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Can Vernon Wells keep this up for the Yankees?

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Vernon Wells has started strong for the Yankees after two miserable years in Anaheim. At what point will his start no longer be noise and small sample size, and when can we adjust our expectations going forward?

Time for a Vernon Wells double-check?
Time for a Vernon Wells double-check?
Jim McIsaac

If you are wondering if Vernon Wells can keep hitting .295/.343/.530 with a home run every 15.8 plate appearances and a wOBA of .374, the answer is no. These results are not sustainable, but we are reaching a point in the season where it is appropriate to ask if his early season performance should change expectations going forward, especially compared to the disastrous predictions everyone made prior to the season.

Last week I wrote that Travis Hafner is the year’s most surprising Yankee due to his age, and the lack of any decent seasons out of the previous five. Several comments suggested that Vernon Wells was more surprising given just how poorly he has played the past two years. I still believe Hafner has been the biggest surprise as Wells actually had a solid season in 2010 and, although past his prime at 34, is more likely to contribute than a player in his late thirties.

It would be easy to dismiss his hot start as noise due to a small sample size. Taking a closer look at Wells’ statistics thus far can provide a better idea for expectations going forward. Two statistics jump out. The first is Wells’ home run to fly ball ratio. For every fly ball Wells has hit this season, 19.1% have left the yard, well above his career 12.2% rate. Getting out of the home park in Anaheim should certainly help, and six of Wells’ nine homers have come on the road, but expect that rate to drop as the season goes on.

The second statistic that differs from his career numbers is his batting average on ball in play. His BABIP in 2011 and 2012 was .214 and .226, respectively. While BABIP among pitchers has a large luck component to it, hitters have greater control and his terrible numbers the previous two years seemed to show a declining skill set when compared to his career average of .280. Thus far, Wells’ BABIP is .286. Wells has done a much better job swinging at pitches in the strike zone. Wells has swung at just over 70% of pitches within the strike zone compared with under 67% in 2011 and under 63% in 2012. Swinging at pitches in the strike zone gives a player a better shot at solid contact resulting in more hits.

Another way to gauge expectations going forward is to take a look at computer projections from before the season and look at the projections for the rest of the season. Both ZiPS and Steamer have rest of the season projections available at Prior to the season, ZiPS projected Wells for .248/.290/.426 and .308 wOBA while Steamer had him with .245/.295/.424 with a .310 wOBA. Over the course of the rest of the season ZiPS now projects a .259/.303/.466 with a .330 wOBA. ZiPS suggest Wells has gone from worthless to slightly above average after just a month of plate appearances. This is a significant difference given the years of data we have to go on with Wells. Steamer is not quite so optimistic, going with .250/.301/.430 and a wOBA of .317 the rest of the way.

For comparison’s sake the projections believe Hafner’s start is for real, they are not optimistic that Lyle Overbay has changed, Ben Francisco is exactly as bad as the expectations before the season, and Jayson Nix is even worse than we feared at the beginning of the season. As for Vernon Wells, it is fair to be cautiously optimistic that he will be a decent performer going forward, something almost nobody predicted at the beginning of the year.

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