Three Thoughts on One Vernon Wells

It could have worked out so perfectly. The Yankees’ acquisition of Vernon Wells appeared to be unwise at the time, but they’d be looking to him as a backup, who needed only to fake it as a starter while Curtis Granderson was hurt. Pretty bad gamble, sure, but we’re given only one reality, and when Granderson debuted on May 14, Wells had an .875 OPS. It was up in four-digit territory through the first three weeks, and all the talk was about how Wells had found a new home, and a new life, more like his old one. Wells had done more than enough, and with Granderson healthy, he could be reduced to a role player.

Granderson got hurt again, and Wells hasn’t stopped playing. Wells has stopped hitting, even though he hasn’t stopped getting opportunities. Wells, now, owns the worst rate numbers of his career, a small step down even from what he did with the Angels. Wells didn’t just regress from his hot streak — his numbers over-corrected, such that he’s been more of a burden than a boon.

The power’s still in there. Wells doesn’t hit for a vacant low average. But he does hit for a low average, and a major culprit is a terrible BABIP. And a major culprit there is poor quality of contact. At this writing, Vernon Wells is the 2013 league leader in infield flies, according to our leaderboard. Wells has always been pop-up-prone, and he’s succeeded despite that in the past, but these days he’s doing less of the good stuff without reducing the bad stuff.

A case in point. On May 25, the Yankees played the Rays, and the game went to extras. Wells was hitless in his first two trips to the plate. In the sixth, he batted against Matt Moore, and this happened:

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That’s one pop-up, or one more pop-up than Joey Votto has all season. In the eighth, Wells batted against Joel Peralta, and this happened:

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That’s two pop-ups, or one more pop-up than Joey Votto has since the start of last season. In the tenth, Wells batted against Josh Lueke, and this happened:

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That’s three pop-ups, or one more pop-up than Joey Votto has since the start of the 2010 season. Wells’ 18 pop-ups this year are seven more than Votto has in his career. Above, you see him hitting three of them in three consecutive plate appearances. He recorded five pop-ups in a two-game span. Wells’ pop-ups aren’t why he’s bad, but one could consider them a symptom. And Wells is on track to do something unusual.

Right now, Wells has 18 pop-ups and 17 extra-base hits. According to Baseball-Reference, he has even more pop-ups than that, but we’ll stick to the FanGraphs definition. Of all the players to have batted at least 200 times, here are the guys who have more pop-ups than extra-base hits:

Wells is the only one of those guys with at least 250 trips to the plate. Since 2002 — as far back as we have batted-ball data — there have been 3,500 player seasons of at least 250 plate appearances. In 42 of those has a player had more pop-ups than extra-base hits, and that’s counting current Wells. Many of the players around him are middle infielders, looked to in large part for their gloves. Wells is supposed to be a hitter, and hitters don’t want to be listed alongside names like Jeff Mathis and Drew Butera.

The key for Vernon Wells is not “stop hitting pop-ups.” The problem is deeper than that, and the fix for a bad leak isn’t shutting off your water. This is presented only to give you a sense of what Vernon Wells has become. A couple months ago, there was a little chatter that Wells would make for a heart-warming bounceback All-Star. It’s the middle of June, and he has fewer extra-base hits than pop-ups as a corner outfielder with passable defense. Sometimes a change of scenery leads to a fresh start. Sometimes a fresh start leads to a familiar course.

Have you ever wondered how wide true-talent performance error bars can be? Let’s accept, for simplicity’s sake, that Vernon Wells’ true talent hasn’t changed over the course of this season. Let’s accept that he’s more or less what he’s been since the start of 2011. Wells is a below-average player and a below-average hitter. This is what he did over a stretch of 87 plate appearances in April:

  • .321/.379/.603

This is what he’s done over 85 plate appearances since May 22:

  • .120/.129/.133

Wells, for a few weeks, was able to look like one of the best hitters in the league. Wells, for a few weeks, was also able to look like a bad-hitting pitcher. What does Wells think? One quote:

“I don’t remember the bad stuff,” Wells said. “You learn from it and move on.”

Another:

“I remember when this started; that day, I hit the ball hard and didn’t get any hits,” Wells said. “You kind of chuckle and shake your head, know that eventually it’s going to turn around. You’ll start keeping those balls fair and stop hitting line drives at people.”
[…]
“The funny thing is, I haven’t felt bad; that’s the only thing that’s kept me from snapping,” Wells said.

The morals are familiar. Don’t bet on baseball. Hot streaks and cold streaks aren’t predictive. On any given day, anyone can do anything. In any given series, even a massive underdog can emerge victorious. Never let your short-term memory completely erase your long-term memory. You know who’s had a somewhat similar story? Here’s Yuniesky Betancourt, over 86 plate appearances between April and May:

  • .293/.314/.634

Here’s Betancourt over 118 plate appearances ever since:

  • .158/.186/.202

Vernon Wells and Yuniesky Betancourt have had alarmingly similar seasons. That can’t be considered good news for either one of them. The error bars — the normal error bars — are massive, and over-performance doesn’t mean improvement, and under-performance doesn’t mean decline. These are living, breathing examples of why “small sample size” has become a borderline obnoxious household expression. Over small sample sizes, almost literally anything is possible, except for a Ben Revere home run. Most players in baseball can look like the best or worst players.

It’s not uncommon to see a baseball player hang around too long. It’s also not uncommon to see a baseball player complain about diminished playing time, even when it’s evident his skills have eroded. Miguel Olivo just got busted over the weekend by the Marlins for quitting over a lack of action. Olivo’s 34, and he hasn’t slugged even .400 since 2010, when he played in Colorado. Olivo doesn’t have much left to offer, relative to the average available catcher. But he knows he still has a strong arm, he knows he has experience, and he knows he can hit dingers. Olivo slugged .481 between April 20 and June 9. He slugged .467 last year from the day of the trade deadline. Olivo knows he’s still capable of being a contributor; he’s less aware that he’s capable of being a contributor less often.

Even declining players have positive true-talent performance error bars. Declining players have periods during which they over-achieve, and those are encouraging, because those are proof that the players still have what it takes to succeed or even thrive. What we see, in Vernon Wells, is a mediocre player who probably doesn’t belong on a roster, to be honest. But Wells remembers his hot start to the season. He knows that he did that, and that means he could do it again, and that means he can still be a major contributor. Players have to be optimistic, or confident. They have to believe in their positives while downplaying their negatives. Because Wells was so good for a stretch, he knows that he can be that player, and that player deserves to play. That player hits dingers!

It’s not a dramatic difference, the difference between a guy when he’s good and the same guy when he’s declined. The declining player can still play at an elite level sometimes, and it’s not the difference between ten hard-hit balls and zero hard-hit balls per ten opportunities. It’s the difference between four hard-hit balls and three hard-hit balls, and what’s one hard-hit ball? That’s practically nothing, and, look, there are still hard-hit balls. There’s still evidence of talent.

It’s a gradual process, getting worse. It tends to be pretty evident in the numbers. It tends to be less evident physically and psychologically, and that’s why players can be the last people to notice what they’ve turned into. It’s enough to make you feel bad for them, but you can’t feel bad for everyone, and everyone eventually goes through it. Wells, to my knowledge, hasn’t complained about anything. And he’d certainly be a fool to retire while he’s still under contract. That’s not an option. But Vernon Wells, probably, is optimistic about himself. Remember April? That was barely a month ago. Just a little tweak or two away.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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