Welcome back to our Kings of Kauffman offseason series analyzing the 2023 performances of various KC Royals players. Today, we take a look at outfielder Nate Eaton.
War Memorial Stadium in Hampton, Virginia, stands as one of the oldest baseball stadiums on the East Coast, with a rich history of legendary players. Some even have strong ties to the KC Royals.
Since its inception in June 1948, the stadium has been home to the Peninsula Pilots, a baseball team that is now in its second iteration. The first franchise, which lasted from 1963 to 1992, was even a Class-A affiliate of the Kansas City Athletics in 1967. The team has had several Hall of Famers, including Johnny Bench and Satchel Paige. And, interestingly enough, the prestigious list of former Peninsula players also includes KC Royals outfielder Nate Eaton.
Eaton played for the Pilots in 2016 and 2017 after his seasons at Virginia Military Institute. His seasons in the Coastal Plain League and at VMI saw him become a prospect worthy of a 21st-round selection in 2018. The Royals 2018 draft class is far from stellar, but such a late selection appearing in The Show is an achievement on its own.
The KC Royals expected more from Nate Eaton in 2023.
Eaton debuted in July of last season and played a good number of games for the then-struggling Royals. He had 106 at-bats in 44 games, finishing with a very acceptable 100 wRC+ and .9 fWAR. The bat was solid, he could play multiple positions, and he had elite raw speed. There was a lot to like about Eaton's limited looks in 2022, which made his breaking camp with the Royals the following season not a surprise.
The surprise was just how bad Eaton was after Opening Day 2023.
He did not look like an experienced MLB player, but rather a green and overwhelmed player. His strikeout rate spiked to 37.5% in 53 at-bats, compounded by him only having one hit until May 11. Those 36 plate appearances were painful to watch, and his .029 batting average in that span was a tough pill to swallow.
Eaton played in 24 of the Royals first 50 games, with little positive impact on the field or at the plate. His sprint speed remained elite, ranking in the 97th percentile, according to Baseball Savant. But quick feet could not keep Eaton in the majors for much longer than May. He made his last MLB appearance on June 23, recording his fourth and final hit.
The Royals sent Eaton to Triple-A Omaha, where Eaton still struggled at the plate. He recorded a career-high 15 home runs, but his walk-to-strikeout ratio and 84 wRC+ were MiLB career lows. The 26-year-old just never made himself undeniable for an MLB return during the 2023 season. In his limited action, here is how Eaton's stats at the plate looked:
28 G, 56 PA, .075/.125/.075, 1 RBI, 3 SB, .200 OPS
Advanced numbers to know:
37.5% strikeout rate, 3.6% walk rate, -53 wRC+, -.8 fWAR.
What grade should Nate Eaton get?
I think that, on a good team, Eaton has value. He is a plus-pinch runner, can play all over the field, and can even pitch pretty well. But the Royals needed to see if he was a core player moving forward, and his 2023 performance says he is not. There is no way to look at this season any other than an F. I hope he rebounds in 2024, because he could be playing for his MLB future.