Going Deep: Trying to Explain Willy Adames

Matt Wallach examines some of the unusual parts of Willy Adames' 2019 season as well as some improvements he made along the way in this edition of Going Deep.

As the writer responsible for previewing the Tampa Bay Rays hitters for 2020, I learned quite a few things. While it was fun to write-up a stud player like Austin Meadows, or speculate on the potential of hitters such as Randy Arozarena and Yoshi Tsutsugo, the hitter that I enjoyed writing up the most during that process was their shortstop Willy Adames.

On the surface, there doesn’t look to be much that’s spectacular about Adames. He was once upon a time a top prospect and the headliner of the first trade of David Price, that one being his trade from the Rays to the Detroit Tigers in July 2014. Through parts of two seasons for Adames, he has been solid, with a 110 wRC+ in first taste of the majors in 2018. That was followed up by a full season of about league-average hitting, with a 97 wRC+ in 2019. Maybe he hasn’t quite lived up to that top-prospect hype yet, but he’s only entering his age-24 season, and he has plenty of time to pick things up and reach that potential.

As it is that point in the offseason where top prospects lists are being released, if you weren’t already aware of the 18-year-old phenom Wander Franco, you’ll soon be made aware. He is going to be at the top of every single top prospect list in 2020. Being that he is just 18 years old and hasn’t yet reached AA, it isn’t likely that he’ll reach the Majors in 2020; however, even at his young age, he should be in the majors by the time he turns 20.

Like Adames though, Franco is a young shortstop in the Rays system. He also projects to be a better player than Adames. It’s unfortunate, but even at just age 24, Adames looks to be on borrowed time as the shortstop of the Rays. That doesn’t mean he can’t still be a valuable player for the Rays, though. Despite a decrease in wRC+ from 2018 to 2019, Adames did manage to improve upon some things that could make him very interesting in 2020. While researching Adames for the Rays hitter post, I noticed quite a few oddities about his 2019 season, which may explain why his overall season stats maybe don’t look quite as good as they could be. More specifically, there were a few notable splits from Adames that need some attention. These splits are not just odd; they are also extreme. I cannot see them happening again because Adames’ profile just does not line up with them. While the projections currently peg him as roughly league average as a hitter again in 2020 (projected 99 wRC+ by Steamer), I’m not sure if the projections are considering how unusual some of his 2019 season was. If that is the case, I would consider Adames to be a bit undervalued going into 2020, as he could be a late-round shortstop to watch going into the season.

The first extremity of Adames’ 2019 season that warrants a closer look is his extreme jump in production on the road compared to how he hit at home in St. Petersburg. While Tropicana Field isn’t the best venue in baseball, it is still a good place to hit, even if the lights sometimes go out.

But it was a part of Adames’ profile in 2019 though, and I think it was a pretty significant part of his profile. Take a look at this graph, which compares the home and road wRC+ of each qualified hitter from 2019:

Adames, being the point in red, stands out here because the difference in his wRC+ on the road compared to what it is at home is very significant. His road wRC+? It was 137. For some context, hitters with a wRC+ of around 137 over the entirety of 2019 include hitters such as Marcus Semien, Jorge Soler, and DJ LeMahieu. His home wRC+? 53. Such a shockingly low number that there isn’t a single qualified hitter from 2019 with a wRC+ lower than 61. Isan Diaz of the Miami Marlins had a 53 wRC+ in 2019, but that was in just 200 plate appearances. How significant is that difference between wRC+? Take a look at this table:

Biggest Differences Between Home and Road wRC+

Looking at the hitters with the five biggest differences, Adames has by far the biggest one. Additionally, only two other hitters—Jarrod Dyson and Khris Davishad lower wRC+ marks at home than Adames did. Taking a look at the splits, I’m not sure that such a drastic difference can be explained away by the splits:

Willy Adames – Home/Road Splits

Looking at his splits, we can see that while he was generally better at walking, avoiding strikeouts, and keeping the ball off the ground during away games, would those drops in walk rate, strikeout rate, and ground ball rate explain an 85 point difference in wRC+? I surely don’t believe so.

So what do we make of this? While I hate to try and explain things away due to “luck”, it certainly seems appropriate in this circumstance. I believe that these splits are very flukey and would not sustain itself for another season, which would be good news for Adames because that would mean better results for him in the future.

