Randy Wells, Cautionary Tale

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Randy Wells was designated for assignment.  The Cubs have ten days to trade him, waive him, or release him.  The Cubs have stated they want to keep Randy Wells which would mean they will try to waive him.  If Wells clears waivers, he has the choice of accepting the assignment or becoming a free agent.  Many Cubs fans were ecstatic over the news yesterday that Wells has likely thrown his last pitch for the Chicago Cubs.

The narrative of Randy Wells’ Cubs career was one of declining performance.  Wells burst onto the scene for the Cubs in 2009.  He threw 165 innings and put up a stellar 3.05 ERA.  The performance garnered some votes for Rookie of the Year.  The following season his workload increased to 194 innings, but his ERA jumped over a full run to 4.26.  Wells came back in 2011, and suffered an injury after his first start.  He came back a month and a half later, but the struggles continued with an ERA reaching 4.99.  Wells had a good spring in 2012, but didn’t break camp with the big league club.  He got two chances this year due to injuries and poor performances of other starters, but the ERA climbed to 5.34 before his release.

This is why I think most Cubs fans were overjoyed at the news of Randy Wells being removed from the 40 man roster.  He was yet another example of underperforming player that has been all too common for this organization.  Randy Wells teased us with an outstanding rookie season, and then progressively got worse and worse as a starter.  It is easy to just say that Randy Wells was a flash in the pan and that the league figured him out.  This narrative fits nicely with his rising ERA and the many lackluster outings in the past couple of seasons.  If you dig a little deeper, however, it becomes a bit more complex.

The more complex story begins with Randy Wells not being as good as his ERA indicated in 2009.  That seems obvious now given his production since, but the statistical indicators were there for those looking.  His K/BB rate was a solid if unspectacular 2.26 which was one reason why his SIERA was a much more accurate 4.36.  This is where the nice neat story of steady decline begins to fall apart.  His 2010 was actually better when you look at factors that are more under the control of the pitcher.  His K/BB rate actually increased to 2.92 and his SIERA declined to 4.10.

So while his ERA fluctuated greatly between 2009 and 2010, Randy Wells was largely the same pitcher in both campaigns.  He was a league average starting pitcher, and this is where I think some of the frustration amongst Cubs fans comes from.  A lot of people thought that Randy Wells was better than he actually was due to some good fortune of better bounces and defense in 2009 compared to 2010.

Something changed for Randy Wells in 2011.  He started the year with a quality start, but would not throw a major league pitch for almost two months due to a forearm strain.  He struggled through early August with an ERA over 6, and recovered to finish the year with a solid stretch of pitching which he had a 3.57 ERA over 9 starts.  Underneath all of this was a sudden drop of velocity.  His fastball had averaged a little over 90 during his first couple of years but it dropped to just a touch over 88 during the season.

2012 is when the wheels fell completely off.  The velocity was slowly starting to recover to 2009 and 2010 levels, but the walk rate skyrocketed.  The only other consistent pattern with Randy Wells career is the increasing walk rate which moved from 2.50 to 2.92 to 3.13 and finally to 7.53 per 9 innings.  Looking at pitch f/x you notice something interesting.  Here is Randy Wells release point in 2009:

Now look at his release point in 2012:

Looking at the graphs you can see that Wells was releasing the ball in a much more consistent place in 2009.

Randy Wells is a cautionary tale for fans and the expectations that they have for players.  His sudden decline in performance from 2009 to 2010 while predicted by many statistical models was a surprise to many Cubs fans.  This was followed by his injury troubles and loss of control the following two years he verged into bust territory, and it is easy to see why so many were rejoicing at Wells loss of a job.

I think there is more to learn from the Randy Wells saga, and that is the effect of dramatic increases in workloads for pitchers.  Randy Wells prior to 2009 had never thrown more than 131 innings in a season and only 124 in 2008.  His workload jumped to 191.1 innings in 2009 and the following year it reached his career high 194.1.  Look at the evolution of Wells release point during this time:

Notice how his release point begins to drop in 2010 combined with the dip in velocity towards the end of 2010 are often indicators of injury.  He comes back in 2011 with even lower velocity, and develops a forearm strain that would cost him a month and a half.  I would hypothesize that Randy Wells was rushed back due to the horrific starting pitching at the major league level and Jim Hendry and Mike Quade desperate to save their jobs.  Randy Wells is still recovering from that rapidly increased workload, and he has developed bad habits from throwing while being fatigued which resulted in the loss of control.

The interesting thing about Randy Wells is that the rate he generates swinging strikes has remained relatively consistent despite the drop in velocity.  His four years as a Cub has seen a swinging strike rates of 8.1, 9.9, 8.2, and 8.2.  His strikeout rate has pretty accurately reflected those rates with 5.66, 6.67, 5.45, and 4.40.  The slider still generates a lot of swings and misses.  There is reason to believe that Randy Wells can be a league average starter if he can cut down on the walks which could be a mechanical issue.

The Cubs made the right call to designate Randy Wells for assignment.  Wells would be entering his second year of arbitration next season and very likely would be earning more than his performance warrants.  But do not be surprised if a year or two down the road he puts up a solid season for another club hovering around league average numbers.  He seems exactly the type of guy that the Cardinals routinely pick up off the scrap heap and straighten out, especially if Dave Duncan comes back.  Until that time the converted catcher serves as a reminder about unreasonable expectations and the fragile nature of pitchers.

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