The inevitable Vernon Wells discussion begins

(Dustin Bradford/Getty)
(Dustin Bradford/Getty)

The Yankees 2013 offseason was “interesting,” to say the least.  It involved a couple big names departing to greener pastures Pittsburgh and Cleveland, and several apparent retreads joining the NY ranks in their stead.

Among these acquired castoffs was Vernon Wells, who the Yankees — in seeming desperation — elected to pay $13.9M over the course of the next two seasons (though the bulk of the money owed was front-loaded to 2013).  This was despite Vernon’s rash of injuries and meager .258 on-base percentage over the prior two seasons (apparently his 2011 .248 OBP was the lowest among all outfielders with at least 500 plate appearances since 1904 … so there’s that).  To put it mildly, most of us had our doubts about the deal on a lot of levels.

However, as John Sterling and Suzyn Waldman vehemently claim, “You simply cannot predict baseball!”  Wells had recovered from his varying ailments (a torn ligament in his right thumb most notably), he focused on improving his offensive production by applying a shorter, more direct swing — all of which would presumably be enhanced by the hitter-friendly confines of Yankee Stadium.

By mid-April, Vernon was batting in the heart of the order to the tune of .300/.366/.544 with six home runs.  He was looking like a rejuvenated version of his former self and an early Comeback Player of the Year candidate — all while inadvertently making Cashman look less like a ninja and more like a genius.

May has been somewhat of a different story though.  Consider the grid below, compliments of Baseball-Reference.

Split G GS AB R H 2B 3B HR SB CS BB SO BA OBP SLG OPS GDP BAbip tOPS+ sOPS+
2013 Totals 49 46 186 24 49 6 0 10 4 2 14 29 .263 .313 .457 .770 4 .264 100 112
Last 7 days 5 5 22 0 2 0 0 0 0 1 0 4 .091 .091 .091 .182 1 .111 -51 -49
Last 14 days 11 10 43 3 6 2 0 0 0 1 1 9 .140 .159 .186 .345 1 .176 -8 -4
Last 28 days 24 22 92 10 21 2 0 4 2 2 4 14 .228 .260 .380 .641 2 .230 66 76
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 5/29/2013.

The numbers aren’t pretty, which is particularly hard to stomach considering he’s the guy often times backing up Robinson Cano in the lineup.  A quick glance at Vernon’s April and May spray charts (provided by Texas Leaguers) confirms what our eyes have witnessed these past few weeks: he’s been hitting into far more ground outs in May (23%) then he did in April (12.87%).  There have been far more ground outs hit towards the second baseman as well than there were last month – so it’s not like he is getting overly pull happy either (not that that would necessarily help him in NY).

vw spray chart aprvw spray chart

In terms of the ground outs, it’s possible some of his May struggles have been exasperated by an atrocious BAbip  (considering his career norm is .279).  I’m leery of over-simplifying BAbip to the term “luck,” but regardless of how one wants to define the stat, Vernon has certainly not been the benefactor.  Even if his stats do regress to what we’ve seen over the past few seasons from him, Vernon’s BAbip would still qualify as unusually low.  Eventually, some of these balls should get through the defense.  And considering that his recent struggles are by very definition inherently limited in sample size, it wouldn’t take much to get those numbers moving back in the right direction.

For what it’s worth, Texas Leaguers shows us that opposing pitchers will have thrown approximately the same amount of fastballs (fastballs including both two and four-seamers, cut fastballs, and split-fingered fastballs) by month’s end as they did in April.  As to be expected, the vast majority of the fastballs seen were four seamers, and in that particular category he’s been proportionately only a few percentage points less effective at putting the ball in play in May (24.5%) than he was in April (29.6% in play) — nothing super drastic — though it is worth noting that opposing pitchers have been throwing more for strikes this month than last.  The problem is the balls he is making contact with are simply not being hit well.

Anecdotally, there is also the possibility that his stance has opened up a bit again, thus resulting in longer swings.  This would result in less time to see (and swing at) the pitch, which could explain the uptick in weaker ground outs. Perhaps he needs to re-explore the adjustments he made in the offseason.  If he’s not seeing the pitches as well, it’d make sense that he’d be hitting the ball with less conviction more often.  This could be the kind of  “quick fix” solution that resolves itself overnight.  Unfortunately, that’s also the type of mechanical flaw that I’m sure both he and Kevin Long are constantly watching for and are proactively trying to prevent.  It also strikes me as weird that he could go suddenly to different ends of the spectrum against a certain type of pitch.

