The reawakening of Vernon Wells

Vernon Wells had a small hamstring injury in spring training the other day, but according to MLB.com, he felt fine enough to start the regular season. It probably would required his leg being amputated to miss Opening Day this year. There may not be a proper stat for this, but Wells’ potential happiness for 2011 could lead the league.

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The Angels’ acquisition of Wells was looked upon as a strange consolation prize. The franchise was the object of some ridicule this offseason, as it couldn’t seem to land any of the free agents Los Angeles targeted. Cliff Lee, Carl Crawford and Adrian Beltre all said, “Thanks, but no thanks” to an offer to come to Anaheim. (Can we please just call them the California Angels?)

Wells, whose contract made any trade virtually impossible, was sent packing from Toronto for Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli, and almost right away, the second guessers had a field day.

But what the analysts failed to keep in mind was the liberation factor. Actor Bradley Whitford (Josh from The West Wing) called it “Shaking the Etch-a-Sketch.” Imagine what Wells is leaving behind.

He played in The Rogers Centre (can we call that SkyDome, please?) in front of lots of empty blue seats. John Farrell was about to become the sixth manager of his career.

The Blue Jays seem perpetually stuck in that middle ground of being good enough to be above .500 but not good enough to make a run at the Red Sox and Yankees (or Rays, for that matter.) And with that gigantic contract, Wells took the brunt of the blame of removing any payroll flexibility north of the border.

Of course, things like “emotion” and “feelings” and “acknowledging the players are human” is forbidden to many baseball experts. The answers must be in VORP, or OPS+ or WAR. Emotions are merely rumor, and the essence of the player can be distilled onto the back of their very cluttered baseball card.

But take the case of Wells, someone who by all accounts is a solid citizen and a good teammate. He seemed to be taking the fan favorite route when he signed a contract extension with the Blue Jays after the 2006 season, a year the Jays finished in second place.

The very act of signing up with the Blue Jays for the long run blew up in his face. As his production went down, the criticism ramped up. And no doubt the pressure increased with his desire to show everyone that he is worth the money. When the pressing Wells could not reach his All-Star levels again, and the team continued to play meaningless games, it is not unreasonable to say that a change for everyone was needed.

Now compare his situation in Toronto with where he is going to in Anaheim. Toronto averaged 20,000 fans a game, indoors on artificial turf, while the Angels drew the second-highest number of fans in the American League (only the Yankees drew more). He will be playing in front of 40,000 a game, on natural turf with lots of day games.

He will be in an outfield with Torii Hunter, electric youngster Peter Bourjos and, eventually, top prospect Mike Trout. He will be batting with the underrated Bobby Abreu and Kendrys Morales—once Morales comes back from his self-inflicted injury.

Forget having to carry the offense; he is just one of the players now. No longer the burden of the franchise, he can relax and play his game, doing so for a class organization and playing for a manager in Mike Scioscia that is quietly putting together a potential Hall of Fame resume.

And for the first time in his career, he will be playing for a legit contender who has a shot to win the division. While most people are picking either Oakland with their terrific young pitching or the defending American League champs in Texas, the Angels have a good shot. If their bats come through, they will be playing behind one of the best 1-2-3 combinations in the American League. Dan Haren will be there for the whole season to join Jared Weaver and Ervin Santana. Welcome to the pennant race, Mr. Wells!

Wells, who had a decent, if not MVP-caliber, season last year, has a weight off of his shoulders. There is no statistic for that. And no doubt even suggesting it will get ridiculed on the comment board below. But there have been many instances where a change in scenery sparked a dramatic turnaround in a career.

Dave Stewart toiled as a mediocre spot starter for the Dodgers, Rangers and Phillies before going to Oakland and blossoming into a Cy Young contender and World Series hero. Dennis Eckersley was a washed-up starter for the Cubs when he went to his native Oakland and became a Cy Young winner, MVP, ALCS MVP and Hall of Famer out of the bullpen.

Scott Brosius was stumbling with Oakland and Kenny Rogers was overwhelmed by the Yankees. They were swapped for each other, and Brosius exploded into an All Star and World Series MVP, while Rogers flourished everywhere he played except New York.

Bill Mueller was a fine third baseman but became a batting champ when he arrived in Boston. Terry Pendleton was a solid player for the Cardinals, but became an MVP and leader of the Cinderella Braves team of 1991. Bill Madlock was out of place and out of sorts in San Francisco, was dealt to Pittsburgh and regained his batting champ swing. And, of course, Roger Clemens found his stuff again when he went to Toronto, although his boost looks like it was more than just a change in scenery.

A few years ago on my blog, I proposed a three-team trade between the Giants, Cubs and Blue Jays, swapping overpaid gargantuan contracts, the idea being that Barry Zito, Alfonso Soriano and Wells were all talented but in miserable situations. And perhaps changing those situations would be enough to jolt an improvement. In the deal, I had Wells heading to Wrigley Field. But the Angels are a better fit.

