Sports

MLB Analysis: Could Angels' Vernon Wells be the Next Wally Pipp?

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The New York Yankees’ Lou Gehrig, the original Iron Man, started his string of 2,130 consecutive games by replacing ten-year veteran Wally Pipp at first base one day. The legend is that Pipp complained to Yankees manager Miller Huggins about a headache before game time. Huggins sat Pipp and replaced him that day with Gehrig. The rest, as they say, is history. But Pipp and Gehrig told different versions of the story, and Pipp’s own version changed as the years went by, particularly after Gehrig’s death. Pipp’s headache is likely more legend than fact. However, the cautionary note of the story is sound. In spite of the old adage that you can’t lose your starting position to an injury, baseball’s faithful, including vets like Los Angeles Angels outfielder Vernon Wells, know the adage is false.

On May 20th, Wells injured his thumb while stealing second against the San Diego Padres. The injury required surgery and Wells will miss between 6 and 10 weeks of the season. The news was a blow to an already reeling Los Angeles Angels team. At that point, they were 7 games below .500. Although Albert Pujols was starting to show signs of emerging from his six-week slump, Torii Hunter had left the team a week earlier to attend to his son’s legal troubles in Texas, and veteran outfielder Bobby Abreu performed so poorly in April that the Angels released him at the end of the month. By the third week in May the Angels had to completely revamp their outfield. The AL West’s crowded cellar was looking like a good fit for the Halos.

Fortunately for the Angels their next stop was Oakland where they swept the barely functioning A’s. After failing to break a sweat in Oakland, they travelled to Seattle for another 3-game sweep. By the time they returned to Anaheim for a 3-game series with the Yankees, they were one game below .500 and in second place in the AL West.

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During the games against the Yankees, Vernon Wells watched from the dugout, his right hand and most of his right forearm wrapped in a post-surgery ace bandage. What he saw had to make him wonder about his future. Wells was hitting .244 with 6 homers and a mere 12 RBI when he was injured. He’s a lifetime .274 hitter who has averaged 26 home runs and 92 RBI per 162 games over the course of his career. Although he hit only .218 in his first season as an Angel in 2011, he was an All Star in 2010. At 35 years old, he should still be able to perform if he can get and stay healthy.

One of the players Wells rooted for from the dugout was the Angels’ 20-year old sensation Mike Trout. Trout is hitting .303 in 119 at bats. His 5 home runs, 16 RBI, 12 walks, and 8 stolen bases are all solid numbers that, with the exception of home runs, surpass Wells numbers in 135 at bats. Trout’s speed is phenomenal and it was on full, reckless display during his outfield play.

During the first of the 3 games against the perennially powerful Yankees, Trout was joined in the outfield by Mark Trumbo in right. Trumbo went 8 for 13 against the Yankees, drove in 6 runs, had a double and a triple, and homered in each game. Trumbo’s hitting .348 in 155 at bats, his OBP is .386, and he already has 10 home runs and 26 RBI.  After coming in second for the AL Rookie of the Year award, Trumbo shows no signs of being plagued by the dreaded sophomore jinx.

Mike Scioscia spent the first 6 weeks of the season scratching his head, wondering what was wrong with Pujols and the rest of his hitters. He can stop scratching; the Angels are playing with confidence. Kendrys Morales is back after a nearly two-year absence. He’s hitting .295 with 4 homers and 17 RBI in 146 at bats. And, as everyone slightly interested in baseball knows by now, Prince Albert is starting to hit as well. With 8 homers and 28 RBI, nearly all of which have come in the last three weeks, Pujols is starting to perform as expected. Added to all of that good news is the fact that on Tuesday night Torii Hunter returned to the lineup to play right field. That meant Scioscia was able to DH Pujols, put Trumbo at first, and give Morales the night off in a 5-1 win over New York. While the consistency of the starting rotation continues to be a concern, particularly after Jered Weaver’s recent injury, the Angels suddenly have an embarrassment of riches in the outfield and at the plate. Which brings us back to Vernon Wells.

Wells is signed with the Angels through 2014 at $21 million a year. Once he’s healthy, the temptation will be to play him if for no other reason than it’s hard to justify leaving $21 million on the bench. With that salary and an injury that looks like it won’t be resolved until at or near the trading deadline, Wells will likely be an Angel for some time to come. If Scioscia can afford to sit Morales, and has young guns like Trout and Trumbo (anyone calling them T ‘n T yet?) in the lineup, then the Texas Rangers better start watching their backs. If Trout, Trumbo, and Hunter continue to play well and stay healthy, then Vernon Wells, in spite of his salary, might have to get used to watching from the dugout. While he’s watching, it probably won’t make him feel any better knowing that the Wally Pipp story is, for better or worse, more legend than fact.

Jonathan Dyer has been a baseball fanatic since playing Little League in the 1960s, and he’s been following the Oakland A’s since moving to the Bay Area in the late 1970s when he watched Rickey Henderson play for Billy Martin. Dyer, the author of three novels, now brings his long-term perspective to writing about baseball, connecting the modern game to its historic context. You may email Jonathan directly at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @dyer_jp. You can follow his progress on two new novels he’s writing at www.booksbyjonathandyer.webs.com