So where does this leave us?  Has Vernon turned back into the pumpkin (or worse) that most of us expected from day one, or is this just an unfortunate slump (that is being brought to attention a bit more than it probably should be given the team’s overall offensive struggles of late)?  Frankly, it’s too soon to make any meaningful conclusion.  At this juncture, this is merely an observation that’s worth keeping an eye on.  If we find ourselves watching a still-struggling Wells come the All Star break, we’ll probably know where things are heading though.  In the meantime, let’s hope get can keep it together at least until Curtis Granderson‘s able to return.

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Wells’ slump comes at worst possible time

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

Like many of you, I was extremely skeptical when the Yankees acquired Vernon Wells for two non-prospects at the very end of Spring Training. The move stunk of desperation, but frankly the team was desperate at that time. They lost a lot of offense to injury in the prior weeks and something had to be done. The Angels had a player they wanted the dump and the Yankees had a need. The puzzle pieces fit.

Wells, 34, made the Yankees look very smart for the first few weeks of the season. He had three hits, including a homer, against the Red Sox during the second game of the season. Two days later he went deep again, and the homers kept coming — five in his first 15 games of the year. Wells finished April with a .300/.366/.544 (145 wRC+) batting line that exceeded every reasonable expectation. It was just what the Yankees needed.

Things haven’t been going so well for Vernon since then, however. Last night’s 0-for-4 dropped him to 3-for-21 (.143) on the month and 10-for-48 (.208) in his last 13 games. That dates back to the series in Toronto, when he bludgeoned his former team for three days. Wells is still hitting a respectable .270/.328/.468 (114 wRC+) on the season, but he has clearly been trending downward of late. Anecdotally, it seems like he’s been getting beat on a lot of outside pitches lately. Both fastballs and breaking balls. The strike zone plots do not show that he’s been getting more outside pitches of late, however (via Texas Leaguers):

(click for the purposes of embiggening)
(click for the purposes of embiggening)

Who knows why the slump is happening, but it’s happening. Maybe he’s just fatigued from playing everyday for the first time in two years. The slump shouldn’t be unexpected either, Wells was hitting far better than he did even during his prime last month. At some point he was going to cool off.

The unfortunate thing is that the Yankees need Wells to hit right now, very much so. With Kevin Youkilis injured and, for at least three games, Travis Hafner limited to pinch-hitting duties in the NL park, there needs to be someone in the lineup to complement Robinson Cano. As good as he is, Robbie can’t do it all by himself. Brett Gardner and Ichiro Suzuki have been doing a fine job of getting on-base of late, but someone other than Cano needs to drive them in. Wells has to be that guy and right now he isn’t.

At some point Vernon will heat back up and go on a nice tear. At least I think he will. It is fair to be skeptical of him going forward given how dreadful he’s been the last two years, but I don’t think he’s suddenly regressed to sub-replacement level. The question is when will that rebound happen? Outside of Curtis Granderson and maybe Youkilis, the Yankees are unlikely to get any of their injured bats back this month. Their offense simply isn’t good enough to get by with a slumping Wells. He gave them more than they could have asked for in April, but now they need him to do more in May.

Mailbag: Duncan, McCann, Expansion Draft

Six questions this week. Use the Submit A Tip box to send us anything throughout the week, mailbag questions or otherwise.

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

Several people asked: What about Shelley Duncan?

The Yankees are looking for a right-handed bat and the Rays designated former Yankee Shelley Duncan for assignment earlier this week, so this seems like a natural fit. The 33-year-old forearm-smasher hit just .182/.297/.309 (75 wRC+) in 64 plate appearances for Tampa, and during his three years with the Indians (2010-2012) he put up a .231/.309/.430 (103 wRC+) overall line in 770 plate appearances. That includes a .239/.316/.421 (102 wRC+) line against southpaws, meaning he didn’t have a platoon split.

Duncan is a three true outcome type, with healthy power (career .193 ISO), walk (9.7%), and strikeout (24.4%) rates. He doesn’t do much other than that, meaning he won’t steal any bases or play even average defense in left or at first base. Is he better than Ben Francisco? Yeah, probably, but it’s not slam dunk. If the Yankees can pluck him off waivers, then go for it. Francisco’s been terrible. I wouldn’t go out of my way to acquire Shelley or sweat missing out on him, though.

Nick asks: Given his start, how likely is it the Vernon Wells matches/exceeds Nick Swisher‘s performance this year? If he does (or gets close), should we credit the front office with a brilliant move or did the Yanks just get lucky?

I don’t think that will happen, honestly. Even with the hot start, Wells is on a .298/.362/.532 (139 wRC+) line while Swisher is at .265/.386/.410 (123 wRC+). There’s a nice gap there, but Swisher is underperforming his career norms while Wells is far exceeding his. They’ll wind up meeting in the middle at some point. I expect Verndog to wind up closer to his updated ZiPS projection (113 wRC+) than his current numbers.