There can be all sorts of projections made about the season, but one aspect that no statistician can quantify will be pertinent to Wells this year. He is going to lead the league in having fun. And players who relax, have pressure off of them and can just play their game tend to contribute big time.

Have fun, Vernon. And check out Disneyland while you’re there.

References & Resources
Sports Illustrated, Baseball Reference, Los Angeles Times

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Comments

  1. Dylan B said...

    To me it the players listed success had as much to do with moving to a park that was going to help them out more so then their previous park.
    Oakland has always had alot of foul ground which has helped a number of pitchers to preform better, as well as causing most batters to suffer. And having a right handed line drive pull hi9tter moving to Fenway would deffinetly cause an uptick in his numbers.

    Not saying that Wells wont see any improvment or that the change of scenery doesn’t exist, just that the selection of players you used are probably better explained by other factors.

  2. Mike said...

    Good read, thanks.

    I agree about the change of scenery for Vernon. His body will certainly prefer the natural grass and his mind will no doubt be happy to escape the burdens he carried in Toronto.

    However, I’m not so sure that leaving the offense friendly Rogers Centre or a Jay lineup that hit 250 dingers last year is going to help matters.

    Also, while the Jays don’t average 40,000 like the Halos, there has been a lot of great atmosphere/feelings around the team lately. He was surrounded by young talent that will carry the team forward.

    If he fails to be an elite type player in Anaheim (which his career stats say he isn’t), I suspect he many not like 40,000 disappointed fans instead of 20,000.

    In the end though, I agree that he needed a change of scenery. I guess it will all depend on how the rest of his team plays…If they reach success, I’m sure fans will forgive decent production and a huge salary.

  3. Simon said...

    Unbelievably moronic trade proposal….Barry Zito is unplayable in in AL East…at least Wells provided *some* value for the ridiculous salary.  We’ll see how Wells does this year, but for $20mm per, he can’t deliver the goods consistently.

  4. Bob Rittner said...

    “Of course, things like “emotion” and “feelings” and “acknowledging the players are human” is forbidden to many baseball experts. The answers must be in VORP, or OPS+ or WAR. Emotions are merely rumor, and the essence of the player can be distilled onto the back of their very cluttered baseball card.”
    ___________________________________________________
    There is no doubt that advanced analysis has some “true believers” who think they have discovered the holy grail of understanding in the numbers. And many also who bandy about numbers as if one or another is the ultimate clinching argument.

    But they no more represent represent the essence of such analysis than any few extremists or simple minded represent any large group. So to flay a legitimate and multifaceted school of thought by suggesting that all concerned ignore or discount emotion or non-statistical factors is a straw man argument.

    The criticisms of the Wells trade do not account for a change of scenery effect because it is not easily amenable to statistical analysis, not because it is irrelevant. By focusing exclusively on performance analysis and payroll efficiency, it stays within its proper boundaries. If you see some reason to add such factors in your thinking, by all means do. Just as statistical savvy teams incorporate both numbers and scouting, it is perfectly reasonable to incorporate non-statistical analysis in your projections.

    But it should not be done as a conflicting interpretation. It is supplementary or additional, and if you like, you may prefer it as the more significant. To support such a view, you need more than a few suspect anecdotes, of course. But in any case, simply discussing the issue from that perspective is enough; there need be no sideswipe at advanced analysis to do it.

  5. James T in MA said...

    Bill Mueller became a batting champion in Boston for at least two reasons.  One was simply luck.  The other was that the hitting coach got him to change where he pointed his front foot in both left and righthanded stances (Mueller was a switch hitter) so that he could open up his hips a little better.  But one can easily suppose that hitting coach Ron Jackson was much more important to Mueller’s success than the move.

  6. Dave Bristol said...

    I like this game . . . how about this one:

    Vernon Wells leaves a smaller market with mild-mannered fans and a half-empty park.  These fans are accustomed to finishing behind the 2 behemoth payrolls and the little engine that could, where even the best of seasons would be unlikely to produce a playoff spot.  They are realistic in expectation and half-hearted in attendance.

    He goes to a team that is expected to contend on the strengths of it’s star players.  He will be playing in front of twice as many rabid fans, pounding thunderstix and screaming “Save us Vernon” whenever he comes to the plate with men on base for they do believe he can still perform.  With a solid starting staff, the pressure is on the hitters to supply enough runs to win.  The Angels will be ridiculed mercilessly by press and analysts alike for making this trade if Wells is anything less than a $20million dollar superstar, and Vernon will become a pariah in two countries after his first 2-20 streak.

