Let's just be politically correct and say the Vernon Wells' first year as an Angel didn't exactly go as planned. The combination of miserable performance and his terrible contract have turned Vernon into persona non grata with Angels fans, but can an off-season if clearing his head and changing his swing get him back in their good graces?
2011 Stats: 505 AB, .218 AVG, .248 OBP, .412 SLG, 60 R, 25 HR, 66 RBI, 9 SB, 4 CS, 86 K
2012 ZiPS Projections: 533 AB, .255 AVG, .298 OBP, .422 SLG, 66 R, 19 HR, 69 RBI, 9 SB, 4 CS, 77 K
2012 Bill James Projections: 507 AB, .260 AVG, .311 OBP, .452 SLG, 65 R, 22 HR, 70 RBI, 8 SB, 4 CS, 91 K
2012 CAIRO Projections: 476 AB, .240 AVG, .287 OBP, .409 SLG, 62 R, 18 HR, 64 RBI, 7 SB, 3 CS, 75 K
2012 PECOTA Projections: 407 PA, .251 AVG, .299 OBP, .404 SLG, 46 R, 12 HR, 47 RBI, 7 SB, 3 CS, 57 K
2012 MWaH Projections*: 355 AB, .233 AVG, .277 OBP, .409 SLG, 32 R, 11 HR, 37 RBI, 4 SB, 2 CS, 57 K
*The MWaH projections are simply my best guess based off my own personal opinion and research
2011 in Review: Vernon Wells never had a chance. Despite coming off an All-Star campaign in 2010, Angel fans were apoplectic at the news of the Halos trading for Vernon, or, more accurately, trading for the four-years and $85+ million he still had left on his contract. Even though the Halos desperately needed a big bat in the middle of the order, it had already been decided that acquiring Wells was the worst idea ever (and that was before Napoli exploded in Texas).
And then he started playing.
In April, Wells batted a paltry .174 and didn't hit his first home until April 20th. Then he started off May batting .222 before he got hurt, mercifully, but by then it was already all over. As far as Angel fans were concerned, he was the worst thing to happen to the Angel lineup since Jeff Mathis, especially since Mike Scioscia insisted on batting him in the heart of the order almost the entire time.
Wells did show signs of life when he was activated from the DL in June with an .821 OPS and .350 wOBA. That would prove to be the highlight of his season. The next two months, Wells went in the tank again, posting a sub-.660 OPS and sub-.300 wOBA and morphing from the supposed lineup savior into "the guy who is blocking Mike Trout." Wells did see a small uptick in his numbers the final month of the season, but that was partly due to the fact that he had been reduced to a less-than-full-time player who inflated his stats by facing a lot of lefties and less difficult right-handers.
The lone saving grace from Wells' season is that even though he posted one of the lowest single-season OBPs of a qualifying batter since 1920, he still managed to crank 25 home runs with a .194 ISO. Whereas another slugger who experienced a nightmarish season, Adam Dunn, saw his power evaporate, Vernon could still drive the ball in the rare event that he actually made contact with it. So, I guess if you are looking for your silver lining, there it is.
Three Lingering Questions for 2012:
- What was the real cause of Vernon's rapid decline? Vernon says he was putting too much pressure on himself mentally, but he is also getting on in years and has a history of wrist problems. Given his history of inconsistency, should we really buy that he was just trying too hard? Or do we trust the evidence that he might have lost bat speed?
- How much of a chance will Wells be given to prove last year was or wasn't a fluke? With the stupid amount of money the Angels still owe Vernon, they are going to at least try and salvage something on their investment. On the other hand, Jerry Dipoto has no real skin in that investment and will likely be quick to just write Wells off as a sunk cost if he flops again, especially since he figures to have Trumbo and Abreu on the bench and Trout in Triple-A. Will he get weeks? Months? The entire season? Or just spring training?
- Is there any hope of Wells being traded? No, there isn't. It won't stop fans from asking that question, but, yeah, not going to happen, even if he remembers how to hit.
What to Expect in 2012: Since the season ended, Vernon Wells has been pretty outspoken about the fact that he believes his struggles last year were all mental. He was just trying too hard to impress his new team. To him, it is as simple as that, but it really isn't as simple as that. The first data point a lot of people point to for Wells is that he swung at 35.2% of pitches outside of the strike zone, a career-high for him. To many, that is proof that Vernon was getting too aggressive, swinging at bad pitches and getting himself out. However, he also swung at 68.1% of pitches in the zone, the second-lowest rate of his career. Suddenly that over-aggressive argument starts to look a little shaky.
More problematic than Wells swinging more than normal is that he wasn't making good contact when he was swinging. His .214 BABIP last year was positively laughable, and that is probably the only thing positive about it. Some have assumed that low BABIP means Vernon was merely the victim of bad luck, but that argument doesn't hold up. If it were bad luck, Wells wouldn't have posted a career-low (by a mile) line drive rate of 12.3% and career-high (by a mile) flyball rate of 48.1%. That's not Vernon just hitting it right at the fielder; that's Vernon getting underneath a lot of pitches that he would normally have been able to square up. Perhaps that is a product of him trying to lift everything so he can impress his new fans and teammates with home runs, but it is also possible he lost bat speed and just couldn't get his bat around in time.
I really want to believe that his failures in 2011 were all mental, but one fact emerged this off-season that has me thinking otherwise: Vernon rebuilt his swing.
That's right, Wells went out of his way to work with free lance hitting coach Rudy Jaramillo to completely overhaul his swing. Now, if we are to believe the theory, as proposed by Vernon, that he was just chasing too many bad pitches in an attempt to prove himself, then what sense does it make to rebuild a swing that has mostly served him well for over a decade? The obvious answer to that question is that it wasn't just his mental approach holding him back. Vernon's swing is broken and he knows it. The real question is can he fix it?
I'm hardly a hitting coach, but I doubt it can be fixed. The new swing might solve some of his problems, but if he is simply getting older and his bat speed is eroding, there really isn't much he can do about it. My bigger fear though is that Wells will be so focused on getting his new swing right that he is going to tinker with it constantly, resulting in him getting all up in his own head yet again. We've seen it happen before to many a player, Brandon Wood most recently.
As such, I'm predicting another awful year for Vernon. Mike Scioscia will try and give him an extended chance to prove himself but will ultimately end up having to pull the plug and call up Mike Trout to take over. Wells will still get some playing time since he can still handle left-handers reasonably well (.851 OPS vs. LHP in 2011), but mostly he will just be the highest-paid reserve outfielder in history by season's end.
Thanks, Tony Reagins!
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