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Pinstripe Alley Top 100 Yankees: #68 David Wells

Through a pair of two-year stints in New York, Boomer made his presence well known in the Bronx.

David Wells #33...

Name: David Lee Wells
Position: Starting pitcher
Born: May 20, 1963 (Torrance, CA)
Yankee Years: 1997-98, 2002-03
Primary number: 33
Yankee statistics: 851.2 IP, 124 G, 68-28, 3.90 ERA, 3.81 FIP, 114 ERA+, 19 CG, 9 SHO, 557 K, 17.0 fWAR, 17.1 rWAR

Biography

In New York particularly, a big personality as well as excellent play on the field can be necessary for success. Each of these shined at full strength during David Wells’ relatively brief, but impactful stretches with the Yankees of the late 1990’s and early 2000s. He spent time with nine different teams across a successful 21-year big league career, but perhaps his most notable and impressive accomplishments came in his four excellent seasons with the Bombers. His memorable moments, and propensity to come through in big games quickly earned him a spot in Yankees history, and a deserved spot on this Top 100 list.

Early Years

Born in 1963 in the Southern California city of Torrance, David Wells lived anything but an ordinary life. Raised by his mother Eugenia, a member of Hell’s Angels, in the San Diego area, Wells quickly stood out as a big time baseball player and personality. With the backing of the motorcycle club, Wells shined at the youth level not only for his abnormal fan club, but also for his prowess on the mound.

The big lefty’s success continued into his teenage years, as he continued to carve up opposing batters ay Point Loma High School. He gained a handful of legendary stories, messing with his own teammates and of course his opponents, like supposedly loading the bases intentionally, and following it by striking out the next three batters on nine pitches. But, his all-around success and ability to perform in big games was undeniable, and it earned him big league recognition.

Wells made enough noise on the mound that he was selected in the second round of the 1982 draft by the Blue Jays, directly out of Point Loma.

Toronto Blue Jays Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

Tommy John, and the Path to the Bigs

Wells’ first season in professional ball, 1982, was nothing to write home about. Over the course of a dozen starts, the lefty worked a 5.18 ERA for the rookie-ball Medicine Hat Blue Jays in Alberta, Canada. The next two seasons, however, were much more promising for the Jays’ young prospect. In ‘83 and ‘84, Wells pitched over 250 innings, and had a sub-4 ERA between A-ball and Double-A.

His development toward the major leagues would have to take a pause for the 1985 season, as he would miss the entire year. Wells became just the third pitcher to receive the then-revolutionary Tommy John surgery — and the procedure clearly worked, knowing what we know now of his career — and he would return to action for the ‘86 season. It was another solid one for Wells, working his way up to Triple-A that year and the early stages of the ‘87 season, before he ultimately got the call.

Boomer made his big league debut for the Jays on June 30, 1987, fittingly against the Yankees. His first two big league starts were far from ideal, as he gave up nine earned runs in just 5.1 innings of work across both outings. The rocky starts got Wells a ticket back to Triple-A, but his demotion would not last forever. He returned to the Blue Jays as a September call-up, and was able to record his first victory that month, now coming out of Toronto’s bullpen.

1988 was another middling season for Wells, as he pitched 64.1 innings out of the ‘pen, but managed just an 85 ERA+. The following year, however, would be his true breakout. He made 54 appearances in relief for Toronto, and made them count. Boomer pitched 86.1 innings, to the tune of a 2.40 ERA and impressive 2.68 FIP, and was among the sport’s more valuable relief pitchers in a formidable bullpen beside Tom Henke and Duane Ward.

From 1990 to ‘92, Wells continued to bounce between the Blue Jays’ bullpen and rotation pitching well in the first two years, but taking a step back in nearly every category in 1992. Toronto won the World Series that season, and Wells pitched well in four appearances during their postseason run, but the relationship between he and the team had grown sour. He was released following the ‘92 season.

Despite this, in his age 30 season, Boomer had finally earned a full time shot as a starter, now with the Detroit Tigers. He was an above-average arm for Detroit in ‘93 and ‘94, and earned his first All-Star selection in 1995, before being dealt to Cincinnati mid-season. The Reds gave him his first career of playoff starts en route to getting swept by Atlanta, and he was traded again in that offseason, this time to the Baltimore Orioles. Wells had one of his least productive seasons to date. He did, however, earn a victory in the 1996 ALCS against the Yankees.

Baltimore v New York Yankees Photo by Focus on Sport/Getty Images

As they’d show in the offseason, the Yankees must have been impressed by Wells.

Babe Ruth twice over”

The Yankees signed Wells to a three-year, $13.5 million deal in the offseason following their 1996 World Series victory. As a big fan of Babe Ruth, Boomer wanted his jersey number to be 03 in his honor, but he eventually settled for 33. Around this same time, health issues had begun to catch up to Wells. He was hospitalized briefly before the ‘96 season, and was recovering from a broken hand he suffered in a January fight headed into his stint with the Yanks.

They had also shown some interest in acquiring Wells’ services at the ‘95 trade deadline, and were reportedly even willing to part with some minor league pitcher named Mariano Rivera, but the deal was taken off the table once that minor leaguer began to show more promise. Wells had developed a reputation for his big, loud personality, a propensity for drinking, and issues with his weight over the course of his big league career. None of it could fully sway Steinbrenner and co. from pursuing the big lefty.

