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Washington Nationals Stat Shot: Will 2012 be Jayson Werth's breakout year?

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"I was told there would be no math." (Not an actual quote.)
"I was told there would be no math." (Not an actual quote.)

After yesterday's declaration of Adam LaRoche's absolute league-average (or slightly better) offensive production, I've decided to take a look at other Nats on streaks or in slumps and see what we should expect. Today, Jayson Werth gets the Fielding Indepedent Offense (FIO) analysis. Werth has been the biggest free-agent signing for the Nationals thus far, with a 7-year, $126M contract. Anxious discussions in the Natosphere prior to his signing noted that he had batted in a strong lineup and a tiny ballpark, neither of which advantages he would necessarily enjoy in DC. Our initial fears seemed to be confirmed by his 2011 performance, when he hit 232/330/389 with 20 HRs (103 wRC+), a performance that was barely better than league average and a far cry from the 275/375/510 or so (~135 wRC+) he'd managed in the three prior seasons. 2012 has been a new story, with JW putting up a 292/403/431 line (142 wRC+) in the first few weeks. Was 2011 the aberration or is 2012? Should we have expected his 2008-2010 performance to have carried forward?

After the jump, we bust out the FIO tools and figure out what we should believe about Werth's bat.

First of all, let's look at what we should have expected to get. In 2008-2010, Jayson Werth hit a combined 279/376/513, for a 137 wRC+ with a .327 BAbip. Considering that his career BAbip is .325, that looks legit, not luck-inflated. The FIO calculation agrees:


JW's FIO is right in line with his wRC+, as is his CaB-FIO (FIO based on his career average BAbip). His performance over 2008-2010 was legit, and the Nationals could rightly have expected him to generate about 1/3 more offense than a league-average player--assuming that his hitting approach didn't change. 2011 brought a new approach, however. Compared to 2008-2010, 2011's hitting line came with fewer walks (11.4% BB vs career average 12.2%), more strikeouts (24.7%--fairly close to his career 24.6% K rate) and fewer HRs. The big change was a .286 BAbip, well off his career average. Still, we shouldn't have totally despaired:


By FIO, Werth was slightly overperforming his fundamentals, but looking to be league-average either way (wRC+ and FIO both about 100). However, when you normalize his luck with batted balls by plugging in his career BAbip, you get a CaB-FIO of 113--solidly above league average. Of course, that's still not as good as the 130 wRC+ or higher we'd been hoping for, but it's comparable to the 111 wRC+ for an NL-average RF in 2011. Yes, I know we shouldn't want to pay $100+M for an NL-average RF.

This brings us to 2012:


The picture here is mixed. His walk rate is close to his best ever (14.5% BB in 2007), and his strikeouts are ridiculously low (previous full-season best, 22.5% in 2010). However, FIO likes power, and Werth only has 1 HR so far this season (the FIO calculation ignores his 4 2Bs and 1 3B). He's also benefited from a .353 BAbip, well above his career norm (just over his previous best of .352 in 2010). These factors put his 128 FIO well below his 142 wRC+, and his CaB-FIO at 115--look familiar?

Let's do a bit of what-if. Even in his "down" 2011, JW had 20 HRs and 19 SB. Let's say he goes 20/20 this season, and he manages to keep his BAbip, BB% and K% better than his career numbers, halfway between what they are now and his career averages. Here's what might happen:


Now we're talking pretty seriously about getting 30% more offense out of Werth than league average. Even if his BAbip goes down to his career numbers, that's still about 25% more production at the plate than average. That's not much off the pace we would expect from the 2008-2010 numbers. This assumes he can repeat a 20/20 season (or close), and that his plate discipline doesn't fall off as the season progresses. Note that we're still well within the SSS realm for the stats behind FIO, about halfway to the point where K% can be considered reliable (150 PA) and 1/3 of the way for BB% (200 PA).

Bottom line: Werth's 2011 was bad (relative to expectations), but not as bad as it looked after factoring out luck. His 2012 is good so far, and it's not ridiculous to expect performance close to the player we saw (and hoped we'd get) in 2008-2010.