Vernon Wells is proof no contract is untradeable. Perhaps more accurately, he’s proof no former talent goes uncoveted.
It was easy to mock the Yankees when they acquired Vernon Wells in late March, but what else were they going to do? The outfield was decimated by Curtis Granderson‘s broken wrist, and the club desperately needed a right-handed outfielder. The free agent market was empty. Vernon Wells hit .222/.258/.409 from 2011 to 2012. But nobody available could be expected to do much better, and certainly none of them had done anything like Wells’s 2003 (.317/.359/.550), 2006 (.303/.357/.542), 2008 (.300/.343/.496) or, most notably, his 2010 (.273/.331/.515).
But what Wells has done this year blows past what anybody could (or should) have predicted. Wells hit his ninth home run in Sunday’s win over the Royals, and his batting line is up to .295/.343/.530 — he’s playing about as well as he ever has.
That’s ridiculous enough, of course, but then this happened Wednesday evening against Colorado:
The Yankees were injured enough to begin the season, but things have mounted lately. An injury to Kevin Youkilis left the Yankees bare on the left side of the infield, and so after Joe Girardi decided to pinch-hit for Chris Nelson in Wednesday’s game against the Rockies, he was left without a third baseman.
It was a brave move — most managers would be too concerned a misplay at third base would put the magnifying glass on removing the third baseman. But it was almost certainly the right move. Girardo went to Travis Hafner against right-handed Rockies closer Rafael Betancourt with the bases loaded and one out in the ninth, a situation with a 5.3 leverage index — that is, 5.3 times more important than an average situation.
It was the correct move. Nelson has a career .729 OPS aided by Colorado (.576 in 2013); Hafner is at .888 (.921 in 2013) and owned the platoon advantage against Betancourt. Hafner struck out, but the next pinch-hitter, Brennan Boesch, reached on an infield single to bring in Wells and take the lead.
The odds Wells would be forced to make a play in the ninth were low. The typical third baseman only records 2.5 outs per game, or one every four innings. Mariano Rivera was on the mound, and he strikes out more batters than the typical pitcher.
But Carlos Gonzalez hit a grounder in Wells’s direction with one out and bases empty. It wasn’t a Gold Glove play, but it wasn’t basic — Wells was forced to range to his left, extend, and make a throw on the move to get the speedy Gonzalez at first base.
This play, I think, puts into perspective how little is risked by having one player out of position for one inning. The chances of Wells having to make any play was low, but the chances of him having to make the kind of plays that differentiate between the below-average and above-average third baseman was even lower. The differences in defensive quality at the major league level is mostly on the margins. The difference between being five runs above average and five runs below average can be just 15 or 20 plays over the course of a season — according to linear weights, the difference between a single and an out is almost a full run.
The counterpoint stems from the same fact — if one of those differentiating plays were to occur with Wells at third base, he would almost certain miss it, and the leverage index all inning was at least 3.0 and pushed over 5.0 by game’s end. If — if — Wells faced a tough play for a major league third basemen, it easily could have cost them the game.
Coaches not only in baseball but throughout sports have repeatedly been passive in such situations. Through inaction, most criticism ends up deflected away from the coaches and onto the players. Leaving Nelson in due to the lack of a replacement would have been textbook inaction on Girardi’s part.
Instead, Girardi chose to take the definite advantage in Hafner (and then Boesch) against Betancourt and risked the possible (but unlikely) disadvantage of Wells facing a tough chance at third base in the following inning (or innings, considering the game was tied). Girardi’s aggressiveness paid off with his second pinch-hitter and Wells even made a play for him.
Wells’s success in general and his play Wednesday night at third base in particular serve as microcosms of the Yankees season thus far. The club has been forced to go through replacement after replacement, and they keep coming through, whether its Brennan Boesch, Travis Hafner, Lyle Overbay, Kevin Youkilis, or Vernon Wells.
Even Vernon Wells at third base. Thanks in no small part to his contributions, the Yankees are in first place at 23-13, and the cavalry is still yet to arrive.