If his dramatic home and road splits were the only major oddity to Adames’ 2019 season, that would be fine. But there is still more that needs a closer look. Next up, let’s take a look at the oddities involved in his monthly splits. As a refresher, here are his monthly wRC+ totals:

Willy Adames – Monthly Splits

For the majority of the season for Adames, he was steadily above-average as a hitter. He even ended his season on a high note with a 119 wRC+ in August and September combined, good enough for the 10th-best mark among shortstops in that time span. When he was going well, Adames was one of the better shortstops at the plate, but when he was slumping, he sure did slump. It’s fine for hitters to go through bad months, as it is very rare for a hitter to consistently be above-average over the course of a full season. Just for additional context, there were 27 qualified hitters in 2019 who were in the top-20 for the lowest wRC+ in multiple months. Most of these names in this group are names that likely wouldn’t surprise you. I’m talking about guys like Jose Iglesias, Yolmer Sanchez, and Hanser Alberto, among others. I would say that those hitters are more deserving of those lower wRC+ marks than Adames. I would not project Adames to have another season where he hits this tremendously bad for a third of the season. Adames was very good for the majority of the season, but two months that appear to be flukey drag down his overall production tremendously.

Of course, if you take away every hitter’s worst months, they’ll look much better. It’s also true that Adames would be better off if he got more consistent at the plate, what I like is that he was able to snap out of those cold runs and break his slumps. His 64-point increase in wRC+ from April to May was the 10th-largest improvement among qualified hitters. His 70-point increase in wRC+ from July to August was also among the best in the game, clocking in at the 13th-best in that month. While he was not very good at the plate in the preceding months, he was able to turn it around and get back to, at least to me, his true talent level.

Let’s go for one last oddity from Adames’ 2019. This time, let’s look at some platoon splits. As a right-handed hitter, it would be expected that Adames hits better against left-handed pitching, as is usually the case for the vast majority of right-handed hitters. Well, Adames isn’t like the majority here. Take a look at this table:

RHH with the Lowest wRC+ Against LHP

Looking at all right-handed hitters with a minimum of 150 plate appearances against southpaws, Adames was by far the worst at hitting lefties. While in 2018, Adames was also worse against lefties with an 83 wRC+ against lefties compared to a 120 mark against righties, you could make a case that Adames is the rare reverse-splits hitter. I wouldn’t argue that, and it’s certainly possible. But does that mean that Adames should be this bad against left-handers? Let’s take a look at the overall splits:

Willy Adames – Platoon Splits

While there are some things that would suggest that he is deserving of his inferior numbers against lefties, I don’t think these splits suggest that he deserves a 51 wRC+ and the worst mark against lefties among all right-handed hitters. And for whatever it’s worth, it was even worse for Adames before a splendid September bumped his numbers up:

Willy Adames – Monthly wRC+ vs LHP

It is simply stunning. The things that he can control that show up in the splits wouldn’t imply that he’d struggle so much against left-handers, so it either has to be something mental, environmental, or just plain unlucky about it. Barring something psychological like the hitting equivalent of the yips, I wouldn’t expect something like this to happen again in 2020. While he may truly be a better hitter against same-handed pitchers, I don’t think he should fare this poorly against opposite-handed hurlers.

Despite these three major oddities that took over Adames’ 2019 season, simply calling for a reverse of fortune in 2020 likely isn’t enough alone to predict that a breakout is coming. While these oddities are the major part of Adames’ story in 2019, they aren’t the whole story. Even though these perhaps flukey splits dragged his overall numbers down, Adames did manage to improve his game, which with even further development, combined with some of those flukey splits reverting back to relative norms could lead to a much-improved version of Adames in 2020.

