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Jayson Werth, Impossible To Predict

When Jayson Werth left the Phillies after three consecutive seasons in which he was worth around five wins and jumped to the Nationals for a massive seven year, $126m contract after 2010, it was easy to bash it. He was headed into his age-32 season, he’d had injuries in his past, and he’d been very good, but never a superstar. That got easier when he had a very disappointing 2011 debut, then missed half of 2012 with a broken left wrist.

Then, at age 34, he went out and had something of a career year, topping the .400 wOBA mark for the first time. So heading into 2014, how exactly do you project that?

First, it should be noted that while Werth had a fantastic year for the Nationals, a career-best wOBA doesn’t equate to a career-best fantasy year. He hit 25 homers, the third-highest of his career, and stole 10 bases, the sixth highest. Those counting stats may have been higher had he not missed a month with a hamstring injury, but of course you have to take into account that he’s only really had three fully healthy seasons in his career.

Werth ended up at #13 on our end-of-season fantasy rankings for outfielders, and that’s still pretty impressive. But his history makes him nearly impossible to predict. After all, he made it to the bigs at 23, but between injuries (including an entirely missed 2006) and poor play, he didn’t establish himself as an everyday player until 29. Then he had those three very good seasons in Philadelphia, and three very up-and-down seasons in Washington.

Even in the 2013 that looked so good, there was inconsistency. On the morning of June 4, Werth’s season line was just .260/.308/.400, which he’d put up in April before missing all of May with the hamstring injury. That day, he was activated from the DL, and suddenly became one of the NL’s best players again. In 102 games from his return through the end of the season, he hit .334/.421/.569 with 21 homers, rates that would have had him in the NL  MVP conversation had he been able to maintain them all season.

It’s easy to say that simply being healthy played a role, as well as being further away from the 2012 wrist injury, since those are known to affect hitters even after they are healthy. But we also saw published reports this summer that stated Werth began to raise his hands after the All-Star Break in hopes of regaining some of his lost power. We can see it in action. Here, for example, is a mid-April game against the Mets:

werth_vs_mets

…and here he is on July 22, about to take Charlie Morton deep.

werth_v_pirates

The change in hand position there is obvious. And in the first five games after the break, Werth teed off for five homers in four games, and they weren’t cheapies — two came off Clayton Kershaw, and one each off Morton, Jason Grilli, and Justin Wilson.

It’s overly simplistic to chalk his second half tear up entirely to the change in mechanics, but it’s worth noting that his LD% was higher than in his peak with the Phillies, his HR/FB% about the same, and while a .358 BABIP seems high, he’s always been a high-BABIP guy.

So what we know about Werth is this: when he’s healthy, with the exception of his down 2011, he’s likely going to produce. Yet he’s rarely fully healthy, and age-35 isn’t generally the time when that starts. Looking at the Steamer and Oliver projections, they’re nearly identical — 18-19 homers, .275 batting average, 7-9 steals. I’d argue that those numbers are a bit low, but then, it was only two years ago that we saw him hit .232.

Basically, value Werth with caution. His talented is unquestionable, yet so is the risk.