This player has surprisingly strong MVP case

August 17th, 2021

For all of the big names who were moved prior to the Trade Deadline (and there were a lot), the deal that could end up having the biggest impact on the 2021 postseason race is one that went down months earlier.

On May 21, the Brewers traded relievers and to the Rays and got back shortstop (as well as pitcher , who was later sent to Toronto in a deal for ).

Adames was hitting .197/.254/.371 at the time of the trade, but he’s turned into the Brewers’ most productive hitter and helped transform the club from a fringe postseason contender into the National League Central frontrunner.

In 71 games with the Brewers, Adames has posted a .297/.378/.551 slash line with 16 homers, 22 doubles and 48 RBIs. After striking out in 35.9% of his plate appearances and walking 7.0% of the time before the trade, he has trimmed his strikeout rate to 24.7% and increased his walk rate to 11.5% with the Crew.

Adames hasn't just shored up a position that was problematic for Milwaukee in 2021. He's shored up a position that was a persistent issue for the club for more than a decade. From 2009-20, Brewers shortstops combined to record the lowest OPS (.663) in the NL and the third-lowest mark in all of MLB.

Obviously, Milwaukee’s ace pitching trio of , and has played a huge role in the team’s success this season, but you can’t win games without scoring runs, and the Brewers likely wouldn’t be where they are now without Adames.

The 25-year-old is still a long-shot candidate for the National League MVP Award, especially considering no player has been named MVP during a year in which he played for multiple teams.

But Adames’ MVP case is stronger than you might think.

Before and after

The easiest way to understand the impact Adames has had on the Brewers is to look at their performance before and after he arrived.

The day the trade went down, the Brewers lost to the Reds, 9-4, and fell to 21-23 (.477 winning percentage). At that point, the club ranked 28th in the NL in OPS overall and 26th in OPS among shortstops. Milwaukee had a 37.2% chance of reaching the postseason, according to FanGraphs’ playoff odds.

Since Adames joined the team’s lineup on May 22, the Brewers have an MLB-leading .680 winning percentage (51-24 record), and their postseason odds are up to 98.5%. Their offense has the seventh-highest OPS in the Majors since they added Adames to the mix.

Adames’ production has helped make up for the fact that , , and all have performed at or below the MLB average, in terms of OPS+.

Of the 14 Brewers with at least 150 plate appearances this season, only three have an OPS+ of 120 or better: Adames, catcher and utilityman . The shortstop has a 148 OPS+ since the trade, best on the team.

Brewers' OPS+ leaders, 2021
Min. 150 plate appearances
Willy Adames: 148
Omar Narváez: 126
Jace Peterson: 124
Avisaíl García: 117
Kolten Wong: 111

Despite spending the first seven-plus weeks of the season in another league, Adames is tied for 14th among NL position players and leads all Brewers position players in fWAR (3.5).

He’s come through in the clutch

Adames’ performance in the clutch is at the center of his MVP case.

The shortstop has a .328/.423/.657 slash line over 78 plate appearances with runners in scoring position since he joined the Brewers, and his 1.074 OPS in high- or medium-leverage situations is the sixth-highest mark in MLB (min. 100 plate appearances in such situations) since May 22.

In late-and-close situations (plate appearances in the seventh inning or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one or the tying run at least on deck), Adames is 17-for-39 (.436) with four homers, four doubles, 10 RBIs and a 1.322 OPS in 42 plate appearances as a member of the Brewers. Among NL players with at least 40 PAs in late-and-close situations, the closest player to Adames is Dodgers catcher Will Smith with a 1.120 OPS -- 202 points lower.

Additionally, Adames ranks third among NL position players in win probability added, which captures the change in win expectancy from one plate appearance to the next.

NL WPA leaders, 2021
Fernando Tatis Jr.: 3.9 (367 PAs)
Jesse Winker: 3.3 (481 PAs)
Willy Adames: 3.1 (312 PAs)
Nick Castellanos: 3.0 (409 PAs)
Brandon Crawford: 3.0 (379 PAs)

Again, Adames spent the first seven weeks in the AL, so the fact that he’s challenging for the NL lead in a cumulative stat is especially notable.

It could be a wide-open race

If Padres superstar stays healthy the rest of the season, the NL MVP race probably won’t be close. He leads the NL in homers (33) and steals (23) and MLB in slugging percentage (.675) and OPS (1.054), after all.

But Tatis has dislocated his left shoulder multiple times this season, and it’s enough of a concern that San Diego has moved him to right field to minimize the risk of another injury.

Season-ending surgery would likely be on the table if Tatis were to unfortunately suffer another dislocation, so we can't hand him the trophy just yet.

The questions about Tatis’ shoulder have opened the door for a field that includes Adames, , , , , , and .

Adames is not only up against that immensely talented group but also the history of the MVP Award itself. Just eight players have finished fourth or better during a year in which they changed teams, the most recent of which was Manny Ramirez in 2008 when he was traded from the Red Sox to the Dodgers. The best finish was second place by the Brooklyn Dodgers' Sal Maglie after being purchased from Cleveland on May 15, 1956.

Still, even if Adames is unlikely to win, the fact that he's in the conversation at all is a testament to the difference he's made since joining the Brewers.