ST. LOUIS — Willy Adames spent the first six weeks of the 2021 season playing for the Tampa Bay Rays in the American League. He hit just .197 in those 41 games, including a .156 average with a .557 OPS in his home ballpark, Tropicana Field.
It was not pretty.
If you wanted to build the profile for a player who deserves mention on all 30 National League MVP ballots that will be submitted by BBWAA members at the end of the season, the profile of a player who has been the single most important trade acquisition of the season and the catalyst for a franchise that went from middling to mesmerizing almost overnight, you probably wouldn’t start with a sub-Mendoza line hitter who had fans clamoring for a potential replacement starring at Triple-A.
And maybe that’s why the 28 other teams didn’t trade for Willy Adames.
But the Brewers did, and their season hasn’t been the same since the shortstop first suited up for Milwaukee on May 22.
“Willy’s been unbelievable,” Milwaukee second baseman Kolten Wong told Sporting News. “As soon as he came here, it was a different feel, you know?”
When the Brewers traded for Adames, they were 21-23. The rotation and bullpen were stocked with shutdown hurlers, but the offense was, putting it kindly, mediocre, ranking 12th of 15 NL teams in runs scored at the time. It was hard to blame skeptical Brewers fans who might have questioned this acquisition.
It was a pretty unique trade for this era of baseball wheeling and dealing, for a couple of reasons. First, all four players in the deal were on the big-league roster, two relievers who went to Tampa Bay in exchange for Adames and reliever Trevor Richards. Not a prospect in the mix.
And, maybe more unique in this current baseball climate, it was a deal between two teams hell-bent on contending in 2021, not two teams headed in opposite directions. The Rays were coming off a run to Game 6 of the World Series, and the Brewers were looking to make the postseason for the fourth season in a row — matching the four total October appearances the franchise made from 1969 to 2017.
“I like to win. I like to compete,” Adames told SN this week, sitting in the visitor’s dugout at Busch Stadium. “It was a good thing for me, because I went from one winning team to another winning team. I knew I’d have a good opportunity here to continue to win and compete to go to the postseason, and I like that.”
There were two things the Brewers knew for sure about Adames. First, you won’t find a better teammate than Adames, a universally loved player who loves suiting up every day. On a franchise that values that type of clubhouse camaraderie, Adames was an ideal fit.
Turns out, he was maybe even more than they expected.
“There’s a skill to that, and that’s leadership, really,” Brewers manager Craig Counsell told SN in a pregame Zoom call Tuesday. “A lot of times we label it as energy, but I think it’s leadership. Leadership helps everybody. That’s what his presence has meant. We’ve added a true leader to the team and that helps everybody.”
The Brewers went 17-4 in Adames’ first 21 games, moving from four games back in the NL Central, in third place, into a first-place tie. After a five-game losing skid, the winning resumed and really hasn’t stopped. Since Adames’ arrival, the Brewers have the best record in baseball, with a 53-24 record. Only the Giants have more than 48 wins in that stretch.
Oh, and the best team in the AL since that deal? Yep, the Rays, with a 47-28 mark. A win-win, if ever there was a win-win.
Thing is, it’s not enough to call Adames a spark plug or credit him merely with bringing an energy boost to the club. That’s selling him short. Way damn short.
Adames, a 6-foot, 210-pound shortstop in his fourth big-league season at 25 years old, has been not only Milwaukee’s best hitter, but arguably the best player in the National League — well, the best hitter who isn’t the son of a player who once hit two grand slams in the same inning against the same pitcher — since his arrival.
Remember how the Brewers were 12th of 15 teams in the NL in runs scored? Since he’s arrived, only the Dodgers have scored more runs than Adames’ club (408 to 402).
It’s not all about Adames, but he’s played no small role. He won’t win the NL MVP — that should go to Fernando Tatis Jr., with a couple others ahead of Adames — but he definitely deserves top-five consideration.
Let’s look at his Tampa Bay numbers compared to his Milwaukee numbers
With Tampa Bay: .197/.254/.371, 142 PA, 5 HR, 15 RBI, 77 OPS+, 0.7 bWAR
With Milwaukee: .300/.385/.558, 322 PA, 17 HR, 49 RBI, 150 OPS+, 3.5 bWAR
So what’s the difference?
For starters, he’s free from Tropicana Field, home of the Rays, where he had all kinds of trouble seeing the ball well enough to pick up the spin.
“I wanted to try and recognize the pitch,” he said, “but I couldn’t do it at home. It was tough.”
He tried just about everything, including clear non-prescription glasses. Nothing worked, at least not on a consistent basis. Adames hit .204 with a .557 OPS at the Trop in 2019 and .165 with a .511 OPS at home in 2020. On the road, Adames hit .303 with a .903 OPS in 2019 and .330 with a 1.035 OPS in 2020. That’s quite a difference.
Things weren’t better at the Juice Box in 2021; he was batting just .156 with a .557 OPS at the Trop in 2021 before the trade.
A home ballpark is supposed to be a place of comfort the home players, right?
“For me, it was the opposite,” Adames said. “It was a tough time for me. I was always trying to figure it out, years of trying to figure it out and I couldn’t figure it out.”
Getting away from Tropicana Field wasn’t just about finally hitting in a ballpark where he could see the baseball. It was a mental weight lifted, too.
“After I got traded, my mind just relaxed,” he said. “You don’t have to think about trying to make an adjustment at home every time. You come back from the road, and I don’t have to make an adjustment.”
He could just play. He could just hit. He could, finally, thrive.
Playing for the Brewers, every game is like a road game for Adames, free from the Tropicana burden. Of his 21 home runs this season — already a career high, by the way — 10 have cleared the wall to right field, opposite-field homers for the right-handed swinger.
“When I’m good at the plate, I hit the ball well to the other side. That’s the thing that’s helped me the most as a hitter, going the other way,” Adames said. “I’m getting more mature, older and stronger and I think things are just coming along, with my body. I feel like I have an opportunity to hit 25 or 30 home runs in a year.”
However many he winds up with, you can bet he’ll always be smiling as he rounds the bases.
“I love the game. This is the thing I love to do, and I enjoy every day,” Adames said. “I try and tell myself to embrace this opportunity every day, to make the most of every day. This is a game, and I live it like a kid. I enjoy it like a kid. I try and have fun every day.”
And, yeah, winning is fun. The Brewers are good. Like, legitimately good. The Dodgers get the headlines because they’re, well, the Dodgers. And the Giants have spent most of the season with the best record in baseball. But a 53-24 record in 77 games isn’t a small sample size, and the Brewers have been 2 1/2 games better than every other team in baseball in that stretch. They’ve been 4 1/2 games better than anyone other than the Giants.
They have three Cy Young candidates atop the rotation — Corbin Burnes, Brandon Woodruff and Freddy Peralta — and a bullpen full of big arms, anchored by Josh Hader and Devin Williams. The lineup is solid, especially after the trade additions of Rowdy Tellez at first base and Eduardo Escobar all over the diamond, but always in the lineup.
The rest of the baseball world might not know a ton about these Brewers, but that’s a familiar situation for Adames.
“The pitching we have here is similar to what we had (in Tampa Bay) last year,” Adames said. “I always say this: If you have great pitching staff, you’re always going to compete.
“It’s a team that can do damage in both parts of the game, pitching and hitting. We have a chance to go deep into the playoffs if everyone stays healthy.”
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