There probably were some analysts who liked Jayson Werth‘s seven-year, $126 million contract for the Nationals when it was signed prior to the 2011 season, but no names spring to mind. It was not that Werth had been a bad player. There was actually an argument to be made that the contract was market value for a player of Werth’s projected value, but it was an open question as to whether a team in Washington’s situation should have been paying market value at that point, as Dave Cameron noted at the time.
The last point was based on the question of whether or not the Nationals would be good enough during the first part of the contract to justify making such an aggressive move. After a near-.500 2011 season, the Nationals held up their end of the deal in 2012, going 98-64 and winning the Natinal League East. They lost to the Cardinals in NL Division Series, but given the excellent young talent they seemed primed to make a few more runs with Werth still is his decent years.
But Werth was not really holding up his end. In 2011, he did not hit that well, and in 2012, he missed about half the season due to injury. This season, the Nationals are having an extremely disappointing season given the expectations raised by 2012. Many things have gone wrong for Washington this year, but Werth is not one of them.
Not everyone agrees, of course. A recent piece sees Werth as, “a recent hot streak aside, a substitute-level right fielder.” (The article contains other things worth discussion, but my focus here is Werth.) To put it mildly, that is unfair. Werth is hitting .328/.406/.529 at the moment — good for a 161 wRC+, a rate on par with the 162 wRC+ Ryan Howard, whom the author compares to Alex Rodriguez and Albert Pujols at one point in the article, put up in his best season. Even with time lost to injury and poor fielding ratings, Werth is valued at about three wins. That is far from being “substitute-level.” Despite the disappointment of his first two seasons in Washington, Werth looks to be earning his $16 million this season. He is not putting up superstar production, but as in Philadelphia (where he averaged almost five wins a year over his last three seasons) he has been more than just “above average.”
There are two separate issues here: the long-term and the short-term impact of Werth’s performance relative to his contract. His age (Werth is 34) and injury history are obviously big factors with respect to the former. But the short- and long-term factors are related, so this year’s production might provide some hope.
For all the worries about his production, Werth only has had one bad season with the bat during the last few years — his first season with the Nationals, when he he .232/.330/.389. Even last year when he was held back by injuries, he hit a respectable .300/.387/.400 (128 wRC+). Fielding metrics did not like Werth, which brought his 2012 value down, and that is a legitimate concern, but we also know that fielding metrics are far less reliable than offensive metrics.
Focusing on Werth’s offense, what was especially troubling in both 2011 and 2012 was the departure of his power stroke. After three straight seasons with an isolated power (ISO) over .220 in Philadelphia, in 2011 and 2012 Werth’s ISO dropped to .157 and then .140. His semi-rebound last season was based on a combination of a lowered strikeout rate (something that might be sustainable due to Werth’s improved contact rate) and a high batting average on balls in play (we know how that goes).
In 2013, Werth is pretty clearly hitting at a level over his head. It is not just a “recent hot streak,” as he had an okay-ish April (102 wRC+), missed almost all of May with injury, and has been hot ever since. Still, having a career-best wRC+ at 34 is unlikely to be a sudden revelation of true talent. Particularly glaring is Werth’s .377 BABIP. This should not be totally dismissed, as Werth has always been a high-BABIP hitter (.332 career), but he is not this good.
Two elements in particular show that Werth’s 2013 might be a legitimate improvement over the last two season, despite the high BABIP. First, although his strikeout rate is not as good as it was in 2012, a 20.1 K rate would be the second-lowest mark of his career, and he seems to have retained the improved contact rate from 2011 and 2012. He is not a contact machine now, but putting the ball into play more often is a good thing.
Maybe more significant is the return of Werth’s power. His .201 ISO this season is not what it was during his Philadelphia years, but it is good and has been accomplished alongside his improved strikeout rate. Along with his walk rate (still good for Werth) and contact rate, isolated power correlates highly from season to season relative to other rates. The power surge is based on an improved rate of home runs rather than doubles and triples, which is even more promising. Werth’s rate of doubles and triples on hits in play in 2013 is the lowest of his career, while his 2013 home run on contact rate is his best since 2007. In 2011 and 2012 his home runs on contact rate was about five and two percent, respectively. This season, it is at about seven percent. Extra-base hits in play rates fluctuate far more than home run rates. This means a low number of doubles is likely to regress more up to the mean, and a high rate of home runs is less likely to do so.
Everything is subject to random variation and the effects of age, and Werth is probably over his head in most aspects of his hitting this year. However, some of the areas in which he has made improvements over the last two seasons are more likely to stick to a greater extent than others.
While Werth is probably never going to be the five-win player he was at his apex, and his fielding may be problematic, for the next couple of seasons he can probably be counted on for above-average production as long as injuries do not totally derail him. The contract is still probably going to be ugly at the end. Contrary to what some may think, he is not getting paid to like a superstar, but the contract is so long that the back loaded years at the end will be pretty onerous as he declines. Of course, this is true of almost all long-term contracts for veterans. Remember when people thought Carl Crawford‘s contract was so much better than Werth’s?
Even if Werth might not be quite up to his salary at the tail end of his deal, he is also substantially better than “substitute level.” The contract was not a great idea at the time, and probably will not end up being one later, either. But whatever problems his contract might cause for the Nationals in the future, Werth is not one the Nationals’ problems right now.
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