Sunday, January 27, 2013

Vernon Wells - Anatomy of a career's death

Vernon Wells was drafted in the first round with the fifth overall pick of the 1997 draft. His first full season for the Toronto Blue Jays showed promise in 2002 when he drove in a hundred runs. His star exploded in 2003 when he led the league in hits, doubles and total bases. After two middling seasons in 2004 and 2005, he again had a terrific season in 2006. He rallied for decent seasons in 2008 and 2010. But he never became the superstar 2003 promised. His last two seasons have been so bad that Wells has become a symbol of sorts of what can go wrong with a career and a GM decision. What this post will attempt to show is that the signs were there all the time.

Toronto Blue Jays general manager, Alex Anthopoulos, was heralded as a genius when he was able to unload Wells on the Angels an off season move before the 2011 season. The move has probably been the most mocked trade since Babe Ruth. It cost then Angels' GM, Tony Reagins, his career and led to the hiring of Dipoto. Dipoto, who has a reputation for using the new metrics from the analytic world most likely have never done the Wells deal if he was in office at the time.

And that is because there have been signs since 2004 that Vernon Wells had serious flaws in this game. In his early years (2002, 2003), Wells had good line drive rates which led to league average BABIP rates. But the flaw of his game in those years was a lack of taking walks. In his first three seasons, his walk rates were 4.9, 4.2 and 5.7 percent respectively.

His walk rates rose by a couple of points in subsequent seasons while his career lost some of its luster. So that really is not a smoking gun even though his last three seasons have seen his walk rates again plummet and even worse, his O-Swing rates rise dramatically.

What Tony Reagins should have seen and what Alex Anthopoulos undoubtedly saw was that there were several items in Wells' stats that showed that a little less bat speed would accelerate these hidden problems to the point that he would start tumbling to the point of uselessness.

Okay, these stats have been hinted at for long enough. Let's get to them. Two of them are striking. The first is that since 2004 and with a minimum of 5,000 plate appearances, Vernon Wells has had the highest infield popup rate in baseball. There is nobody even close. Damon is second and almost a percentage point and a half behind Wells. And this is not something that is new in Wells' career that suddenly rears its head. It has always been there. Wells never had a season where this rate was less than 12.2% and most years it was much higher. His career rate is 16.3% and that is what it has been since 2004.

It was mentioned earlier in this piece that Wells started his career with good line drive percentages. His first full season of 2002 showed a line drive percentage of 24.4% and his terrific season of 2003 showed a line drive percentage of 21.6%. But starting in 2004, his line drive proficiency dried up. And again, if we look at all players since 2004 with at least 5,000 plate appearances, nobody has a lower line drive percentage than Vernon Wells. Since 2004, his line drive percentage is 16.6%. And since 2009, his line drive percentages have been particularly woeful: 14.8, 15.9, 12.3 and 15.7.

Though those line drive percentages have been particularly bad in the last four years, the signs started way back in 2004 as they never again came close to his 2002 and 2003 seasons.

Add the low line drive percentage to the high popup to the infield percentage and you have a recipe for a low BABIP and again, continuing the theme of looking at 2004 to today and nobody with 5,000 plate appearances since that time have had a lower BABIP than Vernon Wells.

Combine a low BABIP, low line drive percentage, high popup rate and the fact that he puts a lot of balls in play thanks to low walk and strikeout rates and you have a recipe for the death of a once promising career.Wells had once improved his plate discipline to respectable levels but in the last three years, that discipline has gone out the window meaning even less good contact than before.

These numbers put the nail in two coffins. The first was Reagins' who should have seen these and the second was in the Blue Jays before Anthopoulos who gave him this massive, intractable contract that makes the whole story worse.

The Angels have tried to shop Wells all winter. But in today's day and age with analysts in front offices, nobody is going to make the same mistake the Angels did. They are stuck with a player who once looked like he was heading to a superstar career. Instead, he turned into the conversation of worst trades and contracts of all time.


Anonymous said...

I think you will find that Vernon was signed by J P Richardi and not Alex Anthopoulos.A.A. was the assistant GM at the time.

William Tasker - Caribou, ME said...

If you look closely at what was written, it states, "before Alex Anthopoulos was the GM." But thanks.