Throughout his career, Vernon Wells has been a beacon of inconsistency. In 2004 and 2005, Wells was barely an above average offensive player, but in 2006, Wells managed to put up a 128 wRC+, 32 home runs, and stole 17 bases. He earned a 7 year $126 million deal because of his production in a contract year. The extremely volatile hitter has since produced ISO’s and OBP’s that have at times fluctuated around .100 points between seasons. In the end, he’s produced a 104 wRC+ over his career, barely average.
At the age of 34, it’s hard to see what the Yankees liked when they decided to pick up $14 million of his contract yesterday. In his two years with the Angels, Wells hit just .222/.258/.409 in 791 plate appearances. Since 2006, his LD% has dropped from 18.3%, to 16.8%(2007), 17.3%(2008), 14.8%(2009), 15.9%(2010), 12.3%(2011), 15.7%(2012). That low line drive rate is accompanied by a declining average on those hits. In his career, he’s hit .723 on line drives, but in 2010 he hit just .691, in 2011 .635, and in 2012 .656. When line drive rates or batting average on these hits fall so dramatically in the matter of a year, you start to think there is bad luck involved, but when it happens over the course of many years, player decline is a serious consideration.
There are very few things to like about the outfielder, and that’s what has everyone scratching their head over this trade. When it comes to splits, the right-handed hitter doesn’t even have decent splits against left-handed pitchers. In 2012 he hit for just an 88 wRC+(75 PA) against lefties, in 2011 a 134 wRC+(172 PA), in 2010 a 67 wRC+(128 PA), and in 2009 a 55 wRC+(172 PA).
The Yankees have a lot more resources to look at than we do, and I’m sure they liked something if they were willing to take on all that money. For one, the outfielder is destroying the ball in Spring Training. In 41 plate appearances, Wells has hit .361/.390/.722 with 4 home runs and 2 stolen bases. Perhaps the Yankees feel that this is an indication of a change in his approach at the plate, or maybe he’s healed properly from a number of injuries to his hamstring, groin, ankle and thumb since 2011. For an idea on his swing changes, see the video comparisons below.
From 2010 to 2012, Wells moved much further away from home plate. If you look at his back foot, you’ll see that the toe almost touches the batter’s box in 2010, while in 2012 he’s no where close. In 2013, he seems to be standing even further away, which is noticeable in how far he has to extend his hands and lean into the batting zone. Another thing is his crouch, where he takes a much more athletic stance in 2012 and 2013.
The Yankees may feel that his drop off in line drive hits is a product of something he changed mechanically, maybe they think that moving away from the play will help him. Yet as he enters his mid-30′s with a long history of injuries, it’s hard to imagine 6 years of line drive decline isn’t age or health related.
But a change of scenery should help Wells. Not that Anaheim isn’t a great place to play baseball, but it’s much easier to pitch there than to hit. Over the last three years, Statcorner has graded Angel Stadium an 89 for homeruns from right handed batters (100 being average), with Yankee Stadium earning a 111. The other ballparks of the NL West are also unkind to right handed hitters, with O.co earning an 89 and Safeco earning an 84. Rangers ballpark was the only one above average, with a 115. In the AL East, outside of Yankee Stadium, Tropicana rates the lowest at 92, followed by Fenway with a 102 (although the extra base rate was a 125 thanks to the Green Monster), then Camden at 115, and the Rogers Center with a 119.
In 2011, the splits may have gotten into Wells’ head, since he produced only a 57 wRC+ at home, and a 100 wRC+ on the road. What Wells does in his journey back to the AL East will still be dependent on how well he hits the ball, and with a declining LD%, it’s hard to imagine he can revert to his golden years in Toronto.
$14 million is about $14 million more than I have, and sounds like a lot of money, but the Yankees have enough money to throw around as long as it doesn’t affect the 2014 budget. In this case, it will actually add $2 million to the Yankees’ $189 million budget next year. As the dust starts to settle around this trade, more and more of it makes sense, and perhaps we’ll see something from Wells soon that’ll tell us why the Yankees liked him.