When the Los Angeles Angels traded Juan Rivera and Mike Napoli for Vernon Wells and his monster contract before the 2011 season, big things were expected of the former Toronto Blue Jays star. Wells’ 2011 was in every sense of the word a disappointment, leading to many on news outlets (especially the blogosphere) to lambast the acquisition of Wells, especially after Napoli helped the Angels’ division rival, Texas Rangers win a second straight American League championship. But this post is not about if that trade should have been made, or how Wells underperformed and Napoli overperformed in 2011. Instead, I would like to discuss what we should expect from the Angels’ left fielder in 2012.
In 2011, Vernon Wells had a wOBA (.285), other than Jeff Mathis (.211), Wells’ wOBA was the worst among Angels’ regulars. His wRC+ (77) also was second worst only to Mathis. These numbers are well below Wells’ former career lows, and were most likely due to his career lowest walk rate (3.8%) and career low line drive rate (12.4%). Wells was pressing, attempting to prove his worth to his new team, which caused him to swing more, and swing for the fences much more. This point is hammered home by the fact that his home runs did not dip in Anaheim, hitting 25 in 2011. Ironically, Wells had a positive WAR (0.3) in 2011, due in large part to his defense, saving 4.8 runs with his glove. He had the fifth best UZR among left fielders in baseball (8.5). He actually had a higher WAR in 2011 than he did in 2009, a much better offensive season (.314 wOBA and wRC+ 86), but was worse with his glove. Now that Wells has settled in with the Angels, I expect him to have a much bigger season in 2012.
Bill James’ projections for 2012, show a return to form for the Angels’ left fielder. Wells is projected to be more patient (6.5% walk rate) and be a much better overall hitter (wOBA of .331). These projections make sense, because they are much closer to Wells’ career averages (6.6% walk rate, .341 wOBA). Wells will be 33 in 2012, and I don’t see the early 30’s, as past one's prime. There will also be less pressure for Vernon in the Angels offense. Howie Kendrick, Peter Bourjos, and Mark Trumbo are all one year more mature, and in all likelihood more productive, also a return of Kendrys Morales could take even more weight off Wells’ shoulders. Putting a former superstar at ease in a lineup, can have lethal results. James projects Wells to have a WAR of 2.3 in 2012, good for third best among the Angels’ projected starting outfield (Bourjos 4.6 and Torii Hunter 2.4). I actually think James is under-projecting Wells’ season. The offense numbers make sense; a line of .260/.311/.452 with 22 home runs and 70 rbis. But, I think James is underestimating Wells’ defensive aptitude. As mentioned before, if not for his glove Wells’ 2011 campaign would have been a complete bust, yet James projects Vernon to have a worse defensive year next season. He projects Wells to save only 1.7 runs in the field next season, as opposed to 4.8 runs he saved in 2011. Wells, a three time gold glove winner, who had an above-average year in his first year at left field in a new ballpark. With a full season under his belt, it would make sense to me that a mature veteran would grow more adept in his surroundings and save even more runs in 2012. Even if he has the same numbers as 2011 (4.8 as opposed to 1.7), that would drastically improve his WAR. A WAR of over 3, would be reflected by a better projection of his fielding numbers, which would make Wells the Angels 2nd most productive outfielder, as well as, 3rd most productive player offensively, behind only Bourjos and Kendrick.
Many Angels fans, and baseball fans for that matter, were disappointed in how Vernon Wells performed in 2011. But to throw a former superstar under the bus after one off year is not fair. For example, Matt Kemp had an awful 2010 campaign (0.4 WAR); he then followed that season up with his incredible 2011 season (8.7 WAR), which earned him a huge new contract. I am not saying that Vernon Wells will return to the form that made him a star in Canada, but I am saying the 2012 version of Vernon Wells will be an extremely effective player in Southern California. Comeback player of the year candidate? I think so.