clock menu more-arrow no yes

Filed under:

What Willy Adames’s breakout can teach us about baseball

New, comments

It might be time to admit we don’t know as much as we think we do

If you buy something from an SB Nation link, Vox Media may earn a commission. See our ethics statement.

Tampa Bay Rays v Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images

Let me preface this article by saying that of the hundred-plus articles I have written here at DRaysBay, probably 99% of them have a statistical tilt. If anything, I sometimes lean too heavily on statistics.

I think that’s what a lot of Rays fans are going to start doing in the case of Adeiny Hechavarria and Willy Adames.

The Rays DFA’d Hechavarria on August 1, symbolically handing the shortstop position over to the man of the hour, Adames.

In the admittedly tiny sample of games since, Adames is slashing .410/.442/.692 with a trio of homers and four steals in 12 games.

The old-school narrative is clear: Hech being DFA’d showed Adames that the team had full confidence in him going forward, despite his .200/.256/.296 slash line at the time. The mini-breakout since has been a direct result.

Now, the Rays fanbase is smart enough to sniff that one out. They know 12 games is an asininely low number to base any sort of conclusion on. Plus, as fellow writer Mr. Lizzie recently pointed out, half the time the narrative is that a player needs the competition to keep them motivated. “Metal sharpens metal.”

There’s a cliche to every aspect of the game, so trying to tie one specifically to an 12-game sample seems like a fool’s errand.

But at the same time, I think it’s bull-headed to patently write off the possibility that the Rays front office showing their faith in Adames, a 22-year-old kid, might have had a legitimate impact.

We in the analytical baseball community are very quick to decry narrative explanations, but I’m not always sure this is always the correct approach. I’m not saying we need to go all Joe Morgan on the sport, but there are undoubtedly soft factors—factors that can not be calculated (at least not without a little help from Big Brother)—that play a role in the game.

What if a player’s significant other broke up with him last week? What if Jake Bauers has a crazy cousin in Toronto with whom he parties until five in the morning whenever they come to town?

Over a handful of games, it’s impossible to measure an effect like this. Baseball is noisy! If you can’t find true talent in the stats from a small sample size, how can you expect to notice a change in true talent? And if you can’t even say that anything’s changed, how can you hope to theorize about why?

On the one hand, most of these narratives are kind of silly, and should probably be ignored. But some of them may not be.

So really, this is a question about how we act when we don’t know.

The point we all should have taken away from Moneyball wasn’t that on-base percentage is the only stat we should use, and it wasn’t even that stats are the be-all and end-all of baseball. Instead, it was that whenever a large portion of the sport’s intelligentsia gets comfortable and thinks they have all the right answers, they’re likely the fools in the room. There is danger in believing in one’s own expertise.

Willy Adames was probably always poised to break out, because he’s one of the best prospects in baseball, with undeniable talent, a well-documented work ethic, and a positive attitude. The presence of Adeiny Hechavarria looming over Adames’s shoulder may well have had nothing to do with his rough introduction to the majors, and maybe, as Adames has said, Hech was a generous and positive influence.

I just think that we need to be careful with the assumption that, just because we can’t churn out the backing for a narrative with a few choice statistics, that doesn’t mean that it isn’t true.