Entering play on Tuesday, it certainly looked like the Nationals needed to switch things up a bit. The preseason NL East favorites had fallen 4.5 games back of the Mets and a game under .500 for the season as they lost six in a row in California last week. They were 10-20 since the All Star Break prior to Tuesday's game, which (while a small sample) would represent a 54-108 pace over a full season. They've been struggling in all phases of the game since the All Star Game.
Since the break, the Nats rotation has nosedived a bit, dropping from 8th in the league in ERA in the first half (3.68) to 16th in the league in the second half thus far (4.36). The bullpen has had a similar dropoff in performance, going from 10th in MLB in the first half (3.31) to 22nd since the break (4.52). On the whole, the Nats run prevention has dropped from 9th in the first half (3.56 ERA) to 23rd since the break (4.42).
In order to overcome a team ERA that has shot up nearly a point higher in the past 30 games than it was in the first 87 games, the Nats offense would certainly have needed to show drastic improvement over their first half numbers. Unfortunately, they've done exactly the opposite... despite the returns of Anthony Rendon, Jayson Werth, and Ryan Zimmerman. In the first half, the Nats scored 372 runs in 87 games, an average of 4.28 runs per game. Those 372 runs were middle of the pack, placing them 15th in the majors. Prior to last night, they had scored just 107 runs in 30 games, an average of 3.57 runs per game. That ranked 27th in the majors.
Looking for a spark, Matt Williams tinkered with the lineup on Tuesday. He sat Anthony Rendon (1 for his last 14, no multi-hit games since August 2) for the second time in four days and inserted Danny Espinosa into the second spot in the order. He dropped his struggling catcher, Wilson Ramos, to the eighth spot in the order and bumped Michael Taylor up to seventh. He moved the player that's been his best hitter not named Bryce Harper (Yunel Escobar) this season behind Harper in the lineup (OK... He's done that a few times) and placed the club's hottest hitter (Ian Desmond) directly behind Escobar. Finally, he moved the guy who has been the worst hitter in the lineup since returning to... the leadoff spot?
At the very least, we can say that moving Jayson Werth to the leadoff spot was an interesting decision. It's one that would have made a lot of sense at a myriad of times throughout his tenure with the Nats. In fact, I'll point you to one of several instances during the past few years where I've advocated having Werth lead off just to illustrate that I believe there is wisdom in putting a player with Werth's skill-set at the top of the lineup. Mind you, that was written last season when Werth was in peak form.
To me, peak Jayson Werth is an ideal candidate for the leadoff spot. He has a career .273/.366/.462 line. From 2012-2014, that was a .304/.394/.479 line. When at his best, Jayson Werth is an on-base machine with good power, but not so much power that you feel like he's being wasted in the leadoff spot. The depth of this lineup when others are playing well has shown us that the Nats have as many as a half dozen other players who are capable of hitting 20+ home runs (Rendon, Harper, Desmond, Zimmerman, Ramos... let's even throw Espinosa into that mix), so it's not like they lack other hitters capable of batting in the middle of the order. You put your highest OBP guy at the top. Heck, Werth even runs a little (and quite effectively), with 123 SB in 141 career attempts. He's fallen just short of double digit steals in each of the past two years.
The problem, of course, is that Jayson Werth is not in peak form right now... he's not even close to it. Werth is batting .190/.268/.280 so far this season. He was bad before going on the disabled list with a broken wrist (.208/.294/.287) and has been even worse since returning (.164/.227/.269). He's not making hard contact (19.7% Soft, 52.3% Medium, 28.0% Hard.... 14.3% Soft, 48.5% Medium, 37.2% Hard from 2012-2014) very much at all this season. His 9.3% walk rate is 2.8% lower than his career average, and lower than it's been since 2004.
In a lineup that has featured a three time silver slugger who had struggled badly until the past month or so and a catcher whose Offensive Runs Above Average (-15.2) ranks 378th out of 389 players with 100 or more plate appearances, Werth has been the club's worst hitter in 2015 when healthy. If the goal is to win games right now (and there's not a lot of time left to be playing the waiting game), placing Werth in the leadoff spot seems counterproductive. Batting your worst hitter in the spot that is guaranteed to have the most plate appearances in a ballgame doesn't seem like a winning strategy, and right now Werth is their worst hitter.
Matt Williams explained his thought process after the game:
It's comfortable for him. He's been there before. He's a good run-producer as well, but with him coming back from the injury and not feeling his stroke as much as he wants to, that's a good opportunity to get him in the leadoff spot and get him some fastballs to hit and let him see some pitches too.
The strategy did pay off on Tuesday night, as Werth went 2 for 5 with a walk. He scored three runs. He notched his first extra base hit (a double) since last Monday. Everyone in the starting lineup reached base at least twice outside of Wilson Ramos (0 for 5) as the Nats busted out of their funk and scored fifteen runs. Of course, that was just one night. The Nats will need Werth to show that he can continue to get on base consistently for this experiment to make sense.
If batting Werth near the top of the lineup will actually help get him more reps and get his bat going, sign me up. I'm not sure I really believe that this is going to be a quick fix, but he's always had a non-traditional leadoff man's skill-set. He's a good fit there if he can look even remotely like peak Jayson Werth. I have my doubts about whether he'll remain there beyond this current series in Colorado (Denard Span is rehabbing!), but with so many guys not living up to expectations, it could make sense to keep him there and have Span bat second when he returns.... if Werth actually shows some consistent improvement. It could at least put a strong OBP guy up top and bunch the club's best hitters behind him.
This morning, you get some musical accompaniment. I promise I'll get away from Babymetal at some point, but.... The Nats stood up for themselves on Tuesday after getting bullied throughout the trip, which is what this song is about (translation of the title: Absolutely No Bullying). Plus, the guy in the video kind of reminds me of the subject of today's post, our Werwerth.