It’s hard to find much more to say about Willy Adames than what has already been repeated numerous times. Since they acquired him from the Tampa Bay Rays, the Brewers have the best record in baseball. Adames’ contributions in the field and in the clubhouse have played no small part in that success. At the plate, he has slashed .297/.377/.553 with 16 home runs, producing a superb 147 wRC+. He has been elite on the dirt as well, providing +4 Defensive Runs Saved.
Since debuting for the Brewers on May 22, Adames’ 3.5 fWAR trails only Cedric Mullins. He has quite literally been the best player in the National League since he first donned the blue and gold. Because WAR is more of an approximation than an exact science, you can easily make the case that Adames has been the most valuable player in the sport in that span.
If you scan the internet for analysis on the breakout shortstop, you will find two points reinforced over and over again: Adames brings energy on the field and in the clubhouse, and he is thriving because he can finally see. The former Ray has not been shy about his struggles at Tropicana Field, where the lighting and batter’s eye made it difficult for him to pick up the ball. This made him heavily reliant on guessing pitches correctly. Adames’ splits for his Rays career certainly backed up his comments. He managed just a 75 wRC+ at home compared to a strong 130 wRC+ on the road.
The 25-year-old is obviously seeing the ball much better after escaping his former home in Florida. Adames has struck out in 24.7% of his plate appearances for the Brewers. Over his Rays career, he punched out 29.7% of the time, including an anemic 35.9% to start his 2021 campaign. His eye at the plate has also improved dramatically. Never one to draw many walks, Adames is taking a base on balls just over 11% of the time as a Brewer.
The prevailing analysis is that leaving the Trop has made all of the difference for Adames. While the relocation has certainly helped in a major way, it is not the only reason why he has turned his season around. He has made adjustments with the Brewers to transform himself into the best possible version of Willy Adames.
In 2020, Adames developed a troubling penchant for popping up. His 22.9% infield fly ball rate was the worst among qualified hitters. The issue continued into 2021. While Adames showed flashes of being able to hammer the baseball, his 12.5% infield fly ball rate with Tampa Bay this year remained higher than the league average. He was sporting a career-high 49.4% fly ball rate at the time of the trade, nearly 20 percentage points higher than his career norm.
In many situations, a higher fly ball rate and launch angle is a positive for a hitter and helps him boost his power output. However, there is no magic launch angle that works for every hitter, and hitting the ball too high produces weak and harmless flyouts. Adames’ average launch angle had ballooned to 23 degrees by the time the Rays parted ways with him.
That launch angle one of the highest marks in the sport. It put Adames in company with hitters like Max Muncy, Joey Gallo, and Adam Duvall. Needless to say, he is not Muncy, Gallo, or Duvall. Whether he was trying too hard to be a power hitter or had developed a mechanical flaw in his swing, it simply was not working for Adames. The shortstop was getting so far under the ball that he was frequently hitting infield pop-ups and high fly balls straight into the air.
With the Brewers, Adames’ average launch angle is down to a more balanced 13.5 degrees. He has all but stopped hitting pop-ups, as his infield fly ball rate is just 2.9%. Those batted balls have turned into more line drives. His 35.4% fly ball rate would still be a single-season high, but it is much closer to the league average than his mark to start the year in Tampa Bay.
Adames has found his sweet spot; the right balance of line drives, fly balls, and ground balls that works for him. An extreme fly ball approach might work best for Joey Gallo, but it didn’t work for Adames because it did not match his skill set. He has the ability to use both sides of the field and shoot balls into both gaps. His speed enables him to leg out infield hits. There’s enough pop in his bat for to leave the yard when he gets a pitch he can elevate more. Adames has the talent to do a little bit of everything, and that’s exactly what he has done with the Brewers.
It might be tempting to simply explain the changes in his batted ball tendencies as another result of being able to see the ball better and therefore put better swings on it. However, Adames’ infield fly ball rate was nearly identical at home (23.5%) and on the road (22.2%) in 2020. This year, prior to the trade, he was popping up more on the road (20%) than he was at home (5%).
It’s difficult to draw much from a center field camera angle, but the eye test indicates that an improved swing is behind the improvements. Observe this clip of Adames’ getting under a sinker on the inner half of the plate and popping it to first base.
Now here he is as a Brewer getting another sinker in nearly the exact same location, this one a power pitch at 96 miles per hour. This time, Adames times it up perfectly and pulls it into the Brewer bullpen.
In the first clip, Adames’ swing looks a bit long and loopy. In the second one, it appears shorter, quicker, and more direct to the ball.
Being able to see the baseball better has made a world of difference for Willy Adames. He has stated as much himself. But crediting all of his success to a more favorable hitting environment discounts the work that he and the Brewers coaching staff have put in to make Adames a better version of himself. Not only has he made his swing more compact and efficient, but he has also stopped trying to be someone he is not. Adames is being himself, and the first-place Brewers are reaping the benefits both on and off the field.
Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs and Baseball Savant