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Willy Adames and the inflection point

July 31 was yet again a magical day for Willy Adames

Tampa Bay Rays v Texas Rangers Photo by Richard Rodriguez/Getty Images

July 31st has been a memorable day throughout the career of Willy Rafael Adames.

On July 31, 2014, Adames was the top prospect in the three-team trade that sent David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays to the Detroit Tigers. The Santiago, Dominican Republic native was just 18 years old on that day and had not yet cracked a top-100 prospect list, but nonetheless he was recognized as a promising player who could form the core of a competitive Rays team in the future.

From the time the Rays acquired him, his prospect rankings continued to climb over next four years. Adames peaked as a consensus top-25 prospect before both the 2017 and 2018 seasons, and then, finally, on May 22, Adames got the call. A home game against the Big Bad Red Sox and their stringbean ace, Chris Sale. A tough matchup for any established big leaguer, let alone a 22-year-old getting his first MLB cuts.

Well, Adames said phooey to all that, and in his second at bat in the bigs, he made quite a mark:

Sure, Sale grooved one, but Adames was still one of only 10 players to take Sale deep in 2018. And again: 22-year-old in the first MLB game of his life.

Naturally, the hype meter went into overdrive after that debut. However, Adames was sent back down to the minors two days later, and when he came back in June, he faced a natural adjustment period.

In fact, he had only one other extra base hit in his first 13 games, and he was hitting below .200 with little pop on July 29, 33 games into his Rays career (.196/.248/.295). The next game, Adames went 1-for-3 with a walk and a run scored, bringing his average to .200.

The day after that, Adeiny Hechavarria was designated for assignment, and for the two months after that, Adames officially broke out.

So what day was it that Adames “chose” to make his breakout? July 31, naturally. The four-year anniversary of the day the Rays acquired Adames, to the day, fittingly ended up being the point of inflection for Adames’ rookie season.

Let’s look at some before/after charts for that July 31 inflection date. Let’s start with the surface stats:

Willy Adames surface stats

May 22 to July 29 33 121 12 22 5 3 9 8 43 1 .196 .248 .295
July 31 to Sept 30 52 202 31 58 12 7 25 26 52 5 .330 .408 .477

Adames increased his OPS over 60 percent (.543 to .885), added more speed and power to his profile, and improved in his plate discipline — that’s the perfect sweep right there. And it wasn’t just at the surface level, there were real improvements under the hood:

Willy Adames batted ball profile

Timeframe BB% K% BABIP wRC+ LD% GB% FB% HR/FB% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
Timeframe BB% K% BABIP wRC+ LD% GB% FB% HR/FB% Pull% Oppo% Soft% Hard%
May 22 to July 29 6.6 35.5 .284 50 17.4 42.0 40.6 10.7 30.0 30.0 21.4 24.3
July 31 to Sept 30 11.4 25.7 .432 146 17.6 57.6 24.8 22.6 42.1 25.4 15.1 40.5

He was buoyed a bit by that lofty BABIP, but he was pulling the ball more and hitting the ball hard nearly twice as often from July 31 on (per Statcast, Adames’ exit velocity jumped from 83.7 to 88.0 mph around this inflection point as well). Maybe the most heartening sign (for a writer obsessed with plate discipline) was those first two columns, and the following chart that shows Adames really did adjust to MLB pitching.

We got to see the improvements in real time:

Willy Adames plate discipline

Timeframe O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
Timeframe O-Swing% Z-Swing% Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Contact% Zone% F-Strike% SwStr%
May 22 to July 29 31.9 73.7 50.6 55.7 79.4 71.2 44.8 61.2 14.6
July 31 to Sept 30 25.1 69.1 44.3 60.7 83.2 76.0 43.7 54.5 10.6

Adames became a more patient hitter, attacking the ball once it came in the zone, and pitchers quickly knew to fear his bat. His wOBA jumped from .240 to .381, and it was underlined by a 98-point jump in his xwOBA (.224 to.322). All of this happened in a two-month stretch in Adames’ rookie season, and all beginning with that magical July 31 date.

Right after Hechavarria’s DFA, when Adames started to get hot, I wrote a half-interesting, half-kinda pointless article debating the nature of Adames’ breakout and whether, as some had suggested, he (consciously or not) needed to get the nod as the everyday shortstop to find his way.

Honestly, it doesn’t matter. We got to see Adames break out in the second half of 2018, and whether it was due to a young player simply needing some time to adjust to the big league game, or if it was due to the team showing their full confidence in the youngster. The breakout happened, and it should keep happening in 2019.

Right now, both Steamer and Depth Charts projections for Adames seem a bit lacking. Both systems project Adames for a .248/.323/.381 slash line, the equivalent of a 95 wRC+. And that’s fair. Projection systems are notoriously stingy, and if you simply average out the two sides of the above inflection point, that’s about what you’d get. The same goes for Adames’ projected 9.5 percent walk rate and 25.3 percent strikeout rate.

However, there are plenty of reasons to believe that Rays fans should expect a bit more than that 95 wRC+. As noted above, the changes Adames made to improve were legitimate, not just the aftereffects of a lucky run. This was a young player figuring out the MLB strikezone. I wouldn’t go as far as to peg Adames to the .330/.408/.477 slash line from the last 52 games of last season, but something in the realm of .265/.345/.415 (around a 110 wRC+ and basically what Trea Turner hit in 2018) is well within reason.

Adames showed himself to be one of the best young players in baseball in 2018, and Rays fans should be excited to see where he goes from here. Who knows, maybe he’ll even collect some October memories to go along with his memorable July 31 dates.