Good news– Nationals outfielder Jayson Werth is back in action. After sitting on the disabled list for the past ten weeks while recovering from a broken wrist, Werth geared-up today and took batting practice at Nationals Park.
Though he was limited to just twenty-minutes in the cage, Werth told his manager, Davey Johnson, that he felt good enough to move forward with a full-tilt practice. He also looked good, especially for a guy testing his (twice) surgically repaired wrist for the first time. He launched homers over the fence to all fields during BP, making loud contact consistently. At one point, he crushed seven consecutive balls over the fence.
As far as his timetable for return to game-action, both Werth and Johnson were very optimistic. He will head to Class-A Potomac on Friday to begin his rehab assignment, and could slot back in to the Nats’ lineup as early as July 31st.
Werth’s wrist injury was particularly nasty. He snapped his left radius, breaking the bone cleanly, while attempting a diving catch against the Phillies at the beginning of May. He underwent surgery almost immediately, and doctors placed screws and a metal in his forearm to aid the healing process and stabilize the joint. When he limped off the field at the beginning of May, clenching his forearm and grimacing in extreme pain, a mid-summer return seemed like an absurd thought. The injury was ugly. Because Werth had actually suffered through career-threatening injuries to his left wrist before, it seemed probable that he would miss the remainder of the season.
Considered a late bloomer by many, Werth was actually a top prospect and a bright young player in the early 2000′s. He had the beginning of his career de-railed by ligament damage to his left wrist, the same one he just broke, back in 2005. He went under the knife and missed much of 2005 and all of 2006.
If Werth can return for the final two months of the season, he could provide the Nationals with a shot in the arm. When healthy, Werth is a valuable all-around contributor, offering above-average power, defense, baserunning skills and maybe most important for the Nationals, a very polished batting eye. Since 2007, Werth has walked in 12.6% of his plate appearances and has posted a 1.87 SO/BB ratio, well outperforming the National League average marks of 8% BB% and 2.3 SO/BB respectively. He sees 4.44 pitches per plate appearance, the highest rate in the Major Leagues since 2007, and above the 2012 (healthy) league leader, Bobby Abreu‘s 4.39 mark.
When he’s right, Werth is a lethal offensive weapon. He’s belted at least 20 home runs in four straight seasons and has managed a .370 on-base percentage since the beginning of 2007. A clutch performer, Werth has mashed 13 home runs, 24 extra-base hits and has posted a monster .987 OPS through 182 postseason plate appearances as well.
Even when he’s not killing it at the plate, Werth is still invaluable to a young lineup. He absolutely wears pitchers out, and has ranked among the National League’s top ten hitters in base on balls throughout the past three seasons. Washington needs his plate discipline badly, especially if they plan to really make an honest run in the playoffs. Right now, their lineup sees just 3.76 pitches per plate appearance, the sixth weakest mark in the NL. Their 7.9% walk rate and 2.74 SO/BB ratio rank 5th and fourth-worst in the league respectively. Their division rivals, the Marlins, Mets and Braves, on the other hand, have figures that rank in the top-third of the NL. Luckily, Werth is one of the best performers in this area.
The Nationals are a well-rounded team, boasting a knock-out starting rotation, a deep, and effective bullpen, and a lineup that produces solid run production. Heading into to trade season, GM Mike Rizzo, recently stated that the team is pretty much all set. He doesn’t think the team has too much room for improvement, and doesn’t plan to pursue any heavy deadline deals. Rizzo appears to be correct, and sometimes the best thing a front office can do at the trade deadline is nothing at all. The Nationals are packed with young, and affordable talent. Their core players, Ryan Zimmerman, Bryce Harper, Stephen Strasburg, Gio Gonzalez, Drew Storen and Wilson Ramos are under team control for at least the next five seasons. Though they’re poised to earn a playoff spot this season, they’re focus is still long-term, and it wouldn’t make sense to burn their best prospects, guys like Anthony Rendon (not healthy anyway), Brian Goodwin and Alex Meyer, for a short-term rental player.