Brian Cashman basically admitted the Yankees got lucky with Wells a few weeks ago, saying “there was no magic, unearthed data point” they uncovered. They expected him to fill the Andruw Jones role according to the GM. Maybe Cashman’s just playing coy, but Wells has been so outrageously good that I can’t imagine anyone saw this coming. It’s 95th percentile stuff.

(J. Meric/Getty)
(J. Meric/Getty)

Mark asks: Are you surprised by Jose Tabata’s free fall in Pittsburgh since his debut season in 2010 at the young age of 21? Maybe I’m off base here, but I have to think he’d be a prime candidate to replace Curtis Granderson next year as I suspect the Yanks would have kept him in the minors to develop and mature his game — something he hasn’t had the opportunity to do in Pittsburgh playing in the big leagues.

Not really, you can never be truly surprised when a prospect fails. Tabata was never the same caliber of hitter/prospect as say, Jesus Montero, plus he is apparently older than originally believed. He never showed much power for a corner outfielder and that’s continued to this day.

The Yankees value makeup too highly to bring Tabata back. He had (at least) two incidents in the minors that led to his trade in the first place, plus he’s had off-field issues with the Pirates. The guy’s a .269/.335/.369 (97 wRC+) career hitter in over 1,300 plate appearances, plus he’s probably closer to 30 than his listed age of 24. Tabata can get the bat on the ball — career 14.8 K% and 82.8% contact rate — that’s always been his thing, but otherwise there’s not much to see here.

Dustin asks: Any chance the Yankees could pry Justin Ruggiano from the Marlins?

Oh I’m sure of it. No reason to think the Marlins wouldn’t move him for the right offer. Ruggiano, 31, had an insane BABIP-fueled (.401!) half-season with Miami last year, when he hit .313/.374/.535 (146 wRC+) in 320 plate appearances. He’s back down to .239/.300/.402 (95 wRC+) this year, which is right in line with his career norms.

As a right-handed hitting outfielder, Ruggiano owns a career .263/.328/.516 (128 wRC+) line in 236 plate appearances against southpaws. That’s spread across seven seasons, so it isn’t very useful. Ruggiano plays okay defense in the outfield corners and will steal a bag here and there, so he’s definitely someone worth looking into as a Francisco replacement. I don’t know what it would take to acquire him, but Scott Hairston was traded to the Athletics for a middling Triple-A relief prospect (Ryan Webb) following his breakout with the Padres. Seems like decent framework, no?

Jonathan asks: What do you think about possibly acquiring one of Atlanta’s catchers this year? It’s a strange situation because we don’t know if Evan Gattis is for real, Gerald Laird was awful for years and Brian McCann is coming off the surgery. Which, if any would you be interested in acquiring and what do you think it would take to get them. Thanks!

(Drew Hallowell/Getty)
(Drew Hallowell/Getty)

I wouldn’t touch Laird, the Yankees have enough backups as it is. That’s the easy part. Gattis is a great story — seriously, read this — and the 26-year-old has hit .253/308/.542 (132 wRC+) as McCann’s replacement early this year. The consensus is that he isn’t good enough defensively to be an everyday guy behind the plate.

McCann, 29, was arguably the best catcher in baseball for the better part of a decade (118 wRC+ from 2006-2012) before hurting his right shoulder and struggling last year (86 wRC+). He had offseason surgery and is due to return to the team soon, as in next week. That will likely send Gattis back to Triple-A, though I suppose they could finagle the roster and work out a way to keep all three, at least for the time being.

I love the idea of acquiring McCann for half-a-season — he’ll be a free agent this coming winter — even considering the risk following his surgery. He’s strong defensively and a left-handed bat with power and patience. The team would also get a few weeks to evaluate him firsthand before decided whether to pursue him after the season. The price would have to be reasonable though, maybe something along the lines of two pretty good but not great prospects (assuming a deal happens right at the deadline).

Alex asks: Under the rules of the 1992 expansion draft, which players would you protect on the Yankees roster? Subsequently, if you were then picking, which unprotected player would you take?

