Jayson Werth. You wouldn't know it by the way he's often brought up in my blog but I really, really like Jayson Werth the player. This guy, in his prime, did everything right. He ran well. He fielded great. He hit for power. He got on base. He saw a lot of pitches and he could hit for decent average.
He never got the respect due to him because he was a jack of all trades, master of none, and we love nothing more than our masters. Give us the HR kings and the BA champs, even if that HR king is a lummox in the field hitting .240 or that BA champ is a slap hitter who can't hit a double and won't take a walk. We like it when our player's greatness is easily defined. Jayson's wasn't. In his prime, those 2008-2010 Phillies years, he was arguably one of the Top 10 players in the game, without ever being a Top 15 player over that time in any meaningful category. He was flawless but not spectacular.
Now we are seeing glimpses of the player Werth might have been the past two years if not for injuries and, let's be honest, age beginning to catch up with him. Is it real?
Well back when Werth was in his prime he was a dead-red hitter. He punished fastballs from 2008-2010. When he got to the Nats though that skill went away. Now in 2013, that skill has returned. (fancy stat link)
Over the past two years, Werth has tried to compensate for his lost ability. In part, he's done this by making more contact. He also started swinging at some pitches he might not have before trying to make something happen. His contact rates, around 78% in Phillies days, went up to over 82% for the Nats, and his O-Swing% (swings at pitches outside the zone) bumped up from say 21% to 25%. That's not a great combination as making contact at pitches outside the zone usually ends up with badly hit balls. Jayson saw a big increase in GB% during this time, from down near 36% in '09-'10 to over 42% in '11 & '12. He was trying hard to do something and ended up grounding out a lot on pitches outside the zone.
This year, with the ability to hit fastballs back, we've seen a combination of the skills he learned during this rough period and his previous ones. He's still swinging more and making more contact, but his high contact rate is based much more on pitches inside the zone than out. The end result is a lots more line drives this year and a lot fewer ground balls. Now that whatever ailed him is in the rearview, he's back to being a very good offensive player.
Just very good? Well remember we said he became great by being very good at everything, if that makes sense. The average is what stands out right now and that is certainly too high, a product of a .377 BABIP that would easily be the highest of his career. (yes you can argue more LDs would increase the average, but a younger faster Werth hit a lot of LDs and never had a BABIP this high) A more reasonable BABIP would have his average around the .300 mark, which history has shown to be his ceiling. The power is basically just a tick behind his prime years, understandable because of his age. His eye is still there.
Now of course this doesn't paint the full picture of Jayson's value. He is getting older. While he's still a decent baserunner, that skill is quietly eroding. He also can't field like he used to. So he's not that Top 10-esque player he was. Which brings us to the elephant in the room - that contract.
That's when I've talked about Werth in the past few years. That hideous contract. You can argue until you're blue in the face that it wasn't horrible but I'll tell you again and again it was. On a pure money level there is no real evidence that bad teams have to overpay for players. Do they have to have the highest bid out there? You bet. But, if you think that's overpaying well then every team overpays who gets a player, bad or good. The instances where a bad team has put out the most money and been rejected are few and far between. Hell, the most recent high-profile example we've seen of a player doing that is Cliff Lee who passed on the Yankees, not the Astros, to go to Philly. No, it's far more likely the player takes the most money and then justifies going to the bad team than refuses the cash to be on a winner.
I've gone over the contract timeline, the various thoughts and numbers bandied about at the time and there is no question the Nats didn't just put out the highest bid, they overpaid grossly on years and dollars. It was a ridiculous deal then and it still is now. It was only going to ever be worthwhile if Werth the player could maintain that level of play for the next 7 years. That wasn't going to happen. Even now, hitting like he has, possibly better than ever, he's not worth what he was then because the other skills have faded. Oh the intangibles? He changed the clubhouse? Ummm, so what's going on this year? He brought in free agents? Who, exactly? The only two decent FAs the Nats signed after Werth and before getting good were LaRoche and Edwin Jackson. Jackson came here because the Nats gave him the deal he wanted when he couldn't get that long-term one from anyone. LaRoche came here because he was paid the most here after other 1B, who the Nats might have liked better at the time (Carlos Pena) were picked up.
No, what the contract did, the only thing that it did right, was it made the fans feel like the team cared. That's not meaningless and as long as the team is fine spending around Jayson's deal, well then, who cares? But let's accept these facts please.
The most important thing to me about Jayson's return to offensive form is that the Nats may not be hurt by the deal over the next couple years. Jayson is going to play. The contract dictates it (shut up about your sunk cost!) The past 2 years painted a scary picture of a decrepit old man stumbling around in the field and swinging punchless at the plate. While he might not avoid that first part, at least it looks like the last part will be delayed by a year or two. That matters. It was never going to be the perfect contract. I'm sure the Nats knew those last couple years might be rough and were paying a premium on the first few. If they can squeeze a couple more good years at the plate from Jayson, they'll be about where they expected to be with him when they signed the deal.
In the end it's going to be a question of whether they won when he was good, as winning takes care of most ill will. If that's the case, maybe Werth will get the national love he probably should have gotten all those years ago, as one of the best players of the late 2000s. (he's always been loved by the fans of the team mainly for intangible reasons, which makes me think that can be a fan reaction to knowing they are seeing a great overall player but finding that they can't point to any single stat that backs them up) Then it's going to be a question of how the team deals with the back end of a deal they knew would be trouble.