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Revisiting Willy Adames’ Quest for Big Bucks

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Michael McLoone-USA TODAY Sports

The Brewers are in a fascinating situation, not so much treading water as trying to swim in two different directions at the same time. They’ve lost their celebrated manager and traded their Cy Young-winning ace, but they’ve brought in Rhys Hoskins on a lucrative (for them) free agent contract while deciding not to trade their other major free-agent-to-be, Willy Adames.

One of the first posts I wrote for FanGraphs, some 18 months ago, concerned Adames’ future with the Brewers. Or, more likely given his potential to ring the bell for a nine-figure contract in free agency, his future elsewhere. Let’s check in on that potential, and see what we should expect from Adames in 2024 and beyond.

Let’s start by revisiting some of the evaluative measures I used back then. Adames was traded to Milwaukee on May 21, 2021. Since then, here are the top 10 MLB shortstops in WAR.

Top 10 Shortstops Since Adames Trade

NameGBB%K%AVGOBPSLGwRC+DefOffWAR
Francisco Lindor4089.3%19.7%.259.336.46112240.758.416.1
Trea Turner4226.5%19.0%.294.344.48012512.573.715.2
Dansby Swanson4248.6%24.8%.259.326.43910848.729.214.2
Corey Seager3289.5%15.8%.290.361.54014411.271.613.2
Xander Bogaerts4059.4%18.0%.290.362.44812314.951.412.6
Bo Bichette4105.3%19.8%.300.340.4741264.055.212.1
Willy Adames38710.0%26.1%.242.319.45411032.023.511.4
Carlos Correa37611.1%20.8%.267.351.45312515.931.610.4
Fernando Tatis Jr.2439.7%24.8%.268.341.50913013.350.510.0
J.P. Crawford40511.7%16.6%.263.356.3911165.933.09.9

Adames is seventh. Is he really the seventh-best shortstop in baseball? Maybe not. Bogaerts and Tatis aren’t really shortstops anymore, but Bobby Witt Jr. and Gunnar Henderson aren’t on this list based on playing time. I imagine most people, if they were starting a team from scratch, would rather have Witt or Henderson than Adames. I’m sure there are some hardcore Ha-Seong Kim fans out there, and a couple daredevils who’d risk it all on Jackson Holliday or Jordan Lawlar.

But before I dig into the shape of Adames’ production, I want to stress one thing first: Shortstops at this level get paid. In the original post, I detailed the compensation of the other top shortstops in baseball. But the list was incomplete; this was on the eve of the celebrated 2022-23 free agent class, with its four elite shortstops. So let’s update that list of shortstops on long-term contracts, including players like Bogaerts and Tatis who are ontologically shortstops but currently occupy another position.

Big Shortstop Contracts

PlayerAge at SigningWAR Two Years Before Contract*TypeYearsAAV
Francisco Lindor2810.9Mid-Arb Extension10$31.9M
Trea Turner2913.2Free Agent11$27.3M
Dansby Swanson289.8Free Agent7$25.3M
Corey Seager279.2Free Agent10$32.5M
Xander Bogaerts3010.3Free Agent11$25.5M
Carlos Correa2810.6Free Agent6$33.3M
Fernando Tatis Jr.2212.0Pre-Arb Extension14$24.3M
J.P. Crawford276.8Mid-Arb Extension5$10.2M
Wander Franco212.4Pre-Arb Extension11$16.5M
Bobby Witt Jr.238.0Pre-Arb Extension11$26.3M
Javier Báez295.3Free Agent6$23.3M
Trevor Story298.4Free Agent6$23.3M
Marcus Semien316.8Free Agent7$25.0M

*2020 WAR adjusted to 162-game season

Adames will hit free agency at age 29, and his WAR over the past two seasons is an even 8.0. That puts him somewhere between Swanson and Báez: Let’s call it $150 million over six years. And I make those comparisons purposely, because the draw for Adames is that he’s a solid all-around player in all respects except defense, where he’s one of the best in the league.

Last season, Adames was tied with Ezequiel Tovar for second in OAA among shortstops. Over the past two seasons, Adames is second to Swanson. Over the past two seasons, Baseball Savant has Adames in the 90th and 95th percentiles, respectively, in fielding run value.

