Forgetting Vernon Wells

Speed. Grit. Rally starter. Dirty uniforms. High socks. That’s what the Toronto Blue Jays have in centre field this year, and it’s great fun to watch.

But however far in love Toronto fans may have already fallen with Rajai Davis, it does seem odd to hear so late little talk about the previous guy to patrol centre.

Tonight, the Blue Jays are in Anaheim as the Angels play their home opener. The game will be the first meeting between Vernon Wells and the team he had played every game with up until this season. And it makes me feel old to think about it this way, but Wells played his first big league games in 1999.

So how could a guy like Wells be put out of mind so quickly after being here so long? I mean, just look at Toronto’s all-time offensive leaders and Wells is all over the place:

  • 1st in at bats
  • 2nd in runs scored
  • 2nd in hits
  • 2nd in total bases
  • 2nd in doubles
  • 10th in triples
  • 2nd in home runs
  • 2nd in RBI
  • 10th in stolen bases
  • 6th in walks
  • 2nd in extra-base hits
  • 6th in slugging percentage
  • 10th in OPS

Impressive tallies, and those are just the categories listed in this year’s edition of SABR’s Emerald Guide to Baseball. So why were people (including myself) so down on Wells and so happy to see him go?

It’s couldn’t just be the 7-year/$126M contract, could it?

Except for a few down years, his offensive stats aren’t bad enough to warrant the scorn heaped upon him. And even those down years, most people seem happy to write off to nagging injuries that slowed his production. But overall, Vernon was a pretty good hitter, As of this writing, Baseball Reference has him listed as the 490th best hitter of all-time, and that’s pretty impressive when you consider how many have played this game professionally.

His defence? As much as I’m not a fan of Gold Gloves, Wells did win three during his time in Toronto. UZR doesn’t rate him very well at all, but the majority of the hate comes from people who have likely never heard of UZR and who do value things like Gold Gloves, so the defensive side of things shouldn’t lead to the happiness at his trade out of town.

So, using very lax standards, we can say that his offence wasn’t that bad and neither was his defence. But look at his production through the lens of that contract and it does look pretty bad. I mean, a guy who’s almost making A-Rod money should be better than the 490th hitter of all-time, shouldn’t he?

While the unrealistic expectations of the contract do likely play a big part in how Jays fans view Wells, I don’t think that tells the whole story.

During Wells’ time in Toronto, the Jays were never really in contention. I have a theory that for a player on a non-competitive team to connect with the fan base, he needs to do something special to endear himself.

Yes, Wells is at or near the top of many of Toronto’s offensive categories, but there’s one more category I didn’t mention: Wells is third in games played all-time with Toronto. Give anybody enough at bats and they’re going to rack up counting stats, so may not be the best way to gauge Wells’ effect on the club.

For the rate stats, he’s 6th in slugging, 10th in OPS and doesn’t crack the Top 10 in either batting average or OBP.

As for the counting stats, sure, he’s 2nd in home runs, but he’s 123 behind Carlos Delgado. And Delgado hit all those extra home runs in only 30 more games.

OK, where are we? Offensive and defensive production, when considered in relation to his contract, are pretty disappointing. His spots on the team’s all-time leader board can mainly be attributed to the problems with counting stats and he didn’t play for any teams that really endeared themselves to, and made an impact on, the city. Take all of that and in one more thing and I think it can all be explained:

Wells made it all look too easy out there.

Would you rather root for a player like Wells or somebody like Reed Johnson, who makes every play look like the most difficult play that’s ever been attempted? I think we all know how most Torontonians would answer that.

So, if I’ve got this right, Wells is a decent player who suffered from the expectations of a large contract, didn’t look like he played the “right” way and was not quite good enough to overcome the stigma of playing for teams that weren’t in contention. Phew.

Too bad, he seems like a genuinely good guy.

But I’m still glad he’s not in Toronto any more.

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