I don't think I've ever seen the little sabermetric pockets around the vast internet landscape light up the way they did that Friday night when the Angels swung a trade for Vernon Wells. Wells' contract had long been considered the very worst in baseball. The Angels, to that point, had whiffed on all of their high-end free agency targets. So for the Angels to willingly absorb $81 million of the $86 million left on Wells' deal in a trade, and for them to sacrifice a little talent as well, just reeked of desperation, and the whole thing made for a punchline that every baseball writer on the planet tried to tweak and redeliver.
What got kind of lost in the frenzy was that, while Wells is unquestionably and significantly overpaid, there were signs that he might still be a productive player. He was coming off a full season in which he slugged .515 with the Blue Jays. He had an OPS near .800 over the previous three years, and while the advanced defensive metrics didn't love his range in the outfield, the advanced defensive metrics are littered with holes that call their value into question, and the Angels seemed fond of Wells' defense. The potential was there for Wells to come in and be an overpaid player, sure, but also a contributing player.
If Wells could come in and immediately provide some power from the middle of the order while additionally serving as a veteran role model in the field, the Angels would be satisfied. The Angels would have gotten what they were looking for, at least in 2011.
So that's the background. Now here's the bad news. It's April 20, and Vernon Wells has played 16 games in an Angels uniform. Over those 16 games, he's batted .186 with three walks, 15 strikeouts, and zero home runs. Fans were booing him by the second week of the season, and seeing as Wells didn't record his fourth hit until his eighth game, it's safe to say he's already blown his first impression. Even those who might have been on Wells' and the Angels' side at the time of the trade might now be questioning themselves.
Worse, this doesn't look like it's just been your standard unlucky slump. Yes, Wells' batting average on balls in play is well below his career average, but you notice the lack of power, and you notice the strikeouts. You notice the lack of contact. The following table shows Wells' contact rate on a month-by-month basis, beginning with April 2010. Contact rate is simply times making contact over swings.
Wells has made contact with 73% of his swings to date with the Angels. His lowest mark in any month last year with the Blue Jays was 78%. His lowest mark in any month the year before that was 79%. His lowest mark in any month the year before that was also 79%. This version of Vernon Wells that the Angels have seen so far is unlike any version of Vernon Wells the Blue Jays saw in quite some time.
Contact rate is one of those metrics that stabilizes in a hurry, so this is a reason for concern. And while it would be one thing if Wells were stinging the ball in between his whiffs, his 2010 and 2011 spray charts tell a different story.
It's been two and a half weeks and Wells' pull power to left field remains completely absent. He's hit a few balls hard the other way, which is an encouraging sign that his strength hasn't totally eroded, but Wells hasn't been turning on pitches. He hasn't been turning on pitches as often as usual, and he hasn't been making contact with pitches as often as usual.
I probably don't need to tell you how alarming that is, because those are symptoms of a slower bat. They're also symptoms of any number of other things, including simple bad luck over a small sample, but this isn't at all how the Angels envisioned the Vernon Wells era would begin. He hasn't been himself. He hasn't been particularly close.
Here's one bit of good news: after striking out 11 times in his first 39 trips to the plate, Wells has struck out only four times in his last 35. Over that span he's also hit two doubles and a triple. His contact rate seems to be improving, and the low early mark may have simply been the consequence of having to adjust to a new team and a new lineup. But the pull power still isn't there. Those three recent extra-base hits all went the other way. Historically, Wells has hit for his best power to left field, and so far in 2011 that power has yet to show up.
So you may consider this a situation to monitor going forward. Vernon Wells is 32 years old. It stands to reason that he's on the verge of a decline, if he hasn't started already. But the Angels traded for him hoping for good production at least in the short term, and that production has yet to be seen. If Wells continues to struggle to make solid contact, an already questionable (if not laughable) move will only look worse.