- He was going to be a starter from Day 1 or play a lot of games at a position,
- He has presented a projection that we believe in but could be wildly off for non-injury reasons,
- His performance could significantly effect the performance of the team.
Now things have changed since the Nyjer Morgan days. What used to be meant by "significantly effect" was "could be the difference between more or less than 70 wins". Nowadays its "could be the difference between an division title and a wild card", but I don't think anyone is going to argue that that doesn't matter.
Ok so what's the problem with Jayson Werth?
The first thing is the expectation game. I think most fan's thinking with Werth follows this line : Werth was hitting real well before he was injured. He came back and hit really well again. He had that huge homerun and even robbed a home run** during the playoffs. The Jayson Werth the Nats expected is ready to come back! An average scraping .300, 25+ homers and great corner defense. Even the more realist fan is probably looking for .285+ and 20+ homers.
Except no. Some where in the recesses of your brain and in the avalanche of Spring Training articles you might have run across the fact that Werth's power was way down last year. This doesn't seem to be a fluke as much as a trend.
2011 : .157
2012 : .140
Even in his terrible 2011 campaign he hit for more power than last year. Ok but that's just two years that might be explained away by injury. Any other long term trends? How about home run rate.
2008 : 21.1%
2009 : 19.3%
2010 : 14.3%
2011 : 12.3%
2012 : 5.3%
That's harder to just wave away. It happened in Philly and continues now. I don't think he's a 5.3% HR/FB hitter - that's punch and judy stuff. But he's also no longer the guy that's going to get you 25+ homeruns. Maybe not even 20+. It's not only the fact that he's hitting fewer homers when he gets the ball in the air. it's also spurred on by a big increase in GB rate.
prime years : ~37.0%
2011 : 43.0%
2012 : 42.2%
He's simply not hitting the ball in the air at the same rate. That's ok, right! He's still hitting for average. Well yes, and no. He did hit .300 last year but it came with the 2nd highest BABIP of his career. It's not terribly worrying. If he gets around his career average BABIP you are looking at a ~.280 average. But if he gets a little bad luck for him and has a BABIP closer to .300 then your looking at an average around .260. .260 and no power? That's not the Werth we signed up for.
So that's what's going on. Is there a why? We can speculate on a couple of reasons. One thing that's going on is that he's not hitting fastballs like he used to. Fangraphs has a little stat that measures a player's runs above average on a type of pitch. It certainly isn't something I'd stake my life on but Werth's numbers do show a definite drop. In 2008 his value was 17.4, then it went 19.4, 23.1, 6.1, and 4.7. So when he's hitting fastballs he's not doing the same damage as before.
Possibly corroborating this is his swing percentages. His swings outside of the strike zone have increased from around 22% in his prime to 24.2% in 2011 and 25.7% in 2012. His contact rate for pitches outside the strike zone has also increased from 68.1% in 2010 to 72.4% in 2011 and 76.8% last year. That may sound good, that he's making more contact, but contact on pitches outside of the zone lead to more weak hits. I'd like to blame the Nats agressive philosophy but overall he's not really swinging at more pitches, so it's hard to do that.
The good news though is he's not swinging and missing more. That would be a strong signal of the last decline. More K's, average goes, career goes. Werth doesn't seem to be there yet.
Now you may have noticed that I called him a "positional keyhole" rather than an offensive one. That's because his defense has also been in decline as well. His Zone Rating has been below average for right fielders for 3 years now.
2010 : -7.2
2011 : -3.5
2012 : -7.7
It was reasonable to think after 2010 that that was just a fluke of the data. Single year fielding statistics can be unreliable. But three years is harder to write off, especially at his advanced baseball age where we expect to see a decline in defense. Backing this up is the fact that his CF numbers last year were not just bad, they were terrible. He's no longer the solid defender he was in his prime.
Is this the end of Werth? I'm not going that far. He's still a good baserunner. He still sees a lot of pitches and walks a good amount (both rarities on this team). One might even say he's morphing into the classic batter for his spot in the lineup. A .280 guy with a little pop, who fouls off a ton of pitches and works his way on base? Sounds like a #2 guy to me. Granted that's usually a 2nd baseman and you usually aren't paying him close to 20 million a year but that line is not hurting the team. As for the defensive deficiencies, they are going to be mitigated by having Bryce and Span in the outfield. They can allow Werth to cover a lot less ground than he did last year when he was trying to help out an inexperienced Bryce (who in turn was trying to cover for the statue of Mike Morse in left).
Perhaps in the future, 2015 or so, Werth will morph into a very good platoon player. He did crush lefties last year to a tune of .395 /.471 / .566. This is something that was a hallmark of his early good days, 2007-2009. As he comes back down the ladder, it might be something he's able to exploit again.
For now though, what do I see from Werth? I see something like .280 with say 18 homers and 40 doubles, helped to average D in right? I don't think that really diminishes the Nats pennant chances at all. With a little bad luck though that could be more like .265 and 13 homers and a D that still hurts the team. If the Nats end up in a situation where every game matters, a declining Werth could be the 2 game difference.
*To be fair Mike Morse's injury really made that call moot, and frankly it looked as if he had the whole season that maybe he'd do well enough to break the streak. Still, he did what he did, so... half credit?