It's been a rough season in terms of injuries for several key players in the Washington Nationals lineup. Denard Span has missed nearly two months on the disabled list. There was speculation yesterday that it may be quite a while before Span returns. Anthony Rendon has missed three months on the disabled list with a variety of injuries. Ryan Zimmerman missed six weeks with Plantar Fasciitis. Finally, there's Jayson Werth.
Werth missed all of Spring Training and the first week of the season recovering from offseason shoulder surgery. It took him a while to get going, but he was finally showing some signs of life with the bat when he broke his wrist after being hit by an Odrisamer Despaigne pitch in San Diego. That ended up costing him another two and a half months.
Zimmerman and Rendon have been fairly productive since returning from the disabled list. Zim has been particularly effective, batting .275/.348/.550 with a 144 wRC+. Rendon hasn't quite found his stride yet, but his .234/.327/.340 line (89 wRC+) since returning has at least been mediocre. Rendon is also the only one of the three returning starters who really brings defensive value to the table at this point in their careers*.
*Caveat - UZR isn't liking Rendon at second base one bit, though it's a really small sample. He has a -22.9 UZR/150 and -3 DRS for the season at second. The same small sample size applies, but he has a +50.7 UZR/150 and +1 DRS in 72 innings at the hot corner.
Unfortunately, Werth has done little to provide a spark. He's just 5 for 37 with a walk and a pair of sac flies since he returned on July 28. That adds up to a .135/.150/.189 line. His season triple slash line has dropped to .188/.258/.261. That's a 44 wRC+ for the year and a -17 wRC+ since his return in late July.
Some of this was to be expected. As I mentioned above, Werth didn't really have a Spring Training, so he had to work out the kinks and find his timing during the season. Once it seemed like he was finally getting things sorted out, that's when he suffered the broken wrist. He's now having to go through that same process all over again, so it's to be expected that he might struggle a bit until he finds his timing. Also, once again, we're dealing with an incredibly small sample size. We can't really judge a player based on 40 plate appearances (since his return) or even 159 plate appearances (season total).
Werth has had his fair share of good at bats that haven't yielded positive results. He's working deep counts, but he's not drawing very many walks (one since returning). He's smoked a few line drives and hard hit fly balls, but almost nothing is dropping in. If you believe in the law of averages, as long as he keeps up his approach, things should start changing some time soon. His batted ball splits don't indicate that he should be struggling as much as he has....
As we can see, Werth's line drive rate is actually up 2.5% over last season and 1.5% over his career average. Both his ground balls and fly balls are down a bit over last season. The biggest areas for concern come with his HR/FB rate (half of last season's rate, one third of his career rate) and his hard hit ball rate. Werth may be hitting a lot of line drives, which means he's squaring the ball up. However, he simply doesn't seem to be doing that with much authority this season. His hard hit ball rate is down more than 10% from the past two seasons and 5% below his career norms. He's split the losses in hard hit balls between soft and medium contact, jumping up 5% in each as compared to last season.
There has to be a little concern that these things are connected a bit. If his hard hit rate is down, then it's obviously going to affect his HR/FB rate. Hitting fly balls at a rate that's around his career averages is going to result in quite a few more outs, as those are the most likely balls in play to be converted into outs by the defense. Even the increased line drive rate won't necessarily yield more hits, as fielders have a bit more time to react.
The other concern is that Werth is coming back from a broken wrist. While it seems that the shoulder injury that hampered him early in the year is behind him, wrist injuries (or any hand injuries) can tend to sap hitters' power for a little while even after they've returned from the disabled list. It's possible that he just won't be able to drive through pitches as he has in the past for another month (or longer), which could mean that he may struggle to improve his hard hit rate.
While the simple line drive/ground ball/fly ball rates suggest that he should be having an average (or better) season in terms of BABIP, that simply hasn't been the case. Werth's career BABIP is .329, and was .351 from 2012-2014. This season, it's .220. The hard hit ball data indicates that some of that is probably due to poor luck, but not all of it.
Alas, let's get to the question at hand. There's been a significant swing in the standings over the past ten days, as the Nats have gone from three games up in the division to a game and a half back of the Mets. The season is two-thirds over, and the Mets face the easiest remaining schedule in baseball (the Nats face the second easiest) based on current win percentages. In a perfect world, the Nats could let Jayson Werth work through these issues, get his timing back, and hopefully start driving the ball a bit more. I'm not sure they have that luxury right now.
The decision not to add a bat at the deadline doesn't leave the Nats with a lot of options to contend with Werth for playing time. With Denard Span having been shut down again on Saturday, Michael A. Taylor is going to have to continue to man center field. This really only leaves the Nats with two (and a half) options to compete for playing time with Werth...
- Tyler Moore didn't take advantage of his opportunities earlier in the season, and is batting .205/.255/.356 on the year. He may actually be a poorer defensive left fielder than Werth is, which is saying something
- Clint Robinson is one of just five hitters on the Nats who has been better than league average by wRC+ (112). Like Moore (and Werth) he's terrible defensively in the outfield, but a league average bat playing more regularly could help balance that out
- Playing Danny Espinosa in left field really wastes the best defensive infielder on the team, but it's not like he's seeing a lot of opportunities to play now that the infield is healthy
Of course, there's the possibility that the Nats could try and add an outfielder in a trade as well, but that would require that outfielder clearing waivers. If there's anything positive about the Nats position in the standings right now (second in the NL East, fourth among four teams that could realistically contend for the wildcard), it's that the Nats are higher in the waiver order than the other NL teams that might try and block that player from getting to them.
I think the most likely scenario is that the Nats continue to give Werth the bulk of the playing time, occasionally giving him a day off for Clint Robinson as they did on Saturday. He's a key player on the roster who is still owed $42 million over the next two seasons. He's been arguably the best hitter on the club the past two years. There have been some signs on the field that he's capable of turning this around, even as dismal as his numbers look. All of that said, it does make me a bit uneasy that there isn't much in the way of a Plan B.