Nationals Baseball: Nationals Baseball: Positional Keyhole : Jayson Werth

Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Nationals Baseball: Positional Keyhole : Jayson Werth

Way back in the glory days of 2010 I called Nyjer Morgan the "offensive keyhole" of the Nats. What I meant was :
  1. He was going to be a starter from Day 1 or play a lot of games at a position,
  2. He has presented a projection that we believe in but could be wildly off for non-injury reasons,
  3. His performance could significantly effect the performance of the team. 
Since then I've continued the tradition, naming Ian Desmond the keyhole of 2011 and Mike Morse the keyhole of 2012.  All three underperformed in that year given what was expected.* This year presented a difficult choice. Nearly every spot offered some level of outsized expectations. Single year break-outs (Desmond), career years (LaRoche), hot streaks (Zimmerman). In the end however, looking at the players and stats, one guy stood out; Jayson Werth.

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? 

**didn't happen.


cass said...

I looked at his performance last year as trading slugging for on-base, which made a lot of sense given the fact that he was leading off. He's said this Spring that his injury limited his power last year and continues to, to a lesser degree, this year as well. There was even an article about him potentially switching from his lighter hitting-for-average bat to his heavier home run bat.

I'm cautiously optimistic that we'll get either power or on-base out of him. I almost would rather have the on-base in front of Harp and Zimm, but driving in Span.

I'm a little surprised you didn't choose LaRoche for this, but I guess it's because everyone thinks of his 2012 as a fluke? I think Werth is more of a franchise keyhole, though, since he's signed for so many years.

But most of all, this doesn't matter, because Werth has brought a winning mentality to the team! ;)

Harper said...

cass - If he is trading off it's a poor trade. He's giving up a LOT of power for a little OBP. I think it's mostly something else.

I took a long look at LaRoche and really all I could say is "He's not going to hit 33 homers again" Everything else was in line with other years. And even the HR rate wasn't crazy. I can see him doing exactly the same with say... 28 homers? I can't say that's going to surprise anyone.

Donald said...

I guess every team has some weaknesses, and if ours turns out to be Werth, then we are better off than most. We don't have any better alternatives -- I wouldn't prefer Moore or Bernadina to Werth as the full time starter. The Nats could end up swapping Werth and Harper in OF positions. That would alleviate some of the defensive concerns.

Sirc said...

Bryce seemed to come out of his slump last season when Werth returned to the lineup and hit in front of Bryce. Werth's value goes beyond his individual numbers, and I'm not referring to the food and weight room situation of the Post article.

It's the rising tide effect.

Harper said...

donald - either Moore or Bernie MIGHT be capable of putting up a better year than Werth right now but I wouldn't bet on it either. And given the size of his contract I think even a .260 23 HR year gets him a chance at redemption next year.

He should be in left now, but whatta you gonna do?

Sirc - I'd add this : Werth's approach to hitting can only help this team. Playoff success can be driven in part by a "wear down the good starter, get to the pen" approach.

Pig.Pen said...

This is why some traditionalists make fun of sabermetrics. When you completely ignore the scouting report in favor of stats it leads to poor conclusions such as this one.

The game of baseball is played with the wrists, when you break your wrist it will zap your power and can take up to 2 years to completely heal. Essentially what you have is a down year (2011) followed by an injury year (2012) which does not make a trend. Perhaps there's a trend prior to 2012, but that represents more of a downgrade from a 25+ homer guy to a 20+ homer guy.

Finally, trading power for OBP isn't a bad idea when your power isn't there. Werth worked with what he had last year, which was a good swing that lacked power. It wasn't like he was trading 10 dingerz for 10 points of OBP, with the injury he had, he probably doesn't hit 5 more homeruns if he uses the bigger bat and expands the zone a little.

Clip&Store said...

It really is painful to admit your mistakes, but this is a case where i must admit that no doubt that contract was awful. I actually really like having him on the team...his playing style and drive to win and just his overall mentality and experience are great...just for maybe something like 4/80, or heck even 5/100.....just not 7/126.

Harper, do you think 2015 he will become the most expensive 4th outfielder in baseball history?

Ollie said...

@Harper I think cass has more of a point about LaRoche than you acknowledge. Last year _was_ a contract year for him and he carried the offense for much of the early April-May stretch which helped greatly in the grand scheme of the season.

He tied his career high in homers and had his second best OPS (aside from a shortened 57 game season). I think a drop off to the low 20s in HRs and .15-20 points in OBP and SLG seems reasonable given age and less incentive. We probably agree more than not but I tend towards what cass wrote on this.

And while yeah, age has as much (if not more) to do with Werth's dropoff in power I like hearing that he's focused more on contact and getting on base. They've got near best in the NL top-to-bottom power, but getting those 1-2 hitters on base more often will make that power more productive.

Anyway solid post, just honest, good-natured quibbling BECAUSE THIS SPRING TRAINING WON'T END.

Donald said...

I wonder if Span isn't the key this year. The one thing the team thought it lacked was that lead-off catalyst who would get on base, disrupt the pitcher and be a table setter for the big bats coming up. If he bats .230 with a .280 obp, how much of a drag would that cause? And where would you put him if that happened? Push him down to #7 and move everyone up one slot like last year? How disruptive would that be?

Harper said...

