When Jayson Werth returns to the Washington Nationals this weekend after being kept out of the lineup with a broken wrist since the beginning of May, he may find himself in somewhat unfamiliar territory. No, funny guy, not “on a winning team.” I’m writing about him leading off.
The 6’6″, 220 lbs of Werthiness has been hitting first in the order during his rehab stint at Single A Potomac, presumably to get as many reps as possible, but it’s a practice that Nationals manager Davey Johnson might employ at the big league level as well.
I’ve talked to him about leading off. He normally was hitting, I think, last year, was hitting fifth. But he might be coming back probably hitting sixth. Sixth or first. He has all the history. He said, “Well, we had our longest win streak in Philadelphia when I was leading off and playing center.”
I said, “A 6-foot-6 donkey wants to lead off?”
The idea of a giant lead off hitter like Werth might seem strange, but it’s actually a smart idea from the clever manager.
First of all, lead off hitters have struggled for Washington this season, getting on base in only 29.4% of plate appearances. That’s worse than any other place in the order, one through eighth. In fact, it’s so bad that ninth in the order is almost proving to be as effective as avoiding outs as the lead off spot, as its .292 on base percentage will attest.
Secondly, Werth is an incredibly patient hitter who has gotten on base at an incredibly good rate throughout his career. He’s never finished a season averaging less than 4.35 pitches per plate appearance. Sure, you can point to his .323 OBP over 167 career plate appearances while hitting first in the order, but I’ll go with Werth’s career .360 OBP and 12.1% walk rate over 3701 plate appearances as a better indicator of what he’ll be able to do than a measly 167 spread over multiple years.
You might also suggest that Werth is the type of player that a team should be setting the table for, not a table setter. It’s true that you wouldn’t normally put a .463 career slugging percentage and a .199 career isolated slugging number in the lead off spot, but Werth’s power has seen a clear decline from its peak two years ago.
Additionally, there’s an old baseball adage that players returning from wrist injuries experience an immediate power drop off. That sounds like typical baseball hokum, but Dan Turkenkopf, writing back in 2010 for Beyond The Box Score, found that there’s something to the suggestion.
Of the 77 injuries (some players appear multiple times in the list), 32 bettered their projected slugging, while 45 did worse. The overall mean difference between the projected ISO and the actual was -0.030, which is pretty substantial. To be fair, that includes 11 players who didn’t play after their injuries.
It appears there may be something to the idea that wrist injuries take away a player’s power during his recovery.
So, with Werth, the Nationals have a good on base batter whose power skills seem to be declining, coming out of a situation in which we might anticipate a further, more expedient decline in terms of slugging. In addition, they find themselves with a gaping hole at the top of their lineup where someone who can avoid an out or two would play perfectly well. It all makes perfect and unconventional sense, and therefore I’m absolutely rooting for it.