JAWS and the 2013 Hall of Fame Ballot: David Wells
The following article is part of my ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2013 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to JAWS, please see here.
It’s been said that if you’re lefthanded and can throw strikes, you can stick around baseball for a long time. Portly portsider David Wells lasted 21 seasons in the majors, pounding the strike zone relentlessly for eight different teams and sticking around long enough to win 239 games.
While not exceptionally gifted when it came to missing bats or preventing runs relative to contemporaries like Greg Maddux and Pedro Martinez, Wells’ durability and impeccable control made him highly-sought among contending teams. He took trips to the postseason in 11 different seasons, wearing six different uniforms, a record that ties him with fellow 2013 ballot newcomer Kenny Lofton. It was in October where he often shone the brightest, building a big-game reputation to match his 6-foot-4, 250-pound frame and his outsized personality.
For all of his travels, Wells was never more at home than when he was pitching in the Bronx. So devoted to Babe Ruth was Wells that he once wore a Yankees cap that belonged to the Bambino in the 1930s on the Yankee Stadium mound in a 1997 outing. For his career, he went an impressive 45-20 with a 3.70 ERA and 6.3 strikeouts per nine in the House That Ruth Built, numbers considerably better than his overall line.
|Avg HOF SP||67.9||47.7||57.8|
Wells grew up in San Diego, in a single-parent home frequented by Hell’s Angels who would show up at his youth games; among the biker set, his mother was known as Attitude Annie. For all of the chaos of his upbringing, he was an exceptional athlete — and a svelte one, listed at 187 pounds — who was chosen by the Blue Jays in the second round of the 1982 draft out of Point Loma High School, the same school that produced Don Larsen, who pitched the only perfect game in World Series history back in 1956. Also drafted in that second round: Barry Bonds (by the Giants, though he chose Arizona State University instead), Bo Jackson (by the Yankees, he instead went to Auburn to play football) and Barry Larkin (by the Reds, kicking off a Hall of Fame career).
Wells’ progress to the majors was slowed by Tommy John surgery that cost him all of the 1985 season. He didn’t make his major league debut until June 30, 1987, when he was 24 years old. Hammered in two spot starts, he disappeared from the big leagues until September, when he had success pitching out of the bullpen for a team that lost its final seven games of the season to hand the AL East to the Tigers. Wells’ best outing came in the third-to-last game of the season against Detroit; he took over for a battered Jim Clancy in the third inning, allowing an inherited runner to score on a double play — the deciding run, alas — and then tossed six scoreless innings, striking out six in a losing cause.
He spent most of the 1988 season pitching out of Toronto’s bullpen, but did see the minors as well. He stuck for good in 1989, when he delivered a 2.40 ERA with 8.1 strikeouts per nine in 86 1/3 innings of relief for the AL East-winning Blue Jays.
Wells spent the next three years being yo-yoed back and forth between the bullpen and the rotation despite generally good results in the larger role. He was 10-5 with a 3.11 ERA as a starter in 1990, a year in which he racked up 4.2 WAR, and 14-10 with a 3.75 ERA into early September in 1991, though he was displaced from the starting five as Toronto moved to a four-man rotation (!) for a stretch run that helped it capture the division again. He pitched well in the postseason (nine strikeouts and two runs in 7 2/3 innings spread over four appearances), but the Blue Jays fell to the Twins.
He didn’t return to the rotation until mid-1992, and was knocked around in 14 starts before returning to the bullpen, finishing the year with a bloated 5.40 ERA. Nonetheless, he did help Toronto win its first World Series with 4 1/3 scoreless innings in four relief appearances against the Braves.
For all of his talent, the headstrong Wells clashed often with Blue Jays manager Cito Gaston, and the team had enough depth that he was released in spring training 1993, just prior to his 30th birthday. He caught on with the Tigers, and manager Sparky Anderson added him to the rotation without a fuss. Reaching 30 starts for the first time in his career, he went 11-9 with a 4.19 ERA in 187 innings, for 2.7 WAR. Injuries limited him to just 16 starts the following year, but he was healthy again in 1995.
When he got off to a strong start for a going-nowhere team, making the All-Star team for the first time in the process, he was traded to the Reds. He pitched well down the stretch in helping them win the NL Central flag under Davey Johnson, and finished the year 16-8 with a 3.24 ERA in a career-high 203 innings, good for 5.1 WAR. Wells capped his season by throwing 6 1/3 innings of shutout ball in his first career playoff start, helping to complete a sweep of the Dodgers in the Division Series.
A free agent that winter, Wells was reunited with Johnson in Baltimore, and while his numbers weren’t impressive in 1996 (11-14, 5.14 ERA), he did throw 224 1/3 innings of nearly league-average ball (97 ERA+ in a high-scoring league), and his performance caught the eye of Yankees owner George Steinbrenner.
The Boss was impressed by Wells’ performances in Yankee Stadium (9-1, 2.84 ERA to that point) as well as his appreciation of the team’s history. After losing out on Roger Clemens (who signed with the Blue Jays), he signed Wells to a three-year, $13.5 million deal. “David’s got that Yankee mystique,” said Steinbrenner of the signing in a Sports Illustrated profile later that year. “He goes out there thinking, Ruth played here. DiMaggio played here. He understands Yankee tradition. That’s hard to say about a guy who looks like a beer-league softball player.”
Though he butted heads at times with manager Joe Torre, Wells clicked in the Bronx, putting together a pair of strong seasons worth a combined 8.5 WAR. In 1997 he went 16-10 with a 4.21 ERA and threw a complete game five-hitter against the Indians in Game 3 of the Division Series, though the Yankees ultimately lost in five games.
