The curious case of Vernon Wellsby Matt Filippi
May 12, 2013
All stats used in the article below are through Saturday, May 11
The Yankees came into the 2013 season looking much different than they had in recent years. They lost Nick Swisher, Russell Martin and Raul Ibanez to free agency. Those three combined to hit 64 of the team's 245 homers in 2012. Not to mention that sluggers Curtis Granderson, Derek Jeter and Mark Teixeira were going to start the year on the disabled list. The brass was forced to find temporary replacements, including Lyle Overbay at first, Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix at short, and Vernon Wells in the outfield.
The Yankees didn't acquire Wells until the very end of spring training, getting him and money from the Angels in exchange for two minor leaguers. The move seemed to get a big “LOL” reaction from people on Twitter, which seemed warranted. After all, a team that was in the American League Championship Series last October was now forced to run Vernon Wells out to left field every day. Wells, 34, had hit .222/.258/.409 over the last two seasons in LA and seemed to be on a decline that wasn't showing signs of ending. On top of that, New York was going to pay this man $13 million over two years.
However, there was a glimmer of hope for Yankees fans. First of all, Wells hit .333/.360/.644 in spring training, and while I don't like to put stock in spring numbers, it gave them optimistic something to hold onto. But then I came across a piece by MLB.com's Richard Justice about Wells and some mechanical adjustments he made during the offseason. Here's an excerpt from that article:
Wells studied hours of video to compare his swing from the last couple of seasons against his best seasons. He immediately saw the difference.
"You get caught up in hitting home runs and seeing how far you can hit 'em and your swing changes," Wells said Tuesday afternoon as he prepared to play his first spring training game for the Yankees.
And that was the focus of Wells' offseason. To shorten his swing. To hit the ball to right field. To stop worrying about home runs.
In the two videos below, you will see a single by Wells with the Angels in spring training 2012 and a home run he hit with the Yankees last week, respectively. Here you go:
In the first clip there is a lot of pre-swing movement and right before he does swing, there is a small, subtle hitch. That's probably what he was talking about when said he was trying to hit homers, since hitches are known to trade quickness to the baseball for power. In the second swing with New York, there is almost no pre-swing movement until the pitcher is about to throw the baseball and the hitch is basically gone.
Whatever he did seems to be working because he's hitting .281/.331/.500 (123 wRC+) through Saturday's action. Some of Wells' comments have come to life in the numbers also. In 2012 only five percent of his hits went to the opposite field while in 2013, he's gone the other way 14 percent of the time, according to FanGraphs. It may not seem like the biggest increase, but it's something. However, Wells has changed even more than this.
He is also being more aggressive at the dish. This year he is seeing only 3.39 pitches per plate appearance, as opposed to last year when he saw 3.64 pitches per plate appearance. This could be because he's swinging at about 12 percent more pitches that are in the strike zone than last year. As a trade off he's also swinging and missing four percent more than he did last season. Maybe he's seeing his pitch earlier in counts and just letting it rip instead of trying to be more passive. I found this really interesting because the Yankees as an organization always seem to preach patience at the plate.
Wells probably isn't going to keep this performance up, but ZiPS does have him posting a 103 wRC+ for the rest of the season, which is still above average and I'm sure the Bombers would be more than happy to get that. The thing is, New York just had to weather this early, injury-plagued stretch and Wells' hot start has helped the Yankees not only tread water, but actually stay near the top of the division. With Curtis Granderson due back in the next week or so, they will probably go to a four-man rotation in the outfield with Wells, Granderson, Brett Gardner, and Ichiro Suzuki. Wells has shown (so far) that he can be a legitimate option for them going forward, but if he does come crashing back down to earth (his 2011-2012 numbers), it won't hurt too much.