Angels Trade for Torii Hunter?

Vernon Wells is a 32-year-old center fielder with a career OPS+ of 108 in 5963 plate appearances. Take all the center fielders since 1901 who racked up between 4472 and 7454 plate appearances through their age-31 seasons (+/- 25% of Wells) while putting up an OPS+ of between 98 and 118, and what do you get?

A list of 26 baseball players, each and every one of them at least pretty good, sometimes great, and always one helluva lot better than Juan Rivera, ranging in Wins Above Replacement from Carlos Beltran (50.3) to Gus Bell (15.9). There are two Hall of Famers on the list (Max Carey and Lloyd Waner), every single non-active player made Bill James' top 125 list in his 2001 Historical Abstract (with most bunched between #35-75), and Wells sits right smack dab in the middle of the pack, ranked at #13 in WAR at 25.6.

Reason #1 for optimism about Wells: Players who've performed like he has up to this point in his career have all been very good players.


Wells ranks 52nd since 1901 in WAR by a center fielder through age 31. It's a good neighborhood:

49 Mickey Rivers
50 Rick Monday
51 Eric Davis
52 Vernon Wells
53 Bobby Thomson
54 Marquis Grissom
55 Jimmy Piersall

Not Hall of Famers, but these are guys who typically made two or three All-Star teams, received MVP votes in three or four seasons (including one time in the top 10), and made impacts on postseasons. Which, minus the postseason, describes Wells to a T -- three All-Star games, three seasons of MVP votes, topping out at 8th. Good ballplayers, he and they.

So who does Wells most resemble? Going back to that first list of comps, three stand out as very similar players -- big right-handed throwers who hit for good average, didn't walk that much, and had excellent power, while not exactly setting the world on fire with their CF defense, at least as measured by WAR. In order of least similar to most:

NM   G    PA   AB   R   H    2B 3B  HR RBI  BB  SO  SB/CS  AVG  OBP  SLG OPS+ oWAR dWAR  WAR
VW: 1393 5963 5470 789 1529 339 30 223 813 406 762 90/29 .280 .329 .475 108 28.0 -2.4 25.6
#3: 1523 6462 5922 802 1686 288 62 197 879 430 590 29/29 .285 .334 .454 105 22.9 -7.0 15.9
#2: 1198 4889 4450 671 1230 200 55 195 737 387 519 32/10 .276 .337 .478 115 25.7 -0.4 25.3
#1: 1234 4894 4492 672 1218 259 26 192 711 319 870 126/60 .271 .324 .469 104 19.0 -2.1 16.9

Bachelor #3 is Gus Bell, these days most famous for being father of Buddy and granddad of David (and Mike), but back in the day a 4-time All-Star who drove in 100 four times, hit 25+ home runs three times, and hit .300 and scored 100 runs twice, with a lot of doubles and triples power as well (he led the league in 3Bs at age 22). Unlike the other three guys under discussion, Bell was left-handed hitter, never much of a baserunner, and was effectively finished as a power hitter (and general offensive threat) after age 27, hitting just .270/.312/.398 his final 8 seasons (for a -0.8 WAR). He was also one of the worst defensive center fielders in the history of the game, mercifully yanked over to the corner at age 30 after playing way too long alonside the Ralph Kiners and Wally Posts of the world. As overrated as Wells has been with the glove, he ain't that bad.

Candidate #2 looks so similar to Wells -- 25.3 WAR to 25.6, .276/.337/.475 to .280/.329/.475, the exact same 76% SB success rate -- that you might be wondering why Bobby Thomson isn't number 1. Well, he wasn't really a center fielder; he just kept the seat warm until Willie Mays showed up, and he also played quite a bit of third base. Was more lanky-strong than football-player buff. He was a terrific player, averaging 26 homers and 94 RBIs from 23 to 29, making three All-Star teams and finishing in the Top 16 in MVP voting three times, but he broke his ankle at age 30 (giving a kid named Hank Aaron a chance), and was never the same after. Close, but no cigar.

