When Willy Adames was dealt to the Milwaukee Brewers in the middle of May, many initially scratched their heads seeing Adames’ .197 average and .625 OPS. When he tore the cover off the ball in his first 10 games with the Brewers (.324/.410/.559/.969), everyone’s eyes opened wide.
Word had circulated quickly that Adames expressed major issues seeing the ball in Tropicana Field where he played his home games with the Tampa Bay Rays. That became the “sexy” theory as to why David Stearns, Milwaukee’s President of Baseball Operations, traded two pitchers for the seemingly struggling shortstop.
There was a high level of truth in what Adames was saying. In 622 plate appearances (PA) at the home of the Rays, Adames owns a .217/.275/.341/.616 slash line. He hit just 16 HR while striking out 31.2% of the time. Meanwhile, in 854 PA on the road, he has hit .301/.371/.517/.888 with 37 dingers and a 27.8% strikeout percentage (K%).
Adames didn’t hit to that level at American Family Field last season, especially when it came to batting average (.236). His OBP (.335) and slugging (.467) were also well below his career “away” stats, but leaps and bounds better than his numbers at The Trop. Of course, it was a small sample size with just 191 PA, so not truly fair to judge on that alone. But the whole Tampa Bay vision problem is only part of the story.
With all the amazing, young talent like Juan Soto and Fernando Tatis, Jr. - who come up and produce at elite levels immediately in their early 20’s - people forget that baseball players traditionally have a slow, progressive climb to great heights. I know, it sounds boring, right? No “phenom” label or call-up in his teens or magic hitting guru transforming him over night.
Instead, Adames has taken the “old-school” journey, first from exciting 22-year-old rookie prospect to “will he reach his potential?” 24-year-old with an uncertain future. Then a slow start to his age-25 season a year ago had some questioning if stardom was out of reach, before a move to Milwaukee and a surge of talent.
That leads us to the traditional belief in baseball’s peak ages: 26-28 years old. It’s where mental and physical maturity mesh with experience to create the ideal player. The natural, gradual development that comes with patience in projected ability.
Adames won’t turn 27 until September, meaning he should have a few prime years right in front of him. Aside from the trade out of Tampa, a look at his steadily rising “Statcast” numbers year over year shows how a player truly can grow with experience.
Players can’t control where a ball is hit or if a fielder makes a great play, but they can make adjustments to improve their swing to increase how hard they hit a ball, how often they hit the ball hard - and to some extent - if they can keep the ball off the ground where outs are more likely. And the improvements in these areas BEFORE he reached Milwaukee likely piqued Stearns’ interest, as clearly it wasn’t just about Tampa; Adames was steadily increasing his hitting skills while he was still there.
Adames’ 15.6% increase in hard hit balls from 2018 to 2021 is rather staggering. Generally speaking, the more consistently you hit the ball hard, the more frequently you’ll get hits. Hitting the barrel 4.8% more often plays into his hard hit upgrade, which also explains the bump in average exit velocity to 89.5 MPH from under 87 MPH a few years ago. Hitting the ball hard doesn’t guarantee success; however, hitting it hard AND off the ground increases your chances.
The fact that Adames raised his launch angle each season - and has nearly doubled his launch angle since 2018 - shows a conscious effort to ensure more line drives and fly balls. Hitting the ball harder more consistently, while driving it in the air more often, almost certainly will result in greater production (provided you aren’t lifting a bunch of infield pop ups into the sky). The stats are rather telling.
Learning your own swing and how it works best is a vital part of being a Major Leaguer. The experience of facing pitchers in games, watching video, making adjustments, and “finding” the unique aspects of your personal cuts is all developmental pieces. Credit should also go to any coaches and staff who help in the process - and perhaps Milwaukee’s people helped Adames understand the process and results better.
One fascinating aspect to Adames’ rise in fly ball percentage (FB%) to over 40% in 2021 is that his infield fly ball percentage (IFFB%) remained low at just 5%. That puts him among the 20 best in MLB. In the COVID-shortened 2020 campaign, his IFFB% was a stunningly-poor 22.9%. Yes, small sample size, but it had to be somewhat concerning. The more telling comparison is from 2019 where Adames’ FB% was just 30.3% with a 4.4% IFFB%.
What all of this shows is that Adames’ explosion in Milwaukee was less fluke and more continued progression. His development may have been accelerated by an improved home ballpark environment and a better team/staff fit, but Adames was already steadily rising in his own right.
And while that might be boring in some regards, it’s exciting think that 2022 will only get better should Adames continue to ascend up the metaphorical line graph. If it were mostly about getting out of Tropicana Field, that would mean we saw his best. Instead, Adames can still grow and lead the Brewers back to the playoffs...and perhaps just a bit further.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Savant, Fangraphs and Baseball Reference