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Randy Wells’ Sophomore Season

In 2009, Randy Wells was a surprisingly effective cog in the Chicago Cubs’ rotation. The converted catcher and returned 2007 Rule V pick of the Blue Jays posted a 3.05 ERA in 165.1 innings pitched, placing 10th among qualified National League starters. This season, however, Wells has fallen to a 4.92 ERA in 78.2 frames. Has the 27-year-old righty regressed significantly, or are better days ahead?

While Wells’ ’09 performance was sturdy, it is important to note that his gaudy ERA overstated the extent of his dominance. With 5.66 K/9 and 2.5 BB/9, Wells had a more modest 4.24 xFIP. The ERA/xFIP dichotomy was the result of a fairly high 76% rate of stranding base runners (the MLB average is usually around 70-72%, though pitcher skill does play some role) and a home run/fly ball rate of eight percent (11% MLB average).

Extreme strand and HR/FB rates have a way of returning toward those big league averages, and we’ve seen that from Wells in 2010 — he’s leaving 67.8% of runners on base, and 9.2% of his fly balls are reaching the bleachers. While a reversal of fortune on those fronts should have been expected, Wells has seemingly gone to the other end of the luck spectrum this season. He’s got a .355 batting average on balls in play, compared to .294 in 2009. Among qualified starting pitchers, only Pittsburgh’s Zach Duke has a higher BABIP.

The first thing that sticks out regarding Wells’ performance on balls put in play is his line drive rate. It’s 25.1% this year, highest among starters and leaps and bounds above his 18.8% mark from last season. Line drives aren’t the most stable metric from season to season, but we know that bad things happen on batted balls classified as liners — line drives in the NL this season have a .975 slugging percentage and a .715 BABIP. Wells’ liners have a .965 SLG% and a .754 BABIP. That’s certainly a contributing factor to his inflated BABIP. But what makes this finding confusing is that just about every other performance measure suggests that Wells isn’t getting hit hard at all.

So far, he has 7.09 K/9. He’s whiffing 18 percent of batters faced this year, up from 15 percent in 2009. Wells’ swinging strike rate, 8.1% last season, has climbed to 10.9% (8-9% MLB average). His overall contact rate is 77.1% in 2010, compared to 81.8% last year (80-81% MLB average). Relative to the big league average, Randy’s outside swing percentage is up — he’s outpacing the MLB norm by 17 percent this year (33.1 O-Swing, 28.2 MLB average) after surpassing it by 11 percent last year (27.8 O-Swing, 25.1 MLB average).

Wells is getting swinging strikes when throwing a fastball 6.8 percent in 2010, compared to 4.3% last season (the MLB average is around six. His slider is getting slightly more whiffs (13.3% in ’10 to 12.8% in ’09, 13.6% MLB average) and his changeup has a 19.4% whiff rate, up considerably from last year’s 13.1% clip (12.6% MLB average). None of these numbers suggest he has gotten easier to hit.

In addition to getting more whiffs, Wells has actually lowered his walk rate slightly to 2.29 BB/9. He continues to get ahead in the count often, with a 61.6 first pitch strike percentage (61.4% last year, 58% MLB average).

Overall, Wells’ xFIP is a tidy 3.68 — over a half-run lower than his 2009 figure. That line drive rate bears watching, but there are many positives to be found in Wells’ “disappointing” follow-up to his celebrated rookie campaign. If he’s available in your league (and with a 51% Yahoo ownership rate, there’s a decent chance that he is), do your team a favor and scoop up a quality starter on the cheap.