‘He’s 100% Different’: After Rookie Struggles, Jo Adell Returns To The Majors In A Better Place

Image credit: Jo Adell (John McCoy/Getty)

ANAHEIM, Calif. — When Jo Adell returned home to Louisville after last season, he was frustrated.

The heralded Angels outfield prospect achieved his lifelong dream of reaching the major leagues, only to have it become a nightmare. He hit .161 and struck out in more than 41% of his plate appearances after the Angels called him up. His defense was a nightly adventure, with his lowest moment coming in just his fourth game when a fly ball in Texas bounced out of his glove and over the right-field fence for a four-base error.

The strikeouts and defensive miscues piled up night after night, with no sign of a turnaround. By the end of the abbreviated 2020 season, barely five weeks after being called up, Adell was effectively benched. He started only five of the Angels’ final 15 games.

“Things were fast last year,” Angels manager Joe Maddon said. “Things got really fast and he didn’t have the equipment to slow things down.”

Adell had to wait another seven months, until the start of the 2021 season, before he could prove his struggles were a fluke. In the interim, his weaknesses were dissected and his most embarrassing professional moment, the error in Texas, replayed on an endless loop of blooper reels on television and social media.

Adell saw it all. He didn’t attempt to hide from it. He simply responded by doing the only thing he could.

“I went to work,” Adell said. “That’s what this is. It’s a business. If it doesn’t go well, you adjust and try to fix it.”

Adell returned to the majors with the Angels on Aug. 3 and has been markedly improved from last season. In only 14 games, he already has as many doubles as he did all last year and has surpassed his RBI total. He hit a tiebreaking grand slam in the ninth inning at Detroit on Tuesday to send the Angels to an 8-2 victory.

Most importantly, Adell has handled 42 chances in the outfield without so much as a false step. On Aug. 12 against the Blue Jays, he raced into the right-center gap and made a diving catch to rob Breyvic Valera of a double. Two days later against the Astros, he made a diving catch at full speed along the left-field line to rob Jason Castro of extra bases. Both catches came just after the one-year anniversary of his error in Texas, a welcome representation of just how far he’s come.

“He’s a completely different player than I saw last year when we brought him up,” Maddon said.  “He’s 100%, 180 degrees different.”

The remaking of Adell took time. Even at the beginning of this season, it was clear he still had a long way to go.

Adell swung the bat well at the alternate training site in April, but his defense still left a lot to be desired. He opened the minor league season at Triple-A Salt Lake in May and got off to a slow start, batting .235 with a 34% strikeout rate during the season’s first month while continuing to need work on his routes, reads and first step in the outfield.

Salt Lake manager Lou Marson could empathize with what Adell was going through. A former Top 100 prospect who debuted at 22 without ever receiving 500 plate appearances in a minor league season, Marson understood better than most the challenge of being in the majors before being ready for it.

“I had a lot of conversations with him about, from personal experience, I felt like I was rushed to the big leagues and I wasn’t ready offensively,” Marson said. “And I only played parts of six seasons. I always thought I was going to play longer. I’m not comparing myself to him, I’m just saying when you go up and you aren’t ready, everybody wants to be in the big leagues, but when you get there you want to be ready and stick and stay there for 12-15 years.

“It’s so important to get your at-bats and develop your guys. Teams want to rush players so, so quickly now and they just need the reps. They need to not only succeed, they need to learn how to fail. How they bounce back from failure. Because you know how this game is, it’s a lot of failure.”

Indeed, how Adell bounced back from failure was his biggest test early this season.

Once he arrived at Salt Lake, Adell threw himself into defensive work. He set aside time to work on fundamentals almost every day before games. While most others casually shagged balls during batting practice, he dialed in and focused on getting live reads off the bat.

The progress in games came slowly at first. A better jump here. A more direct route there.

As the summer went on, the improved plays began happening more and more. With those improvements came more balls being turned into outs.

After a slow and steady progression to start, things snowballed rapidly. By the time August rolled around, Adell was making every play he should, and then some.  

“The way he took his routes to balls in the outfield, the way he threw the ball into the cutoff man, it was more aggressive. It was more confident,” Marson said. “He got a lot of work in and it was great for him.”

“During the alt site when a ball would be hit towards his way I had no certainty the ball was going to be caught. If he was going to take a good clean route, if he was going to catch the ball … The beginning of the season, spring training, alt site, I wasn’t super confident in him defensively. But this last month before he got called up, it was night and day difference for sure.”

Just as Adell bounced back defensively, he put in the work to do the same offensively.

The Angels sent minor league hitting coordinator Damon Mashore to Salt Lake for most of the season to work with Adell in conjunction with Salt Lake hitting coach Brian Betancourth. Their primary focus was improving Adell’s approach and helping him swing at fewer breaking pitches out of the strike zone.

Again, progress came slowly but surely. Adell cut his strikeout rate from 34% in May to 30% in June to 23% in July. His average rose from .235 to .288 to .343. When the Angels called him back up, he’d recorded a hit in 22 of his previous 25 games.

Though it’s been a small sample, the progress appears to have carried over to the majors. Adell’s contact rate in the majors has increased from 60.8% last year to 75.9% this year, according to Fangraphs. His swinging strike rate has dropped from 19.9% to 11.3%.

“Last year with the season it was, it was kind of tough to get into that rhythm and find my pace,” Adell said. “I think now I’m in a good spot working the count and I’m trying to look for pitches I can drive.”

Beyond the change in results, Marson saw something else transform in Adell.

“The big thing for me that I noticed is he learned how to deal with failure,” Marson said. “If he got out he wasn’t blaming umpires, he wasn’t blaming the scouting report. He just was sticking to his plan and getting his glove and going out and playing defense. In the years past that wasn’t always the case. I think he learned how to deal with failure big time, even though he didn’t fail here as much.”

The end result is an Adell that looks a lot more like the player who entered the 2020 season ranked the No. 3 prospect in baseball. After all the struggles of his rookie campaign, he’s bounced back to show game-changing ability both offensively and defensively.

Now, the second time around, he looks like he’s in the majors to stay.

“It feels good,” Adell said. “My only goal was really to contribute any way possible without any particular way. But I’m just playing hard and good things have happened so far, so I’m just going to keep my head down and just try to put runs up on the board any way I can.”

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