One area the Nationals need to improve is their plate discipline. Though it produces average run production, their lineup is generally the club’s weakest attribute. That’s not to say they have a weak lineup though. Now that Michael Morse and Ryan Zimmerman are healthy, most of the team’s run-scoring issues have been quelled. They can hit the ball hard, from lead-off man to ninth hitter. Their shortstop, Ian Desmond, has 43 extra base hits. Their pitchers, are the best hitting bunch in the league. Stephen Strasburg has a 1.102 OPS and Jordan Zimmermann has posted a .680 OPS. However, among the NL’s playoff contenders, a group that includes the Dodgers, Diamondbacks, their hitters just aren’t that scary. In terms of talent they are really scary. But, they have the youngest lineup in the majors, with an average age of twenty-seven years old. That’s not much big league experience, and very little playoff experience. Age in itself isn’t a problem however, it’s how they show their age. While they have premium talent, they don’t see enough pitches to wear down the game’s top arms. Guys like Ian Desmond and Tyler Moore step in the box hacking out of their shoes, often brashly flailing at the first pitch they see.
Come playoff time, a lineup that can work the count and exhaust Justin Verlander or Clayton Kershaw has the winning formula. Now, with less days in between games, manages won’t be able to stack pitchers as much as they have in the past, and chasing the ace out of the game, and eating in to their opponents pitching staff is a weapon in itself. Even when you just can’t slow a guy like Roy Halladay down, plate discipline is still important. Knowing when to swing will help advance baserunners and maximize run-scoring potential. By the end of a seven-game series, patience will be clearly be a deciding factor.
The St. Louis Cardinals, the reigning World Series champions, led the Nationals league in runs scored per game in 2011 (4.70). While the Cardinals ranked at the bottom of the NL in pitches-seen per plate appearance last season, that doesn’t mean they didn’t work the count. Allowing a mediocre 4.27 runs a game, the club’s forte wasn’t pitching, it was their ability to advance baserunners. They were a remarkably selective team, rarely striking out, only swinging at pitches they could drive and still managing to work plenty of walks. Sure they hit plenty of homeruns, with Lance Berkman, Matt Holliday and Albert Pujols, but there’s far more to the team’s success than long balls. Tony La Russa’s lineup was adept at making use of their outs. Their club had the best strikeout SO/BB ratio (1.8) and AB/SO (1.6) of any team in Major League Baseball. Showing their incredible batting eye, the Cardinals also hit the most line-drives (20% of balls put in to play), and ranked 3rd in the NL in extra-base-hit percentage (7.9 %). They had the highest ground-out/fly-out ratio (1.29 GO/AO) in the NL, but they also had the second-lowest rate of infield flies (12%). When they didn’t hit the ball hard, they readily took a walk, third most often in the NL (8.7% of the time).
Ten of the last twelve National League playoff teams have fielded lineups ranking at the top of the league in SO/BB ratio. One of the two clubs that didn’t, the 2010 Cincinnati Reds were still big league average in that regard, however. Arguably the top team in recent history, the 2009 Yankees, led the league in walk rate when they won the World Series.
The Nationals pitching staff is the game’s best, leading the MLB with a combined 15.1 rWAR at the halfway point. As the 2010 Giants (19.5 rWAR), 2009 Yankees (21.5 rWAR), the 2007 Red Sox (29 rWAR) and the 2005 White Sox (24.6 rWAR) proved, the playoffs are still largely about dominant starting pitching. All of these teams had tremendous offenses, especially the ’09 Yankees, but all were able to hide some weaknesses by leaning heavily on their most dominant arms.
Heading in to the 2009 playoffs, the Yankees had just three healthy, game-worth starting pitchers– C.C. Sabathia, A.J. Burnett and Andy Pettitte. Thin on depth, they band-aided their weakness by starting C.C. Sabathia in a third (five of fifteen) of their playoff contests. They used their hall of fame closer, Mariano Rivera, four out of every five games, twelve times total that postseason.
The Nationals don’t have a workhorse like Sabathia, but their pitching staff is–all in all–more talented and more well-rounded than that of the 2009 Yankees. Come playoff time, they have the ammunition to win big. If Jayson Werth can return, healthy and ready to play everyday, he could make Washington an almost unbeatable force. Without him, if Washington is already armed with the game’s most dominant pitching staff and a solid lineup, imagine how good they’ll be with him. The lineup’s weakness is its lack of plate discipline, and that’s exactly Werth’s strongest attribute. He’s arguably the best player in the game at working the count, drawing walks and tiring-out pitchers.