A swing makeover got Vernon Wells off to a blazing start, giving the Blue Jays
one of the league's most potent lineups
of Vernon Wells as a hitter began last November, in a high school batting cage
a two-minute drive from his home in Arlington, Texas. Two months before he
would typically start getting ready for the next season the Blue Jays
centerfielder began working out at Bowie High up to five times a week, alone in
the cage with the soft-toss machine and seven dozen baseballs he had bought
final game last year I sat at my locker and reflected on the last couple of
years and how disappointing they were," says Wells, who in 2004 and '05
fell well short of the gaudy numbers--.317 batting average, 33 homers and 117
RBIs--he put up in his breakout season three years ago. "It all hit me
pretty quickly: I'd better start making some changes. The goal was to start
over and relearn my swing."
pull hitter who was being outsmarted by pitchers he had drilled previously, the
27-year-old Wells had to figure out how to hit to all fields. He figured it
A year after
batting a career-low .269, Wells is off to his best start as a major leaguer,
hitting .324 with a .376 on-base percentage, 15 homers and 44 RBIs through
Sunday. And the high-scoring lineup (5.8 runs per game, third best in the
majors), which also features the American League's leading hitter (rightfielder
Alex Rios, .360) and No. 2 home run hitter (third baseman Troy Glaus, 17), had
Toronto at 31--24 and 2 1/2 games out of first place in the AL East--the team's
best start since 1993, the year it last won a World Series.
Jays are dangerous," says White Sox lefthander Mark Buehrle, who gave up
three hits to Wells in a 4--2 Chicago win on April 15. "The lineup is one
of the best out there. At the heart of the order you're facing Rios, who is
emerging as a great young hitter, then Wells, then Glaus. That's as scary as it
gets. With Wells getting back to being the hitter he was a few years ago,
they're going to be tough to beat."
made himself into a different hitter than he was in '03, when he finished
eighth in the AL MVP vote in his second full season in the majors.
"[Pulling the ball] was his security blanket," says Blue Jays hitting
coach Mickey Brantley. "He was successful doing that [in '03], but he also
wasn't confident in taking a pitch outside to rightfield." The scouting
report on Wells--attack him away, work the outside corner--got around, and
pitchers made the adjustment.
So Wells devoted
his November and December workouts to learning to hit to the opposite field.
"I had set up [the soft-toss machine] to flip balls away," he says.
"I kept my hands inside the ball and hit the other way. I didn't pull the
ball for a month and a half." Wells's overhaul continued into spring
training; every morning before regular batting practice Brantley had Wells take
at least 90 additional swings. "He has bundles of talent," says
Brantley, "but when you're that talented, sometimes you think you don't
have to work as hard. That's not true--and Vernon finally understood that this
Usually a slow
starter--he entered this season with a career .221 average in April--Wells hit
.396 with nine home runs and 25 RBIs in the first month this season, while
successfully driving the ball to all fields. (Four of his April homers were to
center or rightfield.) He homered three times in a game against the Red Sox
last week, and Toronto fans chanted, "M-V-P!"
confidence is higher than it's ever been," says Wells, who is also a
defensive asset, having won Gold Gloves in '04 and '05. "But if I've
learned anything over the last few months, it's that I've got to keep working
hard. It pays off."