Nationals Baseball: The Rebirth of Stick

Friday, August 23, 2013

The Rebirth of Stick

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.


Donald said...

The Post ran an article the other day about players with $100m contracts -- the bottom line is that they all suck. Werth's contract does suck, but it's possible that it sucks a little bit less than the others (Pujols, Hamilton, A-Rod, et. al.). And really, this contract can only hurt the Nats in two ways -- first is if they decide they have some spending cap that limits who they keep or sign because of the money tied up in Werth. I'm not sure that's been the case yet, though we need to see what they do about Znn, Desmond, Strasburg and Harper. The other way is if they feel they have to play him way after his prime and he starts to hurt the team. We haven't seen that yet. Keeping my fingers crossed on that front.

Harper said...

Donald - Yep, that's one of the things about big contracts - most are going to be bad in principle but they are only going to hurt as much as the TEAM allows them to.

The more bothersome thing about Werth is that the contract was going to be bad, but I can find no indication it had to be this bad.

But again - if the Nats shake it off, then it's shouldn't annoy anyone (but teams that shake it off are few and far between hence our initial annoyance. Presumptive annoyance let's say)

blovy8 said...

You have to get past the perception that the team is a joke. Werth actually carried some respect with him along with is 4-5 WAR value at his peak. Rizzo really didn't have that, nor anyone really involved with the club after Robinson was canned. Johnson was just a consultant.

Quibbling about bad contracts is like complaining about the 300 cable channels you pay for that you rarely watch. It's the cost of having the thing. A bad contract is almost the cost of having a competitive team. You need to take risks.

It was beginning to seem like this team would be rebuilding in a series of five-year plans like a baseball USSR, given how depleted the system was, how weak the franchise was in fan support - especially since this was supposed to be too "transitory" a population, how little cable money was coming the Nats' way from the miserable deal they had forced down their throat, how ridiculous their international scouting was (and kind of remains), and at least to me, how poor their overall position in the league was. You have the NY Mets, who with any competent management could put the most expensive, talented club on the field, a powerhouse team in the Phillies (at the time of the Werth signing) that by rights would be higher in anyone free agent's pecking order than DC and if run properly could continue to be pretty good apart from having no impact draft picks, and then the consistently well-run franchise in Atlanta. Let's leave aside the issue that whenever they do go for it, the Marlins win a World Series. Now, does that sound like a division where you should just wait around until until your price is met? Where you rely on journeymen and fallen prospects with exposed flaws to platoon in the outfield and hold down the back end of the rotation, waiting for enough players on your roster to be cost-controlled and healthy? The Rays are good, but what are they selling? Whatever it is, Tampa ain't buying.

You need to get people to watch, show up for games and spend money even to afford the 1st round picks coming your way. You need more than the promise of young players. On a personal and personnel level, you need some competent, responsible veterans around to keep your clubhouse from being a fricking mess.

Whenever a team signs a free agent past his prime for more than a couple of years - it's going to be an overpay. It's no real drag on a team trying to win if they have a better than average budget. Besides the Giants, the Rangers had Michael Young's deal for replacement level play - Werth is going to be better than that, surely.

Did the Yankees honestly have any reason to renegotiate with A-Rod, essentially against themselves? Did the Red Sox think Crawford was ever going to be worth his deal, or that Victorino will actually be worth his? Fielder in Detroit? Howard in Philly? I bet Greinke isn't going to be worth his deal for LA. They're minting money though, so who cares?

Don't forget that the Nats were saved from their first shot at an albatross contract when Teixeira took less money from the Yankees. I don't think it's far-fetched to posit that the strategy was to HAVE a big contract player to usher in some stability, regardless of the fact it was retail and not warehouse pricing. Look at all the bargain shopping the Rays are forced to do before school starts.

I overpay for every beer I drink at Nats Park, and I only really NEED some of them.

Harper said...

blovy8 - The problem is it this :

A bad contract matters if the team makes it matter, like Donald said, by effecting future signings OR by playing a player that hurts the team's chances of winning because he's making X dollars.

The Nats may not be a team like this, but the majority of teams we've seen in sports in general are teams like this.