While nothing immediately jumps out at you from Adames’ Statcast profile, that doesn’t mean that there aren’t encouraging signs. First and foremost, let’s look at his line-drive rate. In 2018 his line-drive rate was 19.4%, which was the second-lowest in baseball, oddly only better than George Springer‘s 18.6%. One area of his game that perhaps flew under the radar was that he bumped his line-drive rate up to a level that now sits slightly above average from a rate that was one of the worst in baseball the season prior. In fact, he was one of the biggest line-drive rate improvers from 2018 to 2019 as evidenced by the table below:

LD% Improvers 2018 to 2019

As you can see, Adames was the second-biggest improver in line-drive rate from 2018 to 2019. Another benefit of him hitting more line drives was that he kept more balls off the ground. While his 47.4% ground ball rate from 2019 is perhaps still too high, I like to see it trending in the right direction as opposed to the 52% mark he posted the season prior. Additionally, I also like that he doesn’t hit many pop-ups. His 5.6% pop-up rate in 2018 was already better than the around 7% league average, but he also cut that rate to 4.2% in 2019, which makes him look good when it comes to HR/FB+IFFB% (you can read more about HR/FB+IFFB% here,) as Adames does have sneaky power. He popped 20 home runs last season on a 19.8% HR/FB+IFFB rate, a rate that has him in line with hitters such as Charlie Blackmon (20.1%), Max Kepler (19.8%), Kris Bryant (19.5%), Xander Bogaerts (19.4%), and Manny Machado (19.0%). An optimist could speculate that he could hit for even more than 20 homers, especially in this offensive environment, which would be very valuable from the 22nd shortstop off the board currently by Fantrax ADP.

Not sold yet on the power potential? Well, what if I told you that, even in this crazy up-and-down season, Adames even managed to get his Hard-Hit rate, xwOBAcon, and barrel rate all to above league average rates? Take a look at how he compares to his 2018 season and the league average in the following metrics:

Willy Adames – Batted Ball vs League Average

Adames looks, on the whole, much improved from where he was during 2018. For reference, Adames’ xwOBAcon of .395 is ahead of several notable hitters such as Jose Altuve and Carlos Santana (both .383), Marcus Semien (.376), and Jeff McNeil (.373), among others. I’m more inclined to believe that Adames is progressing despite all of the weirdness of this past season when looking at some of these other underlying metrics. Assuming those aforementioned oddities from his 2019 season even out and these underlying peripherals either remain constant or even improve, Adames could be looking at a breakout season, despite the beginnings of a breakout already having taken place in 2019. All of a sudden, Adames looks a lot more interesting than his 97 wRC+ would suggest.

Despite the underwhelming 2019 season and 2020 projections, I am quite excited by Willy Adames. He had maybe one of the strangest seasons at the plate that I can recall. He was very extreme, as he was not so good for a third of the season, but then he was actually pretty great for the other two-thirds of the season. He also fared extremely poorly against lefties, and perhaps he deserved to be worse against left-handers, I’m not sure he deserved the 51 wRC+ that he actually put up. He also for whatever reason struggled mightily hitting at his home park, which is something that I just cannot see sticking the way it did for him in 2019 for another season. While I don’t like to blame struggles on bad luck, I think we can assign some of the blame for Adames’ odd season on bad luck. I say that because he actually made some key improvements in his batting profile that still couldn’t snap him out of whatever funk he happened to be in. He hit the ball better and harder, but all that couldn’t save him from this extreme season he just had.

I didn’t even touch on the speed. But yeah, Adames has pretty decent speed as well. While the Rays don’t really steal very often, Adames could steal a few runs with his plus speed on the basepaths. A young shortstop with surprisingly decent power, good speed, and tangible improvements from his rookie season, and I would say that we actually have an exciting young player with a lot of upside. Sure, he could still make some more improvements, for instance in some areas of his plate discipline, and he could be a little more consistent, but I like Adames a lot. While he may not have much time left as the shortstop of the Rays, he still has plenty of time to show who he truly can be as a player.

Photo by Mark LoMoglio/Icon Sportswire | Adapted by Justin Paradis (@freshmeatcomm on Twitter)

Matt Wallach

Matt studied accounting at the University at Albany and graduated in May 2019. He is a lifelong fan of the New York Yankees and can always be found talking baseball on Twitter @Wallach18

  • Avatar theKraken says:

