Nationals Baseball: The Amazing Jayson Werth

Friday, August 19, 2016

The Amazing Jayson Werth

Jayson Werth's time with the Nats is amazing. It's not about this on-base streak thing. That's slightly interesting but far secondary to the fact that he's been good during that time. Maybe very good (.264 / .382 / .460 - borderline. I'd go "good") certainly not great, but good is great when you were expecting bad.

Is that right?

Yeah, I think that makes sense.

And it's not about the fuzzy leadership you get from a guy described anywhere from the ultimate gamer to a huge egotist who cares not for your laws.

No Jayson Werth's time is amazing because he's twice now brought his contract back from the brink to acceptable levels.

Understand a couple points. First, the Nats overbid themselves for Werth, and paid him way more than necessary. You may want to argue this. Don't. No one has looked into this more than me. That's usually hyperbole, but I honestly believe this. I can have long discussions about the market at the time, the public expectations from people in the know, the idea of bad teams having to pay more to get players, the level of contracts similar players got during the time period, etc. etc. Just trust me on this point and keep reading because it's becomes sort of a side note anyway.

Second, contracts for guys in their 30s are always some level of overpay. That's the way the system works. You get underpaid when you are young, partially because your performance is more variable, mostly because they can underpay you. You get overpaid when you are old, partially because your performance is less variable, mostly because you can work the scarcity angle to force them to overpay you.

In general then, a player will never be worth what he is going to be paid for a long contract that ends in his latter 30s. That's what you accept when you make a deal. Because the Nats overpaid, that near certainty stood out even more*. But it doesn't mean necessarily these are bad deals on the field. The goal of these deals is different. It is not to get value over the course of the contract (sorry fangraphs!) but to get value immediately and to turn that into wins. On a 7 year deal you probably expect something like this:

Current level, current level, lower, lower, lower, lower, whatever.

For Werth at the plate that would be an OPS+ of something like 140 140 125 115 105 95... I don't know 70. Consider those contract years 1 through 7 for continuing discussion.

When Werth started he immediately came in and at the plate gave Nats "contract year" number... six. That is a disastrous result.  Now of course he wasn't well but that doesn't make it better. He's 32, injured, and just put up a mediocre year. This could have easily lead to the Nats getting absolutely nothing out of their highest paid player for 6 years. You can hardly have a worse outcome from signing a player long term, especially one that had just put up 3+ years of high level performance.

He would come back the next year and give something akin to year 4 or 5. He hit better than that yes, but only played half a season. It was better but the prospects for ever coming close to either getting back what you paid for, or getting what you expected seemed grim. What was he going to do? Have an OPS+ around 140 at 34 and 35? Ha!


Amazingly the answer was yes. In 2013 he hit even better than that, with only missed time costing him the chance at exceeding "contract year 1" expectations. In 2014 he more or less hit them. So the Nats got "contract year 1" and "contract year 2" only instead of in actual year 1 and 2 they came in year 3 and 4. Now things looked pretty good. If he regressed slightly each year, not a terrible assumption at least for the next couple years, he would provide them with that year 3 and a year 4 and they'd be on target for expectations. Maybe, just maybe, if he pulled out one more great year, they could have gotten more. I blogged about this at the time, but coming from where things stood the middle of 2012, that was a goddamn miracle.

But Werth didn't slightly regress. He got hurt and crashed again, basically giving the Nats "contract year 7" in year 5. At 36 it was quite possible he would be done and that would be that. The Nats managed to squeak out enough value that the contract wasn't a disaster but it would still end up a loss with three albatross years at the end dragging it down.

But again, like a beardy phoenix rising from the ashes of a flaming high-speed car wreck, Werth has come back. He's far more limited today than he was a couple years ago but he's giving the Nats a year that again will hit that 4/5 year level. That will pretty much mean that Werth will hit his expectations for the 7 years when the Nats signed him. 

This is all very broad and macro-level but at the end of the day twice in the span of Werth's contract it looked like things were going to turn out badly. First it looked as if it would be a possible "worst contract ever" contestant, later, it looked to be more a typical bad contract where the player's viability went away too quickly. In both instances he performed above expectations to make sure things turned out ok. First performing at an All-Star level at age 34 and 35, later, giving the Nats above average play at the plate at age 37.  That's not nothing. How many 34/35s or older are giving their teams All-Star play at the plate this year? Just three. Ortiz, Cruz, and Beltran. How many 37s or older and giving above average OPSs? Just a handful more with Ortiz and Beltran - Victor Martinez, Suzuki, Beltre.

