Vernon Wells made his Yankee debut yesterday, and had a chance to speak with the media about his move to New York and expectations. It's obviously been a tough couple of years for the outfielder, but we learned that he's looking for a new start with the team he secretly rooted for over his Major League career. Looking at his last two seasons with Angels doesn't inspire the type of enthusiasm he's portraying, but there are reasons to believe that he'll be productive in 2013. The biggest thread of hope is a change of approach at the plate. Chad Jennings has the quote.
“Coming into spring training and throughout the offseason, my goal was just to get back to the basics and just put the barrel on the ball as many times as I can,” Wells said. “Shorten my swing and use the other field. I forgot what right field was like for a couple of years. You get caught up in hitting home runs and seeing how far you can hit them, and your swing changes. I was able to take some time this offseason, look at a lot of video from when I was younger and just spraying the ball all over the field. Once we got into spring training, that was my goal. And so far, so good. Getting back to just being short and quick, and balls are still jumping off my bat and my hands are still as quick as they were when I was younger.”
As I pointed out on Monday, there have been some clear changes to Wells' approach at the plate. In recent years, he's backed up off the plate and entered a more crouched "athletic" position. From 2012 to 2013, he's trying to shorten his swing and hit for contact over power. In yesterday's game, you could clearly see less extension in his arms, and less of an uppercut on contact.
In his statements on Tuesday, he explains that these changes came about as he concentrated on pulling home runs. Indeed, there have been some massive changes in unexpected stats since 2010. From 2009 to 2010, Wells' swing rate on pitches outside of the strike zone rose from 26.7% to 29.2%, followed by 32.3% in 2011, and 30.0% in 2012. The contact rate on these pitches fell from 64.9% in 2009, to 60.6% in 2010, 59.3% in 2011, and then up to 67.1% in a shortened 2012. In most of these cases, the last three years represent major regression when compared to his previous seasons in Toronto.
So what happened in 2009 to make him think about home runs? He only hit 15 in 684 plate appearances. His career average 12.0% HR/FB fell to 6.4% that year, and it's understandable that he'd want to spend his time fixing his power swing. Although the home runs returned in 2010, the swing rates tell us that he was swinging at many more pitches outside of the zone, and by 2011 his walk rate fell to just 3.8%. His fly ball rate also skyrocketed to 48.1%, while his line drive rate fell to 12.3%. Some of these numbers improved in 2012, but it's hard to see their significance behind just 262 plate appearances.
The good news is that Wells sees the difference in his swing, and is now looking to revert back to his old approach at the plate. He spent all offseason adapting his swing to go to the opposite field. In 2012, 55% of his hits were pulled, 39% went to center, and 6% went to opposite field. In 2011, 55% of his hits were pulled, 33% went to center, and 12% went to opposite field. I couldn't find an instance where he was "spraying the ball all over the field", but his pull-happy approach has grown particularly bad over the last couple of years.
His numbers this spring have been very good. He's hit .333/.364/.667 with 4 home runs, 1 double, and 6 singles. This obviously won't continue over the long term, but it's good to know that he's hitting the ball hard.
One odd effect of his new approach has been the type of contact he's made in February and March. Looking back over all his contact this spring, he's hit 10 ground balls, 19 fly balls, 3 pop ups, and 1 line drive. Most of these hits have come on ground balls, which perhaps speaks to how hard the ball comes off his bat. The problem is that he's not hitting line drives, and without line drives, there's no reason to think he'll hit for average. Of course, this is small sample size, and I have questions about how well MLB keeps track of ground balls and fly balls in Spring Training, but it's something that sheds doubt on his early performance.
Overall, knowing that he's working on his swing makes Wells one of the more interesting players to watch in April. He still has some amazing contact rates, he hasn't lost an ounce of bat speed, and he's working with one of the best hitting coaches now. He has the potential to hit 30 home runs and bat .270, but he's also very capable of being a total bust.