Despite the slightly incendiary title, I come today not to bury Cito. Nor do I plan to excrete anything on or around his grave. I hope to pose a simple question1: should Vernon Wells continue as the Blue Jays cleanup hitter?
The easy answer is no. Despite putting up strong numbers in 2010 Wells is ill-suited to the role. The Book suggests your best hitters in the 1,2, and 4 spot. Wells hits fourth because he's The Team Leader and other such stuff. Jose Bautista hit third much of the year, starting in late June. Vernon batted cleanup every game, all year long.
It is difficult to argue the results as both men put up huge numbers. What is open to debate is the role their spot in the batting order plays in that success. From a "winning games" perspective, hitting Bautista third and Wells fourth is less than ideal.
Consider a great post on a great blog The Process Report. The finest Rays writers come together to provide excellent, high-end analysis. This week, they examined if the Rays best hitter — Evan Longoria — was better suited to hitting third or fourth.
How does that relate to the Jays? Applying the same thinking the Process Report guys used for Longoria2, I thought I'd take a look at the opportunities afforded Bautista and Wells. Nothing too fancy or esoteric, simply what was the situation when they came to the plate.
The first assumption we must make to assuming Jose Bautista is a "better" hitter than Vernon Wells. In 2010, he certainly was. In addition to his prodigious power, Jose Bautista made far fewer outs than Vernon Wells. Even if the home runs dry up, this trend stands to continue thanks to Joe Bau's discerning eye and Vernon Wells' nervous twitches.
Like the Process Report dudes, I'll focus on first inning plate appearances. Check out the chart(s) below!
To summarize, cleanup hitter Vernon Wells came to the plate 99 times in the first inning, compared to only 64 appearances in the second (where he would leadoff, nobody on & nobody out.) Of those 99 first inning plate appearances, Wells batted with a running in scoring position more than 40% of the time. Compare that to number three hitter Jose Bautista, who saw runners in scoring position a mere 17% of his first inning plate appearances.
I recognize this isn't an "apples to apples" comparison when we consider how much Wells benefits from hitting behind an OBP machine like Jose. Bautista's plate appearances in the cleanup role won't mirror Vernon's but the differences will be relatively slight. Numerical vagaries aside, having an out-making fool like Wells hit with two out and nobody on isn't the end of the world.
Should Wells reach, Bautista's ability to extend the inning only increases the chance of scoring. Should Wells do his Vernon Wells-thing, making the third out of the inning, there is ersatz leadoff man Jose Bautista doing his patient slugger-thing at the top of the second inning. Win-win!
On a team without:
- a prototype leadoff guy(?) and
- in no real rush to get on base in the first place
Provided everyone is warm and fuzzy about it, this team would be far better positioned to score more runs with Wells/Bautista 3/4. And yes, I realize this very debate was bandied about last year at this time regarding Hill and Lind shifting from 2/3 to 3/4. Things change; it is baseball we're talking about.
Moving elder statesman Vernon Wells too far from the middle of the order isn't a wise move for a new manager on his way into town. Hopefully Farrell can use his fresh eyes and new perspective to convince the players that a more optimized lineup helps them all in the end.
1 - Completely unrelated to contract arbitration, as that shit is for the birds.
2 - I basically stole their chart format, too. No honour on the internet indeed.
Credit to AP Photo (courtesy of Daylife) for the photo, Fangraphs for the play by play info and The Process Report for the original idea.