MILWAUKEE — The Rays had an idea what they were getting when they made an aggressive push to sign Jason Adam shortly after the lockout ended in March. They were confident he was healthy, had a good enough repertoire to help and would improve under their guidance.
They had no idea they were signing one of the most effective and dominant high-leverage relievers in the game.
“He’s been such a bright spot,” gushed manager Kevin Cash. “I don’t think anybody would have expected the performance that we’ve gotten out of him. But thrilled that we have.”
Adam, who turned 31 last week, has not just handled but aced about every assignment the Rays have given him. Following injuries to Andrew Kittredge and JP Feyereisen, that often means facing the toughest batters in the opposing lineup in the seventh, eighth or ninth inning.
And with aplomb.
He has posted a 1.24 ERA, .133 opponents’ average and .414 OPS (lowest in the American League, minimum 30 innings). He hasn’t a allowed a run in 42 of his 47 appearances (including 13 of his last 14) or a hit in 33 (including his last six). He has stranded 23 of 24 inherited runners (including his last 21). And he hasn’t walked a batter since June 9, allowing only 32 of 158 to reach base all season.
“It’s just been a lot of fun for all of us to watch,” pitching coach Kyle Snyder said.
“Just kind of given where he’s been in his career, the fact that he’s healthy, he retooled the arm stroke. And has arguably as good of stuff as any reliever in the game. And he goes out on a consistent basis and puts it to work.”
Adam had good stuff during previous stints with his hometown Royals, Blue Jays and Cubs (and Twins and Padres in the minors), but he didn’t get to use it properly as he was often behind in counts and throwing mostly fastballs. In 78 1/3 innings over 79 big-league games, he had a 4.71 ERA, allowing 64 hits and 39 walks. Plus injuries have been an issue, costing him the 2015-16 seasons and more.
The Rays got Adam to be in the zone more, which allowed him to expand his mix of pitches, leaving hitters in the uncomfortable position of guessing whether he is throwing his 94.8-mph fastball, 89.7-mph changeup or 81.4-mph slider, which he remarkably uses just about evenly now.
“If you stay ahead and you put your menu to work, you really do a good job of maintaining your unpredictability at that point,” Snyder said. “And then you combine it with the fact that it’s really elite stuff, you’re going to have a lot of success.”
Adam, reciprocally, said the Rays — especially Snyder and bullpen coach Stan Boroski — deserve the credit.
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“I certainly hoped and planned and anticipated (to do well) to a certain extent, but at the same time, it’s been incredible how ‘Snydes’ and Stan have just really catapulted my career,” he said. “I’m so thankful just because how I can be an over-thinker and they’ve really simplified things for me.”
Adam was coming off a 2021 season interrupted by a freak gruesome injury that occurred May 21 when he leaped for a ball during batting practice with Triple-A Iowa — an open dislocation of his left ankle, meaning the bone was sticking out of his skin.
He recovered and amazingly returned to the mound for the Cubs in late September. The Rays saw enough to know he finished the season healthy and, during months of downtime during the lockout, became more intrigued and interested; he was the first player on their list to call.
Ten minutes after the lockout ended, Rays executives reached out, figuring being first in, having their sterling reputation of making pitchers better and offering a major-league contract all would help. (Ironically, a key factor in their interest was the flexibility of Adam having an option remaining, so he could be sent to the minors.)
Adam had a couple other offers, so the Rays negotiated a bit — eventually signing him for $900,000, plus $150,000 in performance bonuses — and called in a secret weapon to close the deal: Outfielder Brett Phillips, who played with Adam in Kansas City, sold him on the team.
Ryan Bristow, who as assistant director of pro personnel and scouting led the pursuit, said the match has obviously been a good one.
“It was as simple as seeing those three quality pitches and hoping we could get them in the zone more,” he said. “And probably just a classically undervalued kind of guy that needed a very simple message that turned into something really big for him.”
Or, as teammate Jalen Beeks said, “Pick-up of the offseason, I’d think.”
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