That’s a big draw, but not enough of one to put Adames in nine-figure value all on its own. At that level, transactions are made as much on vibes and PR as advanced analytics — that’s why Scott Boras likes to make direct appeals to owners. It’s easy to sell Seager’s bat or Turner’s legs to the public, but while effortful defense is easy to recognize, great defense can be subtle and ineffable.

The great defensive shortstops who have gotten paid recently — Lindor, Correa, Swanson, and Báez — have all been highly visible members of pennant-winning teams. (It also helps that Lindor and Correa are mashers as well, or at least they’re usually mashers, and Báez has two 30-homer seasons to his name, the second of which came in his contract year.)

Adames played in a World Series with the Rays in 2020, but he had a pretty rough postseason (he hit .136/.301/.203) while Randy Arozarena, Blake Snell, and the Bullpen Clock ate up all the headlines. Remember when everyone was freaking out about the way Báez tagged guys at second base? Adames didn’t get anything like that press.

A glove-first shortstop who hit .217 last year is a tough sell in the $100 million range, even if he can take a walk and has hit 20 or more home runs every full season of his career. You might as well cheap out and try to find the next Orlando Arcia or something. So if Adames really wants to get paid, he’s got to re-establish himself as — at the very least — a Swanson-level hitter: Something like a 110 wRC+ in his walk year would do nicely.

So let’s investigate that disappointing offensive campaign in 2023, which saw Adames’ wRC+ drop to 94.

Bad Luck?

YearwRC+wOBAxwOBABABIP
2021120.349.325.331
2022109.325.323.278
202394.311.341.259

When Adames got traded in 2021, he started putting the ball in the air more. In 2020, he had a GB/FB ratio of 1.37; by 2022, that had dropped to 0.74. So naturally, you’d expect his BABIP (which peaked at .388 in 2020) to drop as well — and it has — but not all the way to .259 last year, when his GB/FB ratio was 0.81. In 2023, Adames also underperformed his Statcast expected stats by 20 to 30 points across the board. That doesn’t take into account batted ball direction, but it’s an indication that he was hitting the ball harder than his results gave him credit for.

Adames also posted a career high 11.1% walk rate in 2023, which helped keep his OBP at a respectable .310 even though his batting average dangled perilously close to the Mendoza Line. Combined with a reduction in HardHit% (a pretty significant one, dropping from 43.6 to 36.5 — 70th percentile to 23rd), I worried that the increased walk rate was evidence of Adames being more passive at the plate.

Breakdown by Attack Zone

2022
Heart26.075.4%.423.444-.021
Shadow42.757.6%.247.229.018
Chase22.127.5%.271.264.007
Waste9.26.8%.448.448.000
Heart24.377.0%.382.435-.053
Shadow41.856.1%.261.266-.005
Chase24.423.9%.271.293-.022
Waste9.53.5%.447.447.000

SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Here’s where it gets mildly concerning. All of Adames’ underlying numbers only moved a few ticks, so this could be noise. Even over a full season, these numbers are sensitive. A player watches Contact and spends a couple weeks preoccupied by the hugeness of the universe and the precarity of our place in it… that could show up as a couple percentage points’ difference in swing rate or whatever.

Anyway, here are the two things I want to mark. First: Adames’ swing rate stayed fairly consistent from 2022 to 2023. It went up from 49.6% to an even 50%. But pitchers were pitching him in the zone significantly less, which means he was swinging at more borderline pitches in 2023, which you can see in the chart above. And he was doing less damage on pitches in the middle of the plate. How does that jive with the consistent expected batting average and so forth? Adames was pulling the ball more last year. If you take out the truncated 2020 season, Adames posted the highest pull rate of his career. That’s not a bad thing in and of itself. But remember that xBA and so forth are direction-agnostic. Should Adames have expected similar outcomes in 2023 as 2022? Or was he cheating and opening his hips faster, which opened up minute gaps in his swing elsewhere, giving the illusion that that was the case?

It’s hard to know, and again, these are all small effects individually. But they form the basis of a question that will not only have a huge impact on Milwaukee’s season, but could swing the destination of tens of millions of dollars this coming winter.

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