Andy Pettitte and the New York Yankees got clubbed at home by the Houston Astros 9-1 Monday night, a reminder for many that spot-starting in fantasy even against the league's worst offenses can occasionally backfire (ask Brandon Maurer about facing the lowly Astros as well), and ultimately I'm not too concerned about the ol' lefty pitcher, who brought a 2.22 ERA into the game, or his contending team. Hey, it's one game, and the Astros can't lose 'em all.
But another bright spot for those in pinstripes was outfielder Vernon Wells, who singled twice in three at-bats, knocked in the team's lone run and even drew a walk, all out of the No. 3 lineup spot. The once-forgotten and certainly vilified Wells is hitting .307 and is finally owned in 100 percent of ESPN standard mixed leagues, after being mostly undrafted. It's not surprising that many view Wells as a clear sell-high choice in fantasy based on his past few seasons, but is he really?
Well, it's been a while since Wells was this relevant, but if you want to talk about one of April's most pleasant surprises, he certainly qualifies. Wells is among the top 20 outfielders on ESPN's Player Rater. Think about how unlikely that would have been a month ago, when people thought the Yankees were nuts to acquire him from the Los Angeles Angels, regardless of the relatively small (in the big picture) financial commitment.
Here are a few statistically based thoughts about Wells so far that, in general, have me believing the change in franchises really has reinvigorated him, to a degree. And trust me, while I thought the guy still had power potential, I hardly saw this coming.
• As recently as 2010, Wells mattered. He hit 31 home runs that season for the Toronto Blue Jays in 157 games, with a .273 batting average. He clearly wasn't the same player for the Angels, but he did swat 25 home runs in 2011 and then posted a similar HR/AB rate last season while missing considerable time. While several facets of his offensive game deteriorated, Wells maintained a modest HR/FB rate. This season it's really high and likely to regress -- he's on a 39-homer pace -- but he does look like he's in better shape this season, for what it's worth. As players age, power tends to be one of the last skills to leave. Wells is 34.
• A year ago, Wells drew 16 walks in his 77 games, covering 262 plate appearances. That's poor. With his eighth-inning walk Monday, Wells has 10 free passes in 23 games and 99 plate appearances (with only 14 strikeouts). As with the homers, it's premature to project this pace to continue, since Wells has never had a walk rate remotely this high, but again, applaud him for effort and the adjustment he seems to have made. He just doesn't look like the player of the past two seasons, but if this plate discipline wanes, all bets are off on that .307 batting average. As it is, I'm hoping for .270.
• A year ago, the right-handed-hitting Wells was 5-for-35 when hitting the ball to right field. Wells had become a pull hitter, with little success when he deviated from that plan. However, with his fourth- inning single Monday night, Wells already has six hits (in 15 at-bats) to the opposite field in 2013. That's quite a change in approach, and a smart one. Let's also give credit to Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long; he played a role in urging Wells to drive the ball to all fields, and it seems to be working.
• When Wells hit his 25 homers in 2011, 10 came off left-handed pitchers. His overall OPS against lefties was nearly 300 points better than against right-handers (.851 to .569). That's more extreme than in his heyday, and Wells had some tremendous seasons. In 2012, however, Wells hit only .227 against lefties. That seemed aberrant. It's only 38 at-bats, but Wells is hitting .342 off lefties so far, with three of his home runs. If Wells can club the lefties and be passable against right-handers, a 25-homer campaign is certainly feasible.
What Wells earns financially is irrelevant to this discussion, but he's going to play regularly and likely hit in the middle of the lineup, even when some longtime Yankees return from injury. Second baseman Robinson Cano has settled in well as the No. 2 hitter, hitting .392 in the role, and while Derek Jeter and Curtis Granderson could affect the top of the lineup, they shouldn't. Brett Gardner is superior to even a healthy Jeter as the leadoff hitter against right-handed pitching, though Gardner's strikeout rate is oddly through the roof, and a team should bat its top hitter second, not third.
Further down, Travis Hafner is hardly the worst cleanup hitter against right-handed pitching. Who knows when Kevin Youkilis plays again, or Mark Teixeira for that matter. The Yankees lead the American League in home runs; a season ago, 10 Yankees reached double digits in the category, and just one of those players (Cano) is active for the Yankees today. That's incredible. The rejuvenated Wells is playing a major role.
I won't call Wells a top-20 outfielder, though. That's a bit presumptive after just four weeks of work. I do think he's going to hit 25 home runs, and if his walk rate continues, he should hit better than .270, and that clearly puts him among the top 40 at the position. Wells used to steal bases and that seems to be over, but still, for the power and modest batting average, keep him owned. I mean, is Andre Ethier going to hit .270 with 25 home runs? Will Jason Kubel, Nick Swisher or Josh Reddick? I have doubts. They were each among the top 50 outfielders in most drafts, though a few aren't 100 percent owned today. Wells is in that class again, which might be a bit hard to believe but is a reminder that anyone can make adjustments. I'd choose him over the aforementioned guys (Ethier, Kubel, Swisher and Reddick) for the remainder of the season.