    Every player should be lucky enough to get that much of the benefit of the doubt. Good players don’t need splits to prop up their numbers. You seem like you are betting on positive regression in some clear areas, but not negative regression on the other side of those splits. I imagine that there are not that many players that do that little and still get a stranglehold on a lineup spot. If you get basically unlimited opportunities there will be positives. He seems like Dansby Swanson in that regard and previously Addison Russell. That is, prospects that were handed jobs with a very long leash. Both have a common thread – they were highly regarded prospects that were acquired in trades. A trade is the best way to raise a prospect’s value, so they become overrated for that reason alone and the fans come on board. The org that acquired them becomes overly attached to them as well as they need it to work out. Its a kind of the recipe for complacency with mediocrity. I recognize that Adames is not a zero, but a guy like that is ideally a guy you are looking to upgrade, not just apply excessive coats of rose-colored tint to the evaluative lens. Committing multiple years to mediocrity is a bad move. IMO WAR of 2-3 like what he provides is overstated. WAR is such a rough approximation that it could very well be close to zero. Did he really go from a negative to a positive defender? Maybe, maybe not. He was never supposed to be a gold glover. Is he really a positive base-runner? 10/17 career SB and 1 career SB and 40 speed doesn’t seem like that to me. If those flip to negatives or zero, then he starts to look like a 0 WAR player. It is worth considering how close that is. When WAR runs out, so do the opportunities.

    This is very much a common lesson with statistics and the era of sabermetrics. We have so many splits and statistics – some based on real numbers, some based on approximations. Approximations computed differently from day to day and differently at different sources – you can find the data to support whatever conclusion you like. In my shallow analysis I see a guy with an inflated BABIP and a declining BB rate. I don’t know much about the real Adames outside of the stat line but I can tell you that prospect bias helps him out too as people mistakenly pegged him as a better source of SB than he is. In fantasy he is a streamer until he proves otherwise. You don’t have to bet on guys like that especially in an org with a player right on his tail and a tendency to platoon guys and bounce them around the field.

    I hope he turns into a superstar as the league needs more but I am not seeing that path from here. Thanks for offering up your take and analysis.

    • Avatar Matt Wallach says:

      Some good points here. For the record, I am not advocating drafting him over the top SS, but simply he could end up being a good value late in drafts. While his BABIP was down, it is still right along with league average, and he has a history of running high BABIPs in the past, although I doubt he would maintain his .378 BABIP from 2018, and that shows up in the stats, as his Statcast metrics from 2018 were very poor despite the good stats. In 2019, despite all the flukey splits, he was able to still improve his Statcast metrics, which make me more confident that he’ll be solid in the future. Statcast stats aren’t everything of course, and yes, the plate discipline isn’t great, but I think he should be an above-average SS.

    • Avatar Robert Odden says:

      It all depends on how deep your league is. If you are in a 10-12 team league, Adames is probably waiver fodder. But in something like a 15+ team league he becomes a valuable commodity.

  • Avatar BB says:

    Wouldn’t automatically assume Adames is out of a job when Wander arrives, given what he did with the glove this past season. There’s been chatter that Franco might fit better at second or third anyway, or maybe Adames ends up at one of those spots if Franco does stick at short. But yeah, a lot of other infield prospects on the way for the Rays.

    • Avatar Matt Wallach says:

      For sure. Adames was much improved with the glove in 2019, and I think there is definitely room for both him and Franco in the same lineup in the future

  • Avatar Alex says:

    I’m not sure if you’ll be able to answer this, but I’m very confused by Adames being worth over 2 dWAR, according to Baseball Reference. Amed Rosario has essentially identical fielding stats at SS (same number of games started, both with 17 errors, Rosario with .969 fielding percentage, Adames with .970), but accrued -0.9 dWAR. Just wondering if you could shed any light on why Adames is rated so much higher defensively by dWAR.

    • Avatar Matt Wallach says:

      Hi, it looks like it has to with Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), which is a stat that doesn’t use fielding percentage/errors to try and quantify defense. The basics can be read about here: http://m.mlb.com/glossary/advanced-stats/defensive-runs-saved

      When it comes to Adames vs Rosario, DRS loves Adames and hates Rosario. Adames had +13 DRS at SS in 2019 while Rosario had -16 DRS in 2019. While Rosario did improve towards the end of the season, his overall bad DRS rating drags his dWAR down to where it is.

  • Avatar Carlos Baerga says:

    Cesar Hernandez and Smoak are both switch hitters so I’m curious if that data may have some other issues?

  • Avatar Brandon Heikoop says:

    What are his pull splits. I wonder if he was just trying to hit more dingers against lefties?

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