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All’s Wells That Ends Wells

20090828wells.jpg
Photo by lamkevin from the Torontoist Flickr Pool.

Vernon Wells is struggling. Everyone knows it, not least of all Wells himself. His body language is practically crying out, “Yeah, I know I’ve been sucking all year; I really am trying, though!” His face is screwed into an almost permanent grimace of frustration. Predictably, he’s begun squeezing at the plate—yet by trying so hard to bust out of his season-long slump he’s actually made it worse.
But why boo him? Right now, unless he gets on base, every Vernon Wells at-bat ends with a chorus of boos. In fact, there’s a growing number of “fans” booing Wells as he walks between the on-deck circle and the batter’s box. Granted, he’s struggling—but so are a lot of other Blue Jays, including (most recently) Roy Halladay. What separates Wells from his teammates—we’re guessing here—can be summed up thusly: “He signed a huge contract! Seven years, $126-million! He’s got to be better than this!” Well, maybe he does, but Wells’ contract, as gargantuan as it is, shouldn’t be held against him. When Wells re-signed with Toronto he was coming off a great year (.303 batting average/32 home runs/106 runs batted in). There was tremendous fear he’d parlay that into a lucrative deal with, say, the New York Yankees (who were practically begging for a centre fielder whose name wasn’t Melky Cabrera at the time). His contract was market value for a player of his calibre—not to mention a player in the prime of his career who was seen as being vital to Toronto’s future success. Contrary to what revisionist historians may tell you, the Blue Jays did not overpay (at least not in baseball terms) for Vernon Wells. Sure, he was expensive, but most good players are. And Wells was really good in 2006…not to mention in 2003, where his numbers stack up favourably with pretty much any individual year in team history.
Wells struggled in 2007, but rebounded nicely last season (.300/20/78 despite being limited to 108 games). And while he’s fallen off again this year, that’s no reason to write him off or to boo him when he doesn’t get on base (his current on-base percentage is a measly .303). Next time you’re at Rogers Centre, watch his reaction if (when?) he strikes out. Wells knows he’s struggling; it’s a difficult fact to ignore, what with his numbers staring down on him from the stadium’s scoreboards. He doesn’t need his own fans to remind him. It can be argued that being booed is part and parcel of being a Major League Baseball player. That may be so—but what does booing Wells accomplish?
Wells has four years left on his contract, and given its size and its duration he’s not likely going anywhere. He’s a part of the Blue Jays, whether you like it or not—so instead of booing him, give positive reinforcement a try. Earlier this year, Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz was struggling far, far worse than Wells…and the Fenway faithful responded not with boos but with cheers, along with a curtain call after he hit his first home run of the season (against the Blue Jays, no less). As Bill Simmons notes, if we’re trying “to light a fire under a specific player, [booing ends] up making him even more nervous and tentative. So why boo in the first place? Trust me, dead silence sends a bigger message than anything. And it’s not potentially destructive.” We’re not suggesting silence is golden, that it’ll magically turn Wells’ season around. But if you were a professional athlete and were dealing with as much pressure as you’ve likely ever faced, a bit of positive reinforcement from the stands might go a long way.

Comments

  • http://undefined Craig C

    I think what has frustrated fans the most isn’t so much his slump or his big salary, but, with the exception of the most recent 10 or so games, he just hasn’t looked like he really cared. After a strike out he used to just walk away casually as though this was just batting practice.
    What’s more frustrating to watch is he seems to usually strike out swinging at pitches no other batter would even consider and often does so reaching his whole body out over the plate. This comes after watching a couple of golden pitches hang over the middle of the plate. Hopefully he can learn more self-control at the plate and not swing at pitches that are down and away or high and in (he goes after those like he’s swatting mosquitoes in Muskoka).
    That said, I agree, booing isn’t helping anything and Vernon’s more recent body language suggests he does actually want to perform better. Maybe what’s needed is a legion of fans with “Vernon Wells Rocks!” posters in the stands.

  • http://undefined McKingford

    This is sheer baseball innumeracy.
    The Wells contract was ridiculous at the time it was signed and hindsight has only confirmed that position.
    Wells had a very nice (not “great”) 2006. He did not, for instance, rank in the top 10 in batting average, on-base percentage, slugging or OPS+. He finished 22nd in MVP voting.
    His career OPS+ at that point was 112: above average, but not great. It was only the second time he slugged over .500, and it was his age 27 season; in baseball, it is pretty well recognized that players peak at age 27, and there was certainly great reason to believe that it would be downhill from there for Wells.
    So please explain how a career year which didn’t even place him in the top 10 in the most important offensive categories in his league net him the 6th richest contract in baseball history (according to Cot’s Baseball Contracts) – behind only ARod’s famous $275M deal, Jeter’s $189M, Manny’s $160M, Helton’s $141.5M, and Soriano’s $136M (signed close in time, but for an extra year, although – granted, this was also a foolish deal). Even now, almost 3 years later, Wells’ contract still ranks as the 11th richest of all time.
    What is especially concerning about Wells’ current production is his defense. Although he has been known as an above average (indeed, Gold Glove) centrefielder, his defense in 2008 and 2009 has been atrocious (Dewar’s +/- this year has him at -19 at last glance).
    So why boo him? Because he has an opt out clause in 2011. Maybe, just maybe, Jays fans can shame him into taking that out.

  • Stephen Johns

    @ Craig C, I think part of Wells’ problem–ironically enough–is that he doesn’t swing at first pitches anymore. He used to do it constantly, and it was frustrating as hell watching him chase pitches that were (more often than not) down and away. Now, a pitcher can start V-Dub with, to all intents and purposes, a batting practice pitch knowing full well he’s letting it go.
    @ McKingford, I’ll defend Ricciardi/TBJ for the Wells contract for the simple reason that, in 2006, the Blue Jays actually did have a good year. I think the perception was very much, “Hey, we got pretty close!” If, at that point, the team let Wells walk, it’d have sent all sorts of wrong messages not to just to their fans but to the rest of the American League. That may not completely justify the contract’s dollar value, but I certainly think it explains the rationale for offering it. I guess the team though Wells’ production would increase, not oscillate from “bad” to “better” to “awful.”

  • http://undefined Mattt

    I’m sure when Vernon plays up to his potential next season all of this will be forgotten. The booing doesn’t motivate him as Wells does not seem like the kind of person to try and prove the fans wrong. So there’s really no point in continuing to do so…

  • http://undefined McKingford

    Here’s the problem with that argument: Wells was not a free agent at the end of the 2006 season – the Jays still had him under contract for 2007. In short, as *insane* as the Wells contract was, it was even more nuts to give it to him a year before he was eligible to walk when the Jays were bidding against nobody but themselves.

  • http://undefined McKingford

    I guess the team though Wells’ production would increase, not oscillate from “bad” to “better” to “awful.”
    And if the Jays thought Wells’ production would continue to get better after his age 27 season then they really were stupid, because – as I pointed out earlier – age 27 is generally the peak season after which you should anticipate a decline in performance.

  • http://undefined Stephen Johns

    This is splitting hairs, but the latest evidence suggets a hitter peaks at 29 instead of 27 (according to this book). Either way, I seriously doubt the Jays were throwing that kind of money at Vernon Wells if they didn’t think he had a lot of good years left in the tank…unless, of course, you actually have that little faith in J.P. Ricciardi, and if you do then I can’t say I blame you at all (seriously, if Wells’ contract leads to Ricciardi getting fired it’s gotta be considered a masterstroke).