Players struggle. It's a fact of baseball. Players get into slumps that often last weeks, sometimes months. But when it happens to the guy that just got a 72 year 1.4 billion dollar contract, it draws more attention. Despite the Nats winning again (back to two games over .500, but still only 6th in the WC standings) the story from last night, and the story from every night until it isn't a story anymore, is Jayson Werth's struggles.
Kilgore went over a lot of the important stats yesterday. There's a little bad luck involved, but basically Werth is struggling because he's pounding the ball into the ground and when he does manage to get under a ball, he's not hitting it with any power. But why is he doing that?
Usually you can point to something. Do we have too little historical information to go on? (we got plenty) Is this more in line with his career numbers? (certainly not) Are pitchers pitching him differently? (not really) Is he losing track of the strike zone? (no) Is he injured? (presumably not) Is he just getting too old? (doubtful)
If you can't point to something then you get into dangerous territory. You can either (1) chalk it up to luck / circumstance and move on hoping everything will even out over time (see what sabermetricians usually do with John Lannan) or (2) think about what, if anything has changed and make assumptions based on that. #1 usually works. With thousands of ballplayers over a hundred plus years you are going to get some anamolies, even at the half-season (or longer) long time-frame. But there are some compelling reasons to examine #2 for Jayson.
There were two big changes in Jayson's playing situation for 2011. He left Philadelphia for Washington. He moved up in the lineup to several different spots. We knew the first would have some effect, particularly on his power. We assumed the second wouldn't matter. But it is possible that both combined to drastically effect Jayson Werth.
You see for most players, I'd say nearly all players, things like batting order, what defensive position they are playing, when they come into pitch, it doesn't matter. There's a base talent level that is the driving force to the results they get. This is why we see things like good closers being relatively easy to find, or Alfonso Soriano doing perfectly fine when being forced out of second base. But nearly all isn't all. There are going to be a few that it does matter for. (and frankly ruin a lot for sound analysis and strategy because baseball people are frightened little mice and the loud noise of one out-of-the-traditional-box thinking failure can scare them back into their holes forever) There is going to be that 1 in 20 pitcher who gets wide-eyed coming into save a game. What if Werth is that guy?
This isn't totally blind speculation. Werth had his best month by far in May, when he was batting third. He got crushingly bad in June the same time he was moved to leadoff. Could it be that he was trying to hit the ball on the ground more? That he has been purposely doing that thinking it would help him get on base more and that was his new job? Or could it be a reaction to the park itself? Finding himself out of the bandbox that is Citizens Bank could he be thinking "Oh I can't go for homers anymore. Gotta hit more ground balls"?
The split information is going to have sample sizes that are too small and the counter examples abound. His power was fine batting 2nd to start the year. For every two pitcher parks he's been terrible in I can find one he was good in. But at this point, with nothing else to go on, I think that you have to try to go back from those changes and return Jayson to a comfort zone. The Nats can't start playing home games in Citizens Bank, so they need to do exactly what Davey has done. Move Jayson back to 5th in the lineup and let him work on things.
Hopefully people will understand that if he gets better it doesn't really prove anything. Remember #1 usually works. It's far more likely to be just a strange couple of months than anything. That's the "wear you seatbelt, don't speed, don't drive drunk" explanation for avoiding accidents. But given the money involved, removing anything else from the equation is the prudent move. Get the headlights cleaned and the brakes checked. If he's going to fail, make sure you've done all you can to prevent it.