So who does that leave us with? A guy who is Wells' contemporary, big and strong and right-handed, who also won perhaps-undeserved Gold Gloves in center field playing on turf, hitting 25 homers and 30+ doubles a year, stealing bases in the double digits a handful of times, crossing the 100 RBI threshold now and then, while never drawing more than 55 walks. A by-acclamation Good Guy who'd spent his entire career as the face of (if not quite the best player on) an American League team before coming over to the Angels at age 32, the dead ringer for our new centerfielder-playing-left, is our old centerfielder-playing-right, Torii Hunter.

Reason #2 for optimism about Wells: His closest comp is a cat named Torii Hunter, and that guy turned out OK.

I mean, it's eerie. Check out their age-31 seasons, just before lacing up for LA of A:

VW: 157 646 590 79 161 44  3 31  88  6/4  50  84 .273 .331 .515 127  18  4.4 -1.0 3.4
TH: 160 650 600 94 172 45  1 28 107 18/9  40 101 .287 .334 .505 123  17  3.9 -1.6 2.3

Seriously, apart from the stolen bases, that's the same player.

Even the most troubling part of Wells' resume -- his injury-plagued stumble during what should have been the prime years of 28-30 -- were matched by Torii's now-forgotten mediocrity from 27-29. Here's what each man averaged during their three-year Lost Weekends:

VW: 138 597 547 77 145 32  3 17  75 10/3  42  74 .265 .317 .426  95  14  1.8 -0.4 1.4
TH: 130 542 491 75 129 31  2 21  80 17/7  41  91 .262 .325 .460 102  15  1.9 -0.2 1.7

I mean, it's not me, right? Vernon's lows during this period were lower, his highs were higher, and Torii eked out an advantage through some consistency and extra slugging. But they've really been the same player, with three minor and worth-examining exceptions -- one that makes Wells look better, and two that make Wells look worse. For the Hunter/Wells difference that makes Vernon look better, let's first look at yet another similarity: what the two men averaged from ages 25-31:

VW: 145 626 571 80 156 35  3 24  83 10/3  47  81 .274 .329 .469 108  15  2.8 -0.1 2.7
TH: 142 585 536 82 146 32  2 25  90 16/7  39 103 .272 .326 .484 110  16  2.6 -0.2 2.4

Why does that spitting-image exercise redound to Wells' credit? Because of what he did before age 25. While Hunter was scuffling to establish himself as a regular, Wells was having a dance party on the face of American League pitchers, leading the league in hits, doubles and total bases in an age-24 offensive outburst that Hunter has never come close to matching. Here's what their 23-24 seasons averaged out to:

VW: 160 692 643 102 191 42  4 28 108  6/2  34  82 .297 .334 .506 115  18  4.2 -0.9 3.4
TH: 117 390 360  48  96 16  4  7  40  7/4  22  70 .267 .313 .393  76  11  0.4 -0.1 0.3

By any conventional measure (except consistency), Wells accomplished more by age 32 than Torii Hunter did. Past accomplishment being the most important factor when figuring out future performance, this is no small thing. But there's a reason beyond salary that people are skeptical about Vernon Wells' prospects going forward.

Reason #1 for skepticism about Wells: Dude got chubby.

Not long after Wells signed his ridiculous 7 year, $126 million extension, he started looking a good deal more porky. He also, probably not coincidentally, began suffering a series of nagging injuries. He's had two good and two mediocre seasons since then, though even in his bad years he'll have 55 extra base hits (more than Juan Rivera has ever managed). Still, two words should send chills down the spine of any fan of a team that has just taken on an eight-figure salary of an accomplished, once-fast, power-hitting centerfielder in his early 30s who has packed on extra pounds: Andruw Jones. Though he's a big guy, Torii Hunter still looks like he could play safety or cornerback for a decent football team. Wells no longer does.

Reason #2 for skepticism about Wells: Center fielders break down.