We're basically arguing about how bad the contract is because we EXPECT it to screw up the Nats in a couple years. Kind of silly but it's true.

Everything else is assumption and speculation, but I'll take mine (deal didn't have to be that big, clubhouse stuff is WAY overblown, in terms of interest only matters that you win - Florida teams excluded - doesn't matter what they do FA signings or not) over yours.

Anonymous said...

As a Nats fan, Werth was always one of my favorite players but everyone destroyed him because of the contract. It wasnt his fault he got offered big money. 5 years same money would have been perfect.

blovy8 said...

Well, it clearly hasn't affected them yet since they overpaid for Soriano just last off-season and have re-signed Zimmerman. So on both fronts, the money continues to be there. They are seriously engaged with Zimmermann who is being canny and will get his inflated offer whether he accepts it or not. Regardless, he's team-controlled for now. Desmond looks like he'll sign. Keeping the the core guys is just as risky, after all, they could have locked up Espinosa through his arbitration years after his 4 WAR season. They already have experience in signing the players with the worst-case scenerio: Boras representation. Unless you have philanthropists like Evan Longoria or David Wright on your team, the best you can do is get more talent where possible.

I mean, Werth is still more talented than every outfielder in the system except Harper. By the time he's 4th best, I bet they'll be a worse contract on the books, or at least the cash flow to not worry about it. If Vernon Wells can find two new homes with the deal he has, I'm not really worried.

blovy8 said...

This DeJesus stuff is interesting. Keep him for four days and then flip him?

DezoPenguin said...

So, we just sent Suzuki back to the A's. Last year, we traded to get him FROM the A's when he was underperforming there but we were in desperate need...and he promptly went on a (relative) tear and gave us everything we'd hoped for from him through the end of the year. This year, he's underperforming here, and they're in desperate need given the Jaso and Norris injuries, so they're hoping lightning will strike again.

What do you think of the trade?

JonQuest said...

I'm a relatively new fan of the Nats. For many years I was a recovering Orioles fan, angry at Angelos and all the baggage of the steroid era and the feeling that money determined wins.

I became a Nats fan in large part due to Jayson Werth. I still proudly wear his jersey every time I go to the park. I don't care about his contract unless it suddenly tears the team up, but I don't see that happening.

The Nats needed a leader and a winner. That guy had to be experienced, very good and not afraid to speak up. I don't think the cost mattered much. Guys like Werth are rare. By the time Werth's contract and his career are finished, I'm hoping we have another one in Desmond.

Kenny B. said...

We flipped DeJesus and traded Suzuki to a desperate A's team, and it's not clear to me what we're getting back in either case.

Chas R said...

I totally don't understand why Rizzo acquired, then traded Dejesus for a player to be named later. He would have been a great addition to help fix the bench problems and be the 4th OFer for 2014.

I get the Suzuki move. He is very high priced for a back-up catcher, and not helping the offense.

Zimmerman11 said...

I guess you CAN mess with the Jesus!

Froggy said...

DeJesus has to be a first: a guy traded to the team your playing during a home stand then traded again before the new team leaves town. How much do you think a Nats DeJesus jersey will be worth? I mean talk about a baseball trivia question...

Nattydread said...

Werth was about Rizzo's ego (in a positive way) and the Nats not being a joke any more.

When we heard the news about the signing, I was having a beer with a Dodger fan. He said: "Geez! The NATS got Werth!" As if this was not in the realm of possibility.

It was, in many ways, the coming-out party for the Lerners and Rizzo.

Sometimes, these things come with price tags.

Zimmerman11 said...

OK... they got to .500... so let's talk about the playoffs... Reds have ten games in two weeks coming up against LAD and STL and the Nats play the NL East (minus ATL). Could the run we've been waiting for finally materialize?

Oh but wait, then the Reds have ten against the Cubs, Brewers and Astros... waaaaaaaaaahh.

Daryl @ bownet big mouth said...

I remember watching Jason playing for the Phillies and he was a masher. He was perfect in his role of hitting after Utley and Howard. It's nice to see him getting his form back.