Eaton making smooth transition to leadoff role
White Sox center fielder altering hitting approach depending on situation
GLENDALE, Ariz. -- The first pitch to Adam Eaton from a recent Cactus League contest comes a little inside and low, and he takes the fastball without flinching.
On the next offering, Eaton drops down a perfect bunt, easily rolling fair down the third-base line.
Two innings later, Eaton once again begins his at-bat by taking a pitch out of the zone -- this time watching the ball tail outside. He follows with a line single to left and promptly steals second.
Such are the job details for the new White Sox leadoff man.
This is a role Eaton not only plays out physically but also mentally in trying to give the White Sox a competitive offensive edge. It's not overly complex but it's certainly not basic, as scenarios in each at-bat change based on a number of game-related factors.
"It can be anything," Eaton said. "If I've seen the guy a lot, I might swing first pitch. If not, then I'm going to go up there with a good approach and try to get on base. There's not a specific way that I go about it with every guy.
"Even how the team is playing changes. If we are not taking a lot of first pitches, or guys are only throwing 100 pitches in a game, or the guy has been throwing well and we need to get to the 'pen, there are a lot of things that go into it. You have to take them into account as a leadoff hitter."
Eaton, in theory, only is guaranteed one leadoff at-bat per game. So the approach might be slightly altered, but the thought process remains the same. His results haven't been too bad through the outset of Spring Training.
A ground ball to second baseman Eric Sogard to open Sunday's contest against Oakland ended a stretch of six straight plate appearances where Eaton had reached base. Before that ground ball off Dan Straily, Eaton had four hits, one walk and one hit-by-pitch.
Generously listed at 5-foot-8 and 185 pounds, it's the style of play Eaton needs to employ to succeed. It's also a style that should help the White Sox offense score in others ways besides the long ball.
Juan Pierre, Alejandro De Aza and even Nick Swisher all have played the part of White Sox leadoff hitters to some level of success over the past decade. De Aza, as an example, checked in at slightly more than four pitches per plate appearance over each of the past two seasons and provided extra-base punch.
Scott Podsednik from 2005 stands as the White Sox leadoff prototype, especially during the first half of that World Series championship season. Podsednik often presented the White Sox stellar pitching staff with early run support by getting on base, getting over possibly through a stolen base or two and getting in.
There's hope Eaton can play that role.
"Obviously that's the thought process," said White Sox hitting coach Todd Steverson of Eaton and the top of the order. "I'm not sure where the game has really changed through the mid-90s or whatever you want to call it, but that's what it was.
"First two guys were table setters, they got on base, they caused havoc. They were speed guys. The No. 2 guy typically knew how to handle the bat pretty good. Hit-and-run type guys. Somebody that could shoot the hole in the No. 2 slot. They communicate with each other on hit and runs or stolen bases or whatever it might be. To have that element back at it is pretty good for us.
"He's been that kind of guy his whole career," said Steverson of Eaton's style. "The whole maturation of leading off has been inundated since he's been in pro ball. You learn every year. You learn something new every year. What he's learned to this point, he understands his game and what he's got to do."
Steverson quickly cleared up any misconception that Eaton came to the White Sox to simply slap the baseball or see eight pitches every trip to the plate. Eaton has some pop and is going to swing the bat when challenged.
There are times when Eaton might jump on a first pitch, as he said. There also will be times where Eaton doesn't get going until the count hits two strikes.
"Sometimes I feel like I'm a better hitter with two strikes," Eaton said. "I cut down on my swing. I'm more apt to put the ball in play. If you get 2-0, sometimes you get a little fancy. At 0-2, you are really buckling down and trying to put the ball in play. It controls the swing a little more when you get two strikes.
"If we are trying to be aggressive off this guy, he pounds the zone a lot with a lot of heaters, I'm definitely going up there to look for a heater right away. Like I said, if it's on the flip side of things, and we need to get into the 'pen and get to it early, maybe we have a doubleheader where, 'Let's get to the 'pen,' I might take two or wait until two strikes where I actually start battling."
Call it battling. Call it grinding, somewhat akin to a younger, left-handed-hitting version of Aaron Rowand. But in a short time, Eaton already feels comfortable setting up the White Sox offense.
"Yeah, I'm getting there," Eaton said. "It's a credit to the guys. Some really good guys in the clubhouse getting along with and really help me make the transition."