Whether it's poundage in the gut or on the knees after more than a decade of piling up more yardage than anyone else on the field, center fielders have an unfortunate habit of diving off a cliff in their early-to-mid-30s. If you make a list of CFers through age 31 who've put up more than 4472 plate appearances with an isolated power (slugging minus batting average) of between .160 and .230 (Wells is right in the middle, at .195), you get another collection of 25 very good players (ranging in WAR from Andruw Jones to Gus Bell, with Wells down at #20), including Hall of Famers Andre Dawson and Larry Doby. Yet most were toast by age 33. Here's a distribution of when these good and great players began to be no better than mediocre.

28 Gus Bell
29 Vada Pinson, Bobby Thomson (though Thomson had one good year at age 34)
30 Andruw Jones, Cesar Cedeno
31 Rick Monday
32 Dale Murphy, Andy Van Slyke, Ruppert Jones
33 Chet Lemon, Wally Berger, Ray Lankford, Andy Pafko
34 Larry Doby, Bernie Williams, George Hendrick
35 Jimmy Wynn, Freddy Lynn
36 Andre Dawson
37 Mike Cameron
38 Reggie Smith, Ellis Burks
Still haven't cliff-dived: Carlos Beltran, Torii Hunter

So Hunter (or perhaps more accurately, Arte Moreno) is playing with house money in continuing to be a very good player through his age-34 season. Is there any reason, besides being in better shape, why Torii could have been predicted to have a better 32-34 than Vernon Wells? Unfortunately yes.

Reason #3 for skepticism about Wells: He was a (slightly) worse hitter on the road than Hunter, and his numbers were more helped by his home park.

Don't get me wrong, I think the hubbub over Wells' splits is way overblown. Your average American League hitter is about 5 percent better at home, and Wells is at 8-9 percent. It's not a significant difference. I will gladly take the over on him hitting better than .227/.301/.407 in 2011.

But Hunter before coming to Anaheim hit better on the road, suggesting that his overall numbers were underselling his offensive upside. Here are the two guys' home numbers through age 31:

NM   PA   AB   R   H   2B 3B  HR RBI SB/CS  BB  SO  AVG  OBP  SLG 
VW: 2902 2648 400 757 175 17 124 436 35/16 213 370 .286 .339 .505
TH: 2384 2192 337 598 134 15  85 348 76/26 144 467 .273 .324 .464

So Wells is clearly the better and more powerful hitter, right? Not so fast. Check out the road:

NM   PA   AB   R   H   2B 3B  HR RBI SB/CS  BB  SO  AVG  OBP  SLG 
VW: 3061 2822 389 772 164 13  99 377 55/13 193 392 .274 .321 .446
TH: 2510 2300 335 620 125 11 107 363 50/34 175 403 .270 .324 .473

Basically (even eerily!) the same, except that Torii hits about 7 more home runs per 600 ABs, accounting for most of a 27-point edge in slugging.

Bottom line: The Angels clearly believe they have signed another Torii Hunter. Only this time for one less year, with no (I hope) pretensions of playing CF, and some moderate salary relief thrown in, at the cost of the best half-time catcher in Major League Baseball. If Wells turns out to hit as well as Hunter did from 32-34, this trade will have been more than worth it, since that would mean an All-Star level of offense at a position that otherwise had no prospects for such during that time period, and since (regrettably) there is no alternate universe in which Mike Scioscia starts Mike Napoli at catcher for more than 85 games a season.

Reasons to believe Wells could indeed hit like Torii? More than anything, because he has so far, in fact hitting slightly better both in aggregate and at his peak (his top 3 offensive seasons are each better than Torii's best). He controls the strike zone better. He was slightly better at full strength at age 31 than Torii was at age 31, after both had cycled through some injury-marred struggles. He won't (Allah willing) be asked to patrol center field. He'll be coming off turf.

Reasons to believe Wells won't? He's in worse shape than Hunter ever has been. It could be that he's tailored his stroke to a ballpark outside of which it won't work well. And most of all, big, strong outfielders of his type do not typically start peaking with their bat after their 30th birthday, which Torii has done. Most, in fact, collapse by age 34.

So it's a big, expensive gamble. But you can also see where the Angels are coming from in thinking it might work.

This Fan-Post is authored by an independent fan. Tell us what you think and how you feel.

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