He got off to a rough start the next year, with a 5.23 ERA through his first eight starts before throwing a perfect game against the Twins on May 17 in the Bronx. From there, he went on a roll, and finished the season 18-4 — thanks in part to 6.8 runs per game of support — with a 3.49 ERA accompanied by the league’s lowest walk rate (1.2 per nine) and best strikeout-to-walk ratio (5.6), numbers that would garner him third place in the AL Cy Young race. The Yankees set an AL record with 114 wins, and the tore through the postseason as well. Wells dominated in his four starts, all Yankee wins in which he lasted seven innings or longer; he put up a 2.93 ERA with 31 strikeout in 30 2/3 innings. His last start was in the World Series opener, kicking off a sweep of the Padres. As The New Yorker‘s great Roger Angell described him in his annual season recap:
I was of two minds about the sweep, wanting the Yanks back home one more time before the end, or, more urgently, wanting one more time around for David Wells . . . Watching him on the mound makes you laugh. Tucking up his drooping shirtfront, plucking at a shoulder seam, he huffs and hunches, twitches his nose, and lifts his thick arms, freeing up. He’s in his bathrobe out there, with everything half-unbuttoned: you see hair and gut. He looks slobby and barkeeper fat until he swings into his delivery, when he becomes loose and light and dangerous . . . you hear [his arm] talked about as if it were a disconnected wonder, a famous zucchini at a state fair . . .”
Alas, Angell and the rest of the Yankee fans would have to wait longer than expected for Wells’ return. Nervous about his hard partying and lack of fitness, the team traded him to the Blue Jays on Feb. 18, 1999, just as pitchers and catchers were reporting to camp. As part of a three-player package, he brought back the Cy Young-winning Clemens, whom Steinbrenner still coveted. Though disappointed by the exile, Wells still had a chip in his shoulder from his first stint in Toronto, and he pitched reasonably well there; during his second year, he won 20 games for the only time in his career and again posted the league’s lowest walk rate (1.2 per nine) with an exceptional 5.4 strikeout-to-walk ratio. Once again he made the All-Star team and finished third in the Cy Young voting.
The Blue Jays traded Wells to the White Sox in January 2001, but he was limited to 16 starts due to surgery to repair two damaged discs in his back. While rehabbing, he lost 30 pounds, in part by giving up beer, and just as he had shaken hands in agreement with the Diamondbacks, awaiting only a physical, Steinbrenner swooped in and stole him away over a lunch of burgers and a two-year, $7 million offer — well exceeding Arizona’s one year, $1 million offer.
Though his first year back was marred by a September fight in which he lost two teeth after being sucker-punched, Wells enjoyed two more strong seasons in the Bronx, winning a combined 34 games and delivering 7.5 WAR. No longer able to reach the 90s with his fastball as he did in his younger days, he still had exceptional control of a big curveball and slider to offset two-and four-seamers that he could place seemingly at will. In his second season back in the Bronx, he walked a league-best 0.8 per nine, offsetting a strikeout rate that dipped to 4.3 per nine. He helped the Yankees win another pennant via strong postseason starts against the Twins and Red Sox, and pitched well in a losing cause in the World Series opener against the Marlins, backed by a bleary-eyed team still basking in the glory of Aaron Boone’s pennant-winning home run.
With the series knotted at two games apiece, Wells took the ball again in Game 5, but he left his start after one inning due to back spasms, and reliever Jose Contreras was lit up. The injury would have marked the turning point of the series had Torre’s asinine decision to bypass Mariano Rivera in favor of Jeff Weaver in the 12th inning of the previous night’s game not already staked out that spot; Weaver served up a walkoff homer to Alex Gonzalez. The Yankees ultimately fell in six games, and the now-40-year-old Wells had once again worn out his welcome in the Bronx.
He bounced around for four more seasons, to the hometown Padres, then the Red Sox and back to the Padres, and finally to the Dodgers. Always able to throw strikes and trust his defense, he was still basically a league-average innings eater until 2007, his final season, when he was knocked around for a 5.43 ERA.
Wells’ finished with 239 wins, tying him with the ancient Three-Finger Brown for 57th on the all-time list. But while it’s more than many of his contemporaries, his high win total is a product of exceptional run support (5.3 per game for his career) and durability rather than exceptional run prevention. He cracked the top 10 in ERA just three times in his career, and his career mark of 4.13 is one-third of a run higher than the highest Hall of Famer, Red Ruffing, who pitched for the Red Sox and Yankees (and briefly the White Sox) from 1924-1947. Even so, the performances are roughly equivalent in that Wells’ 108 ERA+ is actually quite in line with Ruffing’s 109. While Wells’ postseason line of 10-5 with a 3.17 ERA in 125 innings was outstanding, the rest of his credentials (two All-Star appearances, no Cy Youngs, just one league lead in a Triple Crown category) don’t make a strong case for him.
Wells’ career WAR of 49.4 is higher than just 12 out of 59 Hall of Fame starters, while his peak score of 29.0 is higher than just two of them. His virtue was that he had another seven or eight seasons outside his peak that were more than serviceable. Ultimately, JAWS ranks him just 125th among starters, ahead of eight Hall of Famers including Catfish Hunter. It’s not enough to justify electing him, but it’s worth appreciating his colorful career before he fades off the ballot.
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this post said that Wells had signed with the White Sox as a free agent after the 2000 season.