You probably noticed I haven't mentioned defense and yes, Werth quickly became a bad defender which does go into this. But defensive stats are still being worked out, so I prefer to talk about them only in the broadest multi-year sense. In general you would have hoped Werth 2010 was a fluke. He had been a good fielder early in his career, bordering on very good. At the same time you probably would have expected him to age out at some point. Year 2 was probably quicker than you hoped but it was always going to happen. Only elite defenders can keep their worth that long. Also not in here is baserunning. Werth is a savvy baserunner and that has helped. He basically kept up his Phillies levels through 2014 before age caught up to him. This all matters but because hitting has the most reliable numbers I'm focusing on that.

Barring getting a complete zero from him next year, something worse than last year, Jayson Werth the player has been a good signing for the Nats. Not a good contract, but a good signing. He has nearly met expectations. Not in the typical way at all, but he's done it. That's all you can ask. And while it's doubtful he'll unleash a 125ish OPS+ year next season, I'm not going to doubt it at this point. He's twice defied being kicked into the abyss. What's one more miracle year? 

*and it's the main reason I'll always say it was a bad deal off the field. If you can get something for $100 and you pay $120, even if you get $120 worth of value for it - you made a bad deal.


Anonymous said...

As much as I love baseball, this sure is shaping up to be one boring-ass stretch run.

We're only 75% of the way through, and you can just about already see with near certainty who the 10 playoff teams are going to be.

mike k said...

Nice read. Except for maybe the very beginning of the contract, it always appeared to me that Werth rose and fell with injuries. Not just in missed time, but in performing woefully bad for a significant amount of time after coming back. When he is healthy, he has exceeded expectations. To that end, I can't fault the Werth signing, because at that time he had stayed generally healthy throughout his career and teams don't have much more to go on when trying to predict injuries.

Also, until Turner, and maybe the Zims or Rendon, he was the easiest player to root for. At least for me.

PotomacFan said...

Excellent analysis. Who would have thought that Jayson Werth would be outperforming Ryan Zimmerman in 2016? Not me!

And a terrific metaphor: "But again, like a beardy phoenix rising from the ashes of a flaming high-speed car wreck, Werth has come back."

Harper said...

Anon - not untrue. Right now it seems like the questions are "Can Pittsburgh pass St. Louis for the 2nd WC" and "Who wins the AL East" anything else coming together by Labor Day would be a nice surprise.

mike k - that's true, but I've often thought injuries can have a flip side - by forcing time off all the non-injured parts of your body get rest. So maybe if he plays everyday for first 4-5 years wear and tear grinds him down to nothing.

I always liked Werth the player but was ambivalent about Werth the guy.

Potomac - count me among those losing money on that bet. Even if I made it in March.

Robot said...

@Anon - How can you be bored with this? The AL East race is crazy close, and with all the H2H games those teams have, it's still *possible* that Seattle could end up with the second AL Wildcard. NL West is still up for grabs, and Pitt and Miami aren't out of the WC race yet, either.

Kevin Rusch said...

"I always liked Werth the player but was ambivalent about Werth the guy. "

In which category do you put "Werth the teammate"? I know "leadership" and stuff is vague and overrated, but it does seem that when he walked in, he said "I've been on winning teams and this is how it's done" and the team listened. Of course, I have no idea how to quantify it, but the Nats' respectability more or less happened right after Werth showed up, and that's probably not a complete coincidence.

Harper said...

KR - super hard to gauge. I mean the team was consistently improving by year 2009 (an unlucky year) was better than 2008, 2010 was better than 2009, 2011 was better that 2012 in roughly the same fashion. THe question is really if the 2012 explosion would have happened without Werth the teammate. My guy says yes - I imagine a gimpy Werth fighting through an injury wouldn't have been best leader, and guys like LaRoche / Tracy might have been leaders. Plus they always talked about Desmond being the guy. but I'm not in the clubhouse so I literally have NO idea.

Harper said...

2011 better than 2010 obv,

Harper said...

and gut not guy

JE34 said...

Harper, you're in some kind of Nats-blogging zone right now. Is the internet scrolling by in slow motion for you? You are crushing it - great stuff.

Huzzah for the ascent of the beardy phoenix. I've felt the same about him... like him as a player, his (at times) unnecessarily surly demeanor notwithstanding. When he slumps, he slumps *hard* and looks bad -- the whole dropping to one knee on the swing and miss gives the appearance of being badly overmatched. And if not contributing at the plate, he's basically not contributing at all at this point b/c of his diminished defense.