We do this question every so often and it’s always fun. The expansion draft rules are right here, but here’s the short version: each team can protect 15 total players, but players with no-trade clauses must be protected. Players who were free agents during the offseason and players drafted in the previous two drafts (so 2011 and 2012 for us) are not eligible for the draft. AL teams can protect an additional four players after each round. Here’s who I would protect, assuming the draft was held last November 17th (same date as 1992 draft)…

No-Trade Clauses (4) Protected Pitchers (5) Protected Position Players (6) Notable Unprotected
Alex Rodriguez Phil Hughes Robinson Cano Boone Logan
Mark Teixeira David Robertson Brett Gardner Joba Chamberlain
CC Sabathia Ivan Nova Curtis Granderson Frankie Cervelli
Derek Jeter David Phelps Gary Sanchez Eduardo Nunez
Michael Pineda Mason Williams Vidal Nuno
Tyler Austin Slade Heathcott
Adam Warren

I think this is pretty self-explanatory, no? I was on the fence with Nunez because of the dearth of even decent middle infielders, but I opted to protect the third prospect (Austin) instead. The Yankees could probably trade him for a better infielder than Nunez anyway.

Hiroki Kuroda, Andy Pettitte, and Mariano Rivera would not be eligible for the draft since they were free agents last winter. Nunez, Nuno, Heathcott, and Warren would the four guys I would add after the first round, but a few of them would probably get plucked in the draft. Such is life. If was the expansion team picking from that lot of players, I’d take Heathcott first, no doubt about it. Warren and Nuno are useful pieces, but Heathcott has star potential and that’s what you’re looking for when you’re building a team from scratch.

Cashman discusses decision to trade for Vernon Wells

Here’s a pretty interesting read from Andy Martino, who spoke to Brian Cashman about the decision to trade for Vernon Wells (among a number of other topics). “We had thought (Wells) would be a fit here, at the very least, in that role that Andruw Jones had been playing for the past two years,” said the GM. “But no, there was no magic, unearthed data point. The fact that he was having a tremendous spring didn’t really move us … Our needs grew and we were able to come up a little bit more on the what we were willing to take on.”

Cashman acknowledged the two sides were talking all winter — we first heard the they were discussing Wells back during the Winter Meetings — and that allowed them to quickly wrap-up negotiations a few weeks ago. As he seems to indicate, it was basically just a matter of how much money the team was willing to absorb. The injuries and offseason defections created some big holes in the lineup and they had to act. Wells has been a godsend in the early going (163 wRC+) and is a big reason why the Yankees have been able to do a lot more than just tread water so far.

New-look middle of the order carrying the Yankees offensively

(Elsa/Getty)
(Elsa/Getty)

We all knew the Yankees’ lineup would look a little different coming into the year, but an injury-filled Spring Training meant the offense looked even more different than expected when the regular season opened last week. Robinson Cano and Brett Gardner were the only players in the lineup for both Opening Day 2012 and Opening Day 2013, and a whopping six players made their debut for the team last Monday. That’s the first time that’s happened in over 100 years, since before the Yankees were the Yankees (they were the Highlanders at the time).

Two series and six games into the season, it’s the new-look middle of the order that has carried the club offensively. The players who were with the team last year — specifically talking about Cano and Ichiro Suzuki here — have mostly been a drain on the offense. I’m talking about a combined .631 OPS for those two. No, seriously. If you add Cano’s (.330) and Ichiro‘s (.301) OPS together, that’s what you get. Good grief. Thank goodness it’s only been six games.

Anyway, here are some happier numbers…

  • Kevin Youkilis: 9-for-22 (.409), two walks, one hit-by-pitch (.480 OBP), four doubles, one homer (.727 SLG)
  • Travis Hafner: 7-for-20 (.350), two walks (.409 OBP), one homer (.500 SLG)
  • Vernon Wells: 5-for-17 (.294), four walks (.429), one double, two homers (.706 SLG)

The Yankees have scored 24 total runs this year and those three guys have scored (11) and driven-in (11) basically half of them (46% to be exact). New York is hitting .272/.323/.399 as a team but without those three it drops down to .194/.273/.295. Youkilis, Hafner, and Wells have really carried the load in the first six games. They’re driving the offense.

Now, here’s the bad news: these guys aren’t going to keep hitting like this forever. Youkilis seems like the best bet to continue providing big production, but he’s still going to come back to Earth at some point. The good news is that some other players in the lineup — specifically Cano, Ichiro, and Gardner — will improve going forward to help balance things out. That’s usually how things go, some players are slumping while others are hot and it evens out. When it happens during the first week of the season, we tend to notice. When it happens in the middle of the dog days, no one really cares.

Despite yesterday’s seven-run outburst, the Yankees have struggled offensively in their six games this year. Those struggles pale in comparison to the pitching problems, but they exist nonetheless. They need (especially) Cano and some others to start hitting as much as they need the middle of the bullpen to straighten itself out because Youkilis, Hafner, and Wells won’t be able to carry the offense all year as they have so far. That trio has been awesome, but they still need some help sooner rather than later.