The Return Of The Old Guy Outfield Platoon

Ichiro vs MIN

The Yankees won for the first time in almost a week last night.  And they did it with one of their most recently productive bats on the bench to start the game.  With a left-handed starter on the mound, Joe elected to sit Ichiro Suzuki, probably for rest more than anything, and start Vernon Wells in right field.  With Zoilo Almonte looking good in his Major League debut and solidifying his role as the starting left fielder, right field turned back into the L/R platoon the Yankees always envisioned it, for one night at least.  With the way things worked out last night, Joe might want to consider going to that well more often.

Not even joking, I think last night might have been the first game all season in which both Wells and Ichiro had good games.  Wells, still batting cleanup even though the stats and spray charts say no way, had 2 singles in 3 plate appearances against Scott Diamond before giving way to Ichiro in the 8th.  The Twins went with right-handed Jared Burton that inning and Joe used the righty-righty matchup as the perfect reason to lift Wells and go with the lefty Ichiro, who set up the go-ahead rally in the inning with a bunt single.  He came up again in the 9th and lined one off the pitcher that could have been another run-scoring hit.  A 3-5 night from the right field position with a run scored, solid defense, and 2 hard-hit outs.  I don't know about you, but I can live with that.

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Kuroda, Cano and Wells combine to beat Royals 4-2

The Yankees swept the Royals today, winning 4-2 on Mother's Day. The real star of the game was Hiroki Kuroda. Kuroda didn't strike a lot of batters out, fanning just one, but he only walked one as well, limiting the Royals to six hits over 7.2 innings. With that kind of control, you don't need a lot of strike outs. Kuroda was efficient as well, throwing just 98 pitches. He got into some trouble in the eighth inning, and even got into a verbal spat with the home plate umpire, but none of that was enough to undo a solid performance.

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People have different reasons for blogging, tweeting, discussing, or just watching baseball. The game's numerous facets allows most people to find some aspect to enjoy in their own comprehension. From the players, to the numbers, to the narratives, to going to a game and enjoy a beer, or watching it with friends on your couch at home, it's easy for even the most antagonistic of minds to find a commonality. I know where I stand when it comes to baseball, and most regular readers are aware that I'm objective. I come from a scientific background, international law to be more specific, where it's important to keep an analytic frame of mind despite your own prejudgments. Though my reasons for watching baseball have changed, I have been a Yankee fan my entire life. But the romantic side of baseball has largely disappeared, especially in my blogging, and I can't even remember the last time I wrote something subjective. It's hard for me to imagine having a favorite player nowadays. I love the numbers, not the players.

vernonI think my story is very similar to the majority of other bloggers and readers. If you're reading a blog like this one, chances are that you enjoy the same type of statistical-minded analysis that I do. The evolution of sabermetrics has undoubtedly changed the game for front offices, but it's also changed the game for fans. I don't have any evidence, but I would hypothesize that the newest generation of baseball fans are the most analytically minded, and it's created a culture that cares less about written narratives and more about actual numbers.

That doesn't mean fans are any wiser, or appreciate the game any more than older generations, but I think most heroes today are based on statistics. While the majority of the Baseball Writers Association still wants to swear Jack Morris into the Hall of Fame, there is a counter-movement, even inside the BBWAA, that's beginning to fight off these "clutch" type players due to his overall career performance. Morris postseason contributions might be Hall of Fame-caliber, but today's crop of fans don't believe in clutch players. They see a career ERA+ that's barely above average.

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Wells Making Good Contact To All Parts Of The Field

wells1213 The last time I talked about Vernon Wells, I was optimistic about some of the changes he made to his swing. Considering the money the Yankees dished out for the left fielder, I'll assume the organization felt the same way. Over the last few years, Wells has fallen from one of the top outfielders to someone close to negative value. His walk and contact rates decreased and his swings outside of the zone and strike outs increased.

When talking to the media this Spring, he said that he'd fallen into a bad habit of trying to hit home runs, and after looking at video from last decade, decided to change his swing so that he could go to all fields. This was somewhat surprising, considering Wells hasn't gone to opposite field in a very long time. Over his career he has a 21 wRC+ to right field, and when you total it up, only 22% of his batted balls have gone in that direction.


Above are all the batted balls he's had over the first 8 games of the year. It's a awfully small sample size, but it's good to see that he is indeed hitting the ball to all parts of the park. It's mostly fly balls we're seeing in right, but those can translate very well in Yankee Stadium.

Not only is he spreading the ball around, but he's taking pitches. His 5 walks thus far are already close to 1/3rd of what he had all of last season, and a quarter of what he had in 2011.

At the moment he's hitting .360/.467/.720, but I wouldn't make too much of that. He's obviously not going to continue putting up Barry Bonds numbers. What I'm looking for is the type of contact he's making and where the balls are landing. Obviously we're seeing good hit placement, but the batted ball rates have also been strong. 25% of his hits have been line drives thus far, 45% have been fly balls, and only 30% have been ground balls. While this is small sample size, these are the exact things that Wells talked about fixing this Spring, and it's good to see he's on the right track.

We're obviously going to need a few more months of data before we start to talk about him rebounding, but at least he's on the right track. The Yankees will be in very good shape if the 34-year old can turn the clock back to his Toronto days.

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Wells Talks About His New Swing

Vernon Wells made his Yankee debut yesterday, and had a chance to speak with the media about his move to New York and expectations. It's obviously been a tough couple of years for the outfielder, but we learned that he's looking for a new start with the team he secretly rooted for over his Major League career. Looking at his last two seasons with Angels doesn't inspire the type of enthusiasm he's portraying, but there are reasons to believe that he'll be productive in 2013. The biggest thread of hope is a change of approach at the plate. Chad Jennings has the quote.