    In my ‘analysis’, the intangibles point to an increased weight on Vernon Wells’ shoulders.  Much like Knoblauch, RJ, and Rogers going to the yanks, or Renteria and Beckett going to the Red Sox, he will press too much and won’t be able to fulfill his promise in the pressure-cooker of LA.

  7. Mike said...

    This article is so subjective it almost tries not to be rational. I think Dave’s response above captures my thoughts pretty well. The Jays would be averaging slightly less attendance and more wins than the Angels if they played in the AL West the last 10 years.

  8. David P Stokes said...

    In the case of Eckersly, it was more a change of role than a change of scenery, I’d say.

  9. Frank said...

    I’m with Mike… what exactly is this supposed to be? So much for Baseball. Insight. Daily… this is not insightful and barely about baseball…

    I just followed a link to this but I’m so disappointed I read it that I have to post just to express my frustration. I remember now why I gave up on the Hardball Times. I won’t make this mistake again.

  10. Asher Chancey said...

    “The Blue Jays seem perpetually stuck in that middle ground of being good enough to be above .500 but not good enough to make a run at the Red Sox and Yankees (or Rays, for that matter.) And with that gigantic contract, Wells took the brunt of the blame of removing any payroll flexibility north of the border.”

    This argument seems to be “Vernon Wells was too burdened by the expectations of his contract to play well.”

    Not sure I can get on board with that, although I have to agree with the author that the number of players who have benefitted simply from a change of scenery in baseball history has been too great to be ignored.

    Though, I would challenge the author to come up with one example of a player who benefitted PURELY from a change of scenery without some other explanation for their performance.

    Just with the ones we cited here, we have:

    Dave Stewart: classic Dave Duncan reclamation project;

    Dennis Eckersley: classic Duncan reclamation AND had just gotten sober after years as Eck the Wreck AND moved out of Wrigley Field, a notorious hitters park AND changed from starter to reliever;

    Bill Mueller: moved from NL to AL plus moved from pitchers park to hitters park plus new hitting coach plus healthy for the first time in years;

    Roger Clemens: moved from hitters park to neutral park; better defense and team around him; performance enhancing drugs;

    Scott Brosius: was hurt the year before he joined the Yankees;

    Kenny Rogers: much better pitching environment, as demonstated by his 11-0, 1.96 ERA at home in 1998 with the A’s.

  11. Gary said...

    Cut the writer a break here, a change of scenery can help but can’t be quantified and encompasses a lot of different things.  Park effects, coaching, role changes, etc.  I think the point is “soft”, but has some merit.  He also acknowledged it is soft.  Can you pick it apart?  Sure. 

    Was it a non-sensical trade that brought him to LA?  Sure.  Does he have a bad contract?  Youbetcha.  Might the pressure of living up to a contract cause a player to “press” and underperform?  Sure.  Is it a worse hitters park/lineup?  Yes.  Does he fit well with the Angels?  I guess so.  If he’s healthy for a full season can he still be a very productive player?  I think so.  Might playing on grass facilitate that?  Its got to be better than turf.

    All in all, I think its probably a wash and the author will be proven “right” or “wrong” by how often Wells can stay on the field. 

    FWIW don’t know if I’d call LA a baseball pressure cooker.

  12. Dave Studeman said...

    Of course, things like “emotion” and “feelings” and “acknowledging the players are human” is forbidden to many baseball experts. The answers must be in VORP, or OPS+ or WAR. Emotions are merely rumor, and the essence of the player can be distilled onto the back of their very cluttered baseball card.

    I didn’t know we had Murray Chass writing for us. wink

    Seriously, this is just silly.  Some people like to use stats to evaluate trades, but that doesn’t mean we/they don’t recognize players are human and emotional.  The thing is that predicting how a specific player will respond to a specific situation is just guesswork and opinion. So we/they don’t bother to dabble in that sort of thing. Not that it doesn’t exist—just not interested.

    Get over it. There’s no reason for the harsh criticism.

  13. Jacob Rothberg said...

    I liked this, but to be fair, are the Angels really in that much better a situation than the Jays at this point? Wells is definitely going to a weaker division and a team with better crowds (maybe), but he was hitting in a great park and a much stronger lineup, in the most pressure-packed division in baseball. The problem with Wells was his contract, and the fact that he had a suckface all the time. He was our baseball Vince Carter; all the talent in the world, but no ability to put team and city ahead of personal BS.

  14. Blake Jacobs said...

    Vernon Wells was a stand up guy and class act in Toronto, any comparison to Vince Carter is absurd.  He played hurt at times without ever letting on, adding to the scorn that came with subsequent under production.  Is Vernon Wells to blame for taking the money that J.P. Riciardi threw at him?  No one can escape the wrath that comes with under producing and over paying.  But at 20 Million a year, he can probably live with himself going 2-20.

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