Willy Adames Can See Clearly Now

When you pull up the position player leaderboards since May 22, you’ll see a pair of likely MVP candidates sitting on top of the list. Shohei Ohtani leads all batters with 3.1 WAR during this period and that’s ignoring the additional 1.3 WAR the two-way star has accumulated on the mound over his last nine starts. Fernando Tatis Jr. sits behind Ohtani with Cedric Mullins rounding out the top trio (perhaps this article should have been about what Mullins has done this year). But nestled behind those three is Willy Adames with 3.1 WAR in 64 games. Why is May 22 the arbitrary time frame placed on this query? That was the day Adames made his debut for the Brewers after being traded to Milwaukee from the Rays.

On May 22, the Brewers were 22-23 and sitting behind the Cubs and Cardinals in the NL Central. Since then, they’ve had the best record in the National League at 42-21 and have built a sizable cushion in the standings ahead of their division rivals. That turnaround is due in no small part to Adames’ fantastic performance over these last two-plus months. He’s hit .295/.379/.553 for the Brewers, good for a 148 wRC+, and has played excellent defense at shortstop. With Christian Yelich still struggling to reproduce his MVP-quality production from 2018 and ‘19, Adames has taken the reins as the leading run producer in the Brewers lineup.

When you compare what Adames has accomplished in Milwaukee with what he did in Tampa Bay, it certainly appears as though the change of scenery has made the difference:

Willy Adames, Career Production
2018-2020 1112 29.0% 8.7% 0.348 0.164 106
2021 w/ TBR 142 35.9% 7.0% 0.276 0.174 74
2021 w/ MIL 264 25.3% 11.9% 0.361 0.257 148

Adames has shown flashes of production like this in the past, but he’s been held back by an aggressive approach that’s led to some untenable strikeout rates. He’s taken his ability to hit for power to new levels with the Brewers, and his strikeout and walk rates have both greatly improved. We’re talking about just 268 plate appearances, but there are enough positive signs in his underlying numbers that we could be witnessing a huge breakout from Adames.

Part of that might be attributable to a literal change in his scenery. Last year, Adames tested out wearing non-prescription glasses while playing at home at Tropicana Field. He was having a really difficult time seeing the ball while playing under the lights of the domed field. “I was good on the road; I just couldn’t hit at the Trop,” Adames told Tyler Kepner of the New York Times in an interview from early July.

“After they changed the lights in ’19, it was tough for me to see the ball there. Everybody thought it was mental, but it wasn’t. I was just guessing all the time there because I couldn’t pick up the ball when I was hitting.”

His issues hitting at Tropicana Field are born out in his home/road splits while playing for the Rays.

Willy Adames, Home/Road Splits
Home 626 31.2% 7.3% 0.298 0.128 75
Away 628 28.3% 9.7% 0.384 0.204 130
w/ Tampa Bay

What he was able to accomplish on the road while with Tampa looks remarkably similar to what he’s done in Milwaukee. But if he was able to see the ball better on the road, and now while he’s a member of the Brewers, that should show up in some of his underlying plate discipline metrics.

Willy Adames, Plate Discipline
Split Swing% O-Swing% Contact% Z-Contact% SwStr%
Home w/ TBR 47.8% 28.7% 71.4% 79.6% 13.6%
Away w/ TBR 46.6% 21.8% 71.9% 79.1% 13.1%
MIL 47.0% 24.5% 71.8% 81.5% 13.3%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

I’ve broken Adames’ career down into three buckets: his home/away splits with the Rays and these last few months with the Brewers. Four of the five metrics above stay astonishingly consistent no matter where Adames is playing. But the one that has some significant differences may be the most important. While batting at Tropicana Field, Adames’ chase rate was a touch above league average; on the road as a Ray and as a Brewer, his chase rate falls well below league average.

That tracks with the way Adames described the effect of the lighting at Tropicana Field in this interview with MLB.com:

“Whenever I was out of the Trop, I feel like I was able to recognize the spin of the ball. You could see if it was a breaking ball, changeup or whatever. At The Trop, I couldn’t pick it up.”

In other interviews, he essentially said his approach while playing in Tampa Bay was just guessing at pitches and hoping to guess correctly. Everything about his approach stayed consistent, except for his ability to recognize pitches and lay off the ones that were traveling out of the strike zone.

These issues also affected the quality of contact he made at home as a Ray. Because he was guessing at which pitches were being thrown to him, when he did make contact with a pitch, he was more prone to mishit it, resulting in poor contact quality.

Willy Adames, Batted Ball Peripherals
Split Sweet Spot% Avg EV Hard Hit% Barrel%
Home w/ TBR 34.6% 87.0 33.1% 7.6%
Away w/ TBR 35.8% 89.0 38.1% 10.1%
MIL 34.9% 90.1 44.4% 11.8%
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

All of his significant batted ball peripherals were considerably weaker while hitting at Tropicana Field. He wasn’t hitting them as hard and struggled to tap into the power he’s displayed throughout his career.

Back in March, I wrote about how Adames quietly enjoyed a power breakout last year despite some major red flags in his approach. All the gains he made in terms of contact quality last year have taken another step forward this year. His barrel rate, hard hit rate, and average exit velocity are all at career highs — and that’s even including his miserable two months to start the season. All of his batted ball peripherals are even better as a Brewer. Even more encouraging, his batted ball profile isn’t as pull heavy as it was last year. He’s spreading the ball around the field again while still hitting for tons of power. He’s still hitting the ball to left field more often than he was in 2018 and ‘19, but his pull rate has come down more than 10 points from where it was last year.

Based on his struggles in Tampa Bay to start this year, it appears as though the pressure to keep his job on the Rays, particularly with Wander Franco looming, may have affected his performance on the field. That pressure, coupled with the visual issues he’s been dealing with over the last few years, really cratered his production. Now that Adames is in Milwaukee, he’s better recognizing pitches and has adjusted his approach accordingly while continuing to build on the improved contact quality he worked on last year. We’ve seen the best version of Adames over the last two months. The Brewers have to be thrilled they’ve found their long-term solution at shortstop.

Jake Mailhot is a contributor to FanGraphs. A long-suffering Mariners fan, he also writes about them for Lookout Landing. Follow him on Twitter @jakemailhot.

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2 years ago

Well summarized Jake. When I look at Adames’s “see the ball”/”don’t really see the ball” splits, I’m reminded of Tommy Pham’s breakthrough once he got those prescription contact lenses.

(And amazed that both these guys could deliver MLB-average offense even before resolving their vision issues).