“Coming into spring training and throughout the offseason, my goal was just to get back to the basics and just put the barrel on the ball as many times as I can,” Wells said. “Shorten my swing and use the other field. I forgot what right field was like for a couple of years. You get caught up in hitting home runs and seeing how far you can hit them, and your swing changes. I was able to take some time this offseason, look at a lot of video from when I was younger and just spraying the ball all over the field. Once we got into spring training, that was my goal. And so far, so good. Getting back to just being short and quick, and balls are still jumping off my bat and my hands are still as quick as they were when I was younger.”

As I pointed out on Monday, there have been some clear changes to Wells' approach at the plate. In recent years, he's backed up off the plate and entered a more crouched "athletic" position. From 2012 to 2013, he's trying to shorten his swing and hit for contact over power. In yesterday's game, you could clearly see less extension in his arms, and less of an uppercut on contact.


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Analyzing Wells' Recent Years And Why The Trade Is Not So Bad

Throughout his career, Vernon Wells has been a beacon of inconsistency. In 2004 and 2005, Wells was barely an above average offensive player, but in 2006, Wells managed to put up a 128 wRC+, 32 home runs, and stole 17 bases. He earned a 7 year $126 million deal because of his production in a contract year. The extremely volatile hitter has since produced ISO's and OBP's that have at times fluctuated around .100 points between seasons. In the end, he's produced a 104 wRC+ over his career, barely average. At the age of 34, it's hard to see what the Yankees liked when they decided to pick up $14 million of his contract yesterday. In his two years with the Angels, Wells hit just .222/.258/.409 in 791 plate appearances. Since 2006, his LD% has dropped from 18.3%, to 16.8%(2007), 17.3%(2008), 14.8%(2009), 15.9%(2010), 12.3%(2011), 15.7%(2012). That low line drive rate is accompanied by a declining average on those hits. In his career, he's hit .723 on line drives, but in 2010 he hit just .691, in 2011 .635, and in 2012 .656. When line drive rates or batting average on these hits fall so dramatically in the matter of a year, you start to think there is bad luck involved, but when it happens over the course of many years, player decline is a serious consideration.

There are very few things to like about the outfielder, and that's what has everyone scratching their head over this trade. When it comes to splits, the right-handed hitter doesn't even have decent splits against left-handed pitchers. In 2012 he hit for just an 88 wRC+(75 PA) against lefties, in 2011 a 134 wRC+(172 PA), in 2010 a 67 wRC+(128 PA), and in 2009 a 55 wRC+(172 PA).

The Yankees have a lot more resources to look at than we do, and I'm sure they liked something if they were willing to take on all that money. For one, the outfielder is destroying the ball in Spring Training. In 41 plate appearances, Wells has hit .361/.390/.722 with 4 home runs and 2 stolen bases. Perhaps the Yankees feel that this is an indication of a change in his approach at the plate, or maybe he's healed properly from a number of injuries to his hamstring, groin, ankle and thumb since 2011. For an idea on his swing changes, see the video comparisons below.


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On Matters of the Outfield

This past weekend, two slightly odd things about the Yankees and their outfield situation were reported. After they inked Ichiro Suzuki to a two year deal (something I'm not entirely a fan of, but that's really neither here nor there), we learned that the Yankees had talked to the Angels about a trade involving Vernon Wells. I won't bore you with details about his fall from 'grace'; you all know how bad he's been since signing that big contract with the Jays years ago. But despite Wells' general horridness, I think it's worth taking a look at whether using him in a certain role (assuming, of course, that the Angels ate the vast, vast majority of that albatross of albatrosses of a contract). That role would be the role held by Andruw Jones in 2011 and 2012. After all, Wells is a righty hitter and should be able to handle a platoon, right? Let's take a look... As recently as 2011, Wells had an outstanding 134 wRC+ against lefty pitchers. But in the years before and after that, he's been, well...2009: 55. 2010: 67. 2012: 88. The only silver linings in some of those numbers is that he had decent walk rates in 2009, 2010, and 2012 and acceptable Iso numbers in 2010 and 2012. There is literally nothing desirable here. Even if the Angels ate the entirety of Wells' salary and didn't take a player back from the Yankees, I'd still be hesitant about bringing Wells in. Everyone is an option at the right price, but I think Wells is an exception to that. Thankfully, we're hearing this well after the fact as these supposed discussions regarding Vernon took place at the Winter Meetings; obviously nothing happened, and I doubt anything will.

I'd consider the Michael Bourn situation somewhat analogous to the Wells situation. While Bourn is obviously a much more desirable candidate, this seems like a "smoke-without-fire" situation. The only way it makes sense is if the Yankees go ahead and make a trade involving their current man in center field, Curtis Granderson. That strategy is flawed no matter how you look at it. If you trade Granderson with the expectation that Bourn will sign, you risk Bourn signing with someone else. If you sign Bourn before trading Granderson (and why would you do this?), you almost guarantee that you'd get a minuscule return for Granderson since you'd absolutely reek of desperation.

Regardless of what me may here in the coming days regarding the Yankees being connected to them, I think the team is definitely done shopping for outfielders. The club seems content to go into the season with an outfield alignment of Brett Gardner/Granderson/Ichiro. And while that may not be wholly satisfying, it's better than any alignment that includes Bourn or Wells.