saying about either
Paulino or Belisario. I never expected anything from either of them.
The real shocker to me has been how terrible Scott Downs has been after all those solid years.
2. From Rick Kehoe:
Really enjoyed the analysis. Eaton is a joy long awaited since 2005. Just curious about Nellie. I remember him mostly batting second behind Louie. Or was that mostly around/during 1959? Anyway, Keep up the great reports. Can't wait for the next one.
Roger replies: Apologies. Maybe I'm losing it.
The Sox had two fine Venezuelan shortstops in the '50s, Chico Carrasquel and Luis Aparicio. Aparicio batted leadoff all the time with Fox second, and Chico also served as the leadoff man until he career waned and Aparicio took over in 1956.
When they won the pennant in 1959, Aparicio hit just .257, but he led the league with 56 stolen bases. (He led the AL in steals for nine straight seasons,1956-64.) In '59, Aparicio scored 98 runs. He would reach base, steal second, and Fox more often than not drove him in. With the great pitching staff, the team needed to do that just a couple of times a game. In one-run games they were 35-15. Catcher Sherm Lollar, who batted fourth, hit 22 HRs and drove in 84 runs, both team highs. The team average was a robust .250, but the team ERA was 3.29. Not sure this formula would work as well today.
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