Don't Mean to Damn You With the Faintest Praise: Will Vernon Wells Be Any Good Next Season?

After a dreadful 2009 in which he was almost sub replacement-level, Vernon Wells bounced back very strongly in 2010, having (according to fangraphs) a four-win season.  It was just the second season in Vernon's career where he managed to be worth four wins and he had not had a season in which he'd topped even 1.5 since 2006 (a 5.7 WAR season).  With all the hoopla surrounding Jose Bautista's banner season, Vernon's excellent 2010 and prospects for 2011 have not received much attention.  Can Vernon Wells sustain his success of 2010 or are Jays fans likely to see Wells fall back down to the 1-2 win range in 2011?  Since his excellent 2006, Vernon Wells has had alternatively good and bad years.

In 2007, Wells struggled at the plate (.306 wOBA; 84 wRC+), but was in good form in CF (+4.7 UZR; +5 DRS; +10 TZ), allowing him to be just slightly below average overall (1.5 WAR).  His offensive woes stemmed from two sources.  First, his power disappeared (isoP dropped from .239 to .158).  His on-base percentage also dropped because, driven partially by drastic increase in popping out, his BABIP plummeted.  Players who don't walk much need to maintain a high BABIP or else they don't get on base enough to be useful.

The following season, Vernon's power returned and his BABIP bounced back (.293) and he managed to put together a very strong .300 / .343 / .496 line (.357 wOBA; 120 wRC+).  Unfortunately, he struggled with injuries (just 406 plate appearances over 108 games) and had his worst season in centre (in an injury shortened season, he was still far below average by most defensive measures -12.9 UZR; -12 DRS; -9 TZ).  So, in spite of gaining 51 points of wOBA, Vernon was again worth just 1.5 WAR.

With high expectations and renewed health, expectations for 2009 were high.  Vernon actually started the season quite well (.283 / .345 / .465 and 120 wRC+ through April) but his power disappeared and things went sour in May and he finished hitting just .260 / .311 / .400 (.314 wOBA; 90 wRC+).  Those numbers are bad, but would be acceptable for a good centerfielder.  Unfortunately, Vernon had another terrible season out there (-16.6 UZR; -12 DRS; -11 TZ) and people started talking about him possibly being the worst centrefielder in the game, some claiming that he couldn't even hold his own in a corner slot (though, personally, I think he'd be above average if moved to rightfield).

Well, expectations for 2010 were as low as expectations for 2009 were high.  And 2010 went as well as 2009 went badly.  As mentioned above, Vernon bounced back at the plate once again (.273 / .331 / .515) and his power in particular returned (.242 iSOP, highest of his career and 14.6 HR/fly, second-highest of his career).  He looked better in centre both to fans and by most statistics (-6.4 UZR; -4 DRS; -10 TZ).

Now, I think it's probably unlikely that Vernon will be able to reproduce the four wins he was worth in 2010, but it is not impossible.  If Rajai Davis spells him fairly often in centre, playing rightfield might take some of the strain off his body, keeping him a little healthier and possibly a little lighter on his feet out there.  The Bill James and fangraphs fan projections agree in projecting Wells at a .345 wOBA  and, although Bill James doesn't project fielding, the fan projections have him about where he was last year at six runs below average in centre.  If Vernon can maintain his power, he will be fine, but if his iSOP drops back down to the .150 range, he's in trouble.  Flyball hitters who don't walk do not fare well unless at least 10% of those flyballs make it over the fence.  I believe that Vernon's power will come down some and he'll probably be about five or six runs below average in centre, but I do think he'll have a good season (.275 / .335 / .480 + 15 SB and 4 CS).  In my opinion, the fangraphs projection (2.6 WAR) lowballs what Vernon will do this year (I think he should be worth at least three), but I'm a Vernon Wells fan.  What do you all think?

By the way, title comes from "Gardenia" off Stephen Malkmus and the Jicks' Real Emotional Trash

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