Despite this, Wells was a solid pitcher in his first year in pinstripes and quickly bonded with fellow vet David Cone. Over 32 starts and 218 innings, the big lefty sported an above-average 107 ERA+, while posting his best strikeout rate in years. He made one start that postseason as well, and it was a beauty, where he pitched a one-run complete game against Cleveland in the ALDS.

The historic 1998 season was the one that truly earned Wells his spot in Yankee memory. His first month and change was not all that inspiring, as he had posted an ERA close to six over the course of his first seven starts of the year. He did bounce back in his following start, throwing eight innings of two-run ball. And, if you can blow that performance out of the water, Wells found a way.

On May 17th, in a game where he was self-admittedly “half-drunk, with bloodshot eyes, monster breath, and a raging, skull-rattling hangover,” and was operating on one hour of sleep, Boomer was perfect. Against the Twins, Wells crafted about as good a start as one could have, striking out 11 and securing the 15th perfect game in major league history — the first by a Yankee since fellow Point Loma graduate Don Larsen. Given the aura surrounding Wells, it feels like a fitting way for Boomer to cement his place in baseball history.

Although this may have been the peak moment of his season and probably his career, it kicked off what turned into a special season for him among the exceptional ‘98 Yanks squad. After turning in a top-notch first half, he was selected to start the All-Star Game for the American League in what was his second career appearance in the event.

All told, Wells turned in the best season of his career. He finished with an 18-4 record, good for a league-leading .818 win percentage, while also pacing all others with his five shutouts, and a 1.045 WHIP. Boomer followed it up with eight shutout innings in the playoff opener against the Rangers, and after the Yankees swept Texas, he took home the ALCS MVP with wins in both of his starts and a 2.87 ERA. Even with a homer-happy start in the Fall Classic, it was a brilliant postseason that earned him a World Series ring.

Wells ultimately finished third in AL Cy Young voting, while accumulating a number of career highs including wins, strikeouts, and fWAR. Despite the success of his brief tenure, New York’s desire to add Roger Clemens to the fold was enough to pry away Wells. The Yankees sent Wells, Graeme Lloyd, and Homer Bush to Toronto in return for the Rocket.

A Pair of Reunions

Wells was evidently not thrilled with his return north of the border, but was also given a longer leash by ownership to be himself. His first season back, 1999, was average at best, but he turned in another superb season in 2000. He notched his first career 20-win season, led the league in starts and complete games, while posting a career-high 6.2 fWAR. However, after the Jays and Wells had once again butted heads, he was traded to the White Sox, where he had a forgettable 100.2-inning campaign in 2001 — one ravaged by back injuries.

Another reunion would be in the cards for Wells, as he signed for a second go-around in the Bronx. Steinbrenner was evidently set on re-acquiring the lefty, despite his questionable history around the league.

Now 39, the bet on Boomer paid off for both parties. Wells captured another 19 victories, with a sub-4 ERA, in his seventh 200 inning season in eight years. 2003, his age-40 season would be a solid one as well. He began the year on a rocky note, ruffling some feathers with the release of his autobiography that discussed his aforementioned condition for his perfecto, as well as steroid use around baseball. The controversy, yet again, would not keep Wells from performing at a high level.

Wells would pitch another 213 innings, sporting a 3.94 FIP, and continued his success into the postseason, where he helped the Yankees make another run to the Fall Classic. They would of course fall short, but his 23.1 innings of work on their way were more than effective.

Boomer’s final start, however, was a dud, as a back injury forced him to leave Game 5 of the World Series after just one inning. The New York bullpen allowed six runs and lost, 6-4, before dropping the series the next game.

Late Career

Boomer’s time in the Bronx would be over following the ‘03 season, and he would bounce around a few different teams until his age-44 season in 2007. This included a pair of stints with the Padres, a run with the Red Sox, as well as the Dodgers. He would call it quits after the ‘07 campaign, tallying 239 victories and a 108 ERA+ over the course of 21 seasons, and nearly 3,500 innings of big league work.

It is not often that player can reach the level of fame that Wells did over the course of his two-plus decade career. It was for good reason, as his brash, beer-drinking aura, as well as his rubber-armed excellence on the mound were more than deserving of it. He was a workhorse on the hill and a frequent piece of work in many teams’ clubhouse. All of this being said, however, Boomer’s impact on some of the Yankees’ finest seasons in recent memory was undeniable. He was nothing if not notable, and a mighty fine pitcher, earning himself a rightful spot on our top 100.

Staff rank: 67
Community rank: 64
Stats rank: 80
2013 rank: 74

References:

Baseball Reference

BR Bullpen

FanGraphs

Jaffe, Jay. “15 years ago today: David Wells’ perfect game,” Sports Illustrated, May 17, 2013.

Madden, Bill. Steinbrenner: The Last Lion of Baseball. New York: HarperCollins, 2010.

Olney, Buster. Last Night of the Yankees Dynasty. New York: Ecco, 2004.

Pinstripe Alley

SABR

“Slimmer Wells returns to Yankee Stadium,” Santa Cruz (California) Sentinel January 11, 2002.

Verducci, Tom and Joe Torre. The Yankee Years. New York: Doubleday, 2009.

Previously on the Top 100

69. Tom Tresh
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