That said - it's such a great thing to see him play well... as time ravages our own physical abilities (play hoops today, hurt for 3 days now? good times.), one finds inspiration in his defiant production.

I think we should refer to him henceforth as the Beardy Phoenix. BP.

Chas R said...

Great piece, Harper. I really like JW and it's great to see him playing well and contributing at his age. Also, good to see another side to the Werth Bad Contract narrative.

Froggy said...

9.5 game lead over the Marlins, I'm calling it.

Froggy said...

Seriously, I enjoyed how you broke down the contract by out of order contract year production Harper. Really puts the overall return on the investment into perspective and into the plus column. At least up to now for sure.

The thing I like about Werth is he is the guy that all us middle age guys can semi-sorta identify with if we allow ourselves to dream about who we would be if we were MLB players. He is that cagey veteran mentor dude who the younger guys look up to and say out loud 'wow for an old guy he can still hit' and whatnot.

Fries said...

Everyone welcome back Sean Burnett and say goodbye to Oli

Zimmerman11 said...

@Fries... no way!!! I'll take Burnett as LOOGY anytime!!! :) Now let's bring back Sandy Leon and Ian Desmond and win a WS :)

PotomacFan said...

Bye bye Oliver Perez, and welcome back, Sean Burnett.

Bjd1207 said...

@z11 - Lol what is Sandy Leon doing in there?

John C. said...

Great post, Harper - an interesting way to break down the contract. I understand your point about it being an underlying bad deal because of the overpay. But that thumps into the "confederate money" problem - without an overpay, the Nats probably don't sign Werth.

I know that I've said it before, but as fans we do give up too early on players when they go bad and assume that they will continue to do well when they have a career year. Bryce may well never be BRYCE again (see, e.g., Jason Heyward for a player who was transcendent young and hasn't come close since). OTOH we have written off Werth a couple of times, wrote off ALR a couple of times, wrote off Span, and so on. It's one reason why I don't think it's nuts that Zimmerman has one more solid season in him. At age 35 last year Curtis Granderson put up about as many WAR as he had the previous three seasons combined! It happens. In other Zim news, MLB completely exonerated him in concluding the investigation that arose out of the Al Jazeera America story last offseason.

G Cracka X said...

@John C Yes and amen. How many times did the comment board light up last year with 'Trade/Bench/Cut JW!'

Great post, Harper, one of the best of the year. Favorite line was, 'Good is great when you are expecting bad.' So true

Chas R said...

Glad to see Burnett back. Looks like he had some good numbers in the minors. I hope this doesn't mean Rizzo is done looking another LHP.

John C. said...

Bjd: Sandy Leon because he has suddenly morphed into the second coming of Buster Posey or something. After amassing -0.2 rWAR/-0.4fWAR over parts of four MLB seasons, he has put up 2.2 rWAR/2.5 fWAR in just 44 games this season. Remarkably, he has done it mostly by hitting! Yes, a guy who put up a career .654 OPS over ten minor league seasons and hasn't put up an OPS above .700 in AAA since his 2012 season in Syracuse has been absolutely mashing in Boston. In 44 games, he has hit .382/.437/.654/1.091.

No, that's not a typo. He's essentially been BRYCE at the plate (with more hits and fewer walks). No one knows why or how. Except baseball.

Anonymous said...

Werth has been great as a Nat in every way. Only injuries got in the way of his success. He is a great leader and was the right player to sign for this organization.

DezoPenguin said...

Great piece, Harper. Also count me among those who think "Beardy Phoenix" should be JW's official nickname from now on. If only he can teach that "come back from injury and hit well again" thing to Zim.

@JohnC: It's crazy what Leon has done this year. So far he has literally contributed more fWAR to his team's success than any other catcher in the AL, even though he's only played 44 games. (Lucroy is more valuable overall, but he accumulated most of that value with the Brewers.) There's a sentence I don't think anybody ever imagined they'd be typing.

mike k said...

"12:15pm: The Nationals’ Triple-A affiliate announced the acquisition of Burnett from Minnesota in exchange for cash considerations."
"cash considerations"

Harper, still think the Nats don't add salary in the middle of the year?????????
Booyah. Eat crow.

Zimmerman11 said...

holy cow. what a catch!

Robot said...


blovy8 said...

From three lefties in the pen to none available yesterday. What has Rizzo got against those sinister fellows?

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