P.P - What you say is all well and good but treat it as should be - one possibility, out of several, to explain the "why". What I say certainly shouldn't be taken as gospel but neither should what's being fed to the fans by the team and the players desperate to explain away something that appears to be going wrong.

Saying it the injury's fault makes sense for 2012 but what explains the drop in power in 2011? It's an off year? What about the drop in HR power before that? Everything wrong in 2012 with Werth showed previous signs. A big thing that was right (the average) might have been a fluke. There are legit reasons to be worried.

We'll see.

C&S - OH it's a god awful contract. I still have a post in the back of my head about how all it really did for the team was make the fans feel better for one offseason. Of course if Werth plays big in one championship playoff run...

Ollie - ok fine. LaRoche stinks too!

No but seriously low 20s in HRs? Sure. But again is that going to surprise the Nats fan? Do they really see LaRoche as a 30+ homer guy? In my mind I think we all know that was kind of fluky and we're looking for 25-27 homers. So if he ends up with 22? There will be disappointment maybe but it's not throwing off Nats plans like a .260 slap-hitting Werth would.

Donald - Agreed. The Nats have several keys (guys you have no clear idea how they'll perform but need them to do well) Span, Desmond, Bryce, Ramos are all guys that I kind of throw my hand up at predicting because there's little data/consistency.

Lee said...

I think his role as a lead off really mattered last year. There were times where Werth looked like a slap hitter. At other times he'd have a 10+ pitch at-bat. I think I recall that he saw more pitches per at bat than any other player in baseball last year. That's going to affect his metrics. As Pig Pen notes...the wrist injury is a factor too. My guess is that Werth is a smart batter. The evidence supports that in my opinion. I'm certain he knows his power isn't where it was in his prime and likely was in a valley last year.

All that said...I completely agree with you on Werth. I really don't care about his power out of the 2 spot in the lineup. If Span is on and Werth is regularly putting the ball in play this team will be filthy. Even better if he can work some long counts early in a game. But if all those swings outside the strike zone start missing with a greater frequency he will become a hole at the top of the lineup.

Max said...

Hello. Great post as always. I understand that Werth hasn't lived up to his contract (he was grossly overpaid) and I think your stats adequately prove your point. But as far as the comment of "how all it really did for the team was make the fans feel better for one offseason"... I have to disagree.
That Game 4 moment last year was one of, if not the, best DC sports moments in the past 20 years. It's just a shame that the moment was tainted 24 hours later... And his veteran presence/overall attitude in the clubhouse seems to give the team a lift. Again, I can't argue the contract/stats you cited, but I must say I'm a big fan of Werth and glad that we have him and his swag.

Nattydread said...

You covered everything but the effects of his beard. How does a massive beard affect a players' numbers?

Harper said...

Lee - I don't think he was #1 but he was up there in pitches seen. But he's always been up there regardless of batting position. I do believe Werth is a batter with a solid approach, we just have to question if he can keep up the average. Is the .350 BABIP a product of approach or luck? That's what we'll see. (his OBP should be at least acceptable regardless)

Max - when you get into the subjectives there is little more to say than "I believe this. You believe that" there just isn't any way to truly measure clubhouse impact, fan interest, etc. etc. I can tell you that he hasn't in 2 years made the team any better, and there is no evidence his signing made any other FA or team re-sign more likely. so all we are left with are the subjectives (and one awesome HR)

Natty Dread - no effect. See Johnny Damon's pre-beard, beard, and post-beard stats. Remarkably similar.

Ollie said...

I would expect more of a 2003-2004 Damon Lite season from Werth. He reminded me of that last year (when healthy) and I think you _can_ expect his BABIP to stay higher than average, though certainly not .350, if he's more of a line drive hitter with some power. I'd definitely take that at the #2 spot.

Sure he's paid like a top 5 power hitter but no one (should have) expected another 36 HR season from him. Complaining about Werth is like complaining about the Metro; it's overpriced for what you're getting, but you'd much rather have it than not.

LaRoche doesn't stink though! Just could (potentially) see more of a dropoff from him. Still glad to see him back for a reasonable contract, though it meant losing "Take On Me" from the game soundtrack.

Strasburger said...

Great Article, definitely the positional keyhole. But, to give you the sentiment of most Nats fans that have any knowledge about baseball, for almost 20 Million dollars a year, the Werth I would've "wanted" was Prince Fielder instead (obviously terrible comparisons). Bottom line is the Lerners dolled out huge money for Werth, and to this day it is maybe one of the worst contracts ever given, to anyone, in any sport.

Werth does bring the leadership, and experience in, and players seem to respect him, so there is something to be said for that.

I agree with you, especially on your prediction with the numbers, but honestly, you wouldn't be happy with those numbers from a #2 hitter? I would (overlooking the disgusting amount of money he is making).

All that matters to me is that he gets on base, which I think you agree will happen pretty often.

I like his numbers at .285, with 18 homers and 80 RBIs or less.

When Jayson werth is one of the worst power hitters in your lineup, life could be worse.

Harper said...

Ollie / Sburger - I can't disagree. Objectively, he might be one of the best #2 hitters in the game. Is he paid too much? Yep. Is he not great anymore for RF? Probably. But it's not a weakness right now. It's fine for a team this strong to waste a little money.

and yes, LaRoche does not stink.

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