Ask Alex: Will Jayson Werth hit over .240 this year?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

We all have questions about the 2012 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address some of the big ones as the year progresses.

The Situation: Both of the players who signed massive seven-year free agent deals last offseason disappointed their teams. But Boston Red Sox fans loudly gnashed their teeth over Carl Crawford's disappointing 2011, because they are accustomed to playing in October and narrowly missed the playoffs. Meanwhile, Jayson Werth's mediocre 2011 received slightly less attention. Werth was better than Crawford and the Nats were far worse than the Sox, so while Werth significantly underachieved his expectations, he wasn't particularly holding the team back.

However, he still owes the team six more seasons, and they'll be hoping that the 32-year-old Werth (he turns 33 in May) has a few more All-Star caliber seasons left in the tank. With Bryce Harper waiting in the wings and Anthony Rendon not far behind, the Nationals have a bright future. Pretty soon, Werth will be on a potential contender. When that happens, his performance will receive a lot more scrutiny.

The Question: Will Jayson Werth hit over .240 this year?

The Analysis: Jayson Werth wasn't a bad player in 2011. Playing good defense and average offense, he was worth 2.1 Wins Above Replacement last year, almost the definition of a league-average player. When he was suffering through an awful midsummer slump, I noticed that his plate discipline remained strong, and I concluded, "It seems likely that he will bounce back. This really looks more like bad luck than bad form."

Washington fans are still waiting for that bounceback.

The biggest problem with Werth is his age. That was the biggest problem with his seven-year contract, too, but while everyone knew that Werth would be a shadow of his former self by the time he turned 39, it's easy to worry that Father Time has already started to tax him. But that may be a bit premature. Last year, he stole 19 bases, six more than in 2010 and just about the same as the 20 he stole in both 2008 and 2009.

The advanced stats say the same thing. His Fangraphs Speed Score was 4.6, only a hair less than the 4.8 and 4.9 marks he posted in 2009 and 2010. His Swinging Strike rate was actually the lowest of his career, and his strikeout rate was exactly at his career average. That doesn't sound like a guy with degraded skills, it sounds like a guy who's pressing, and struck out looking too many times. (Nationals fans who watched him all year are likely to agree with that last part.)

So why was his batting average so low? The biggest culprit is his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), which was 38 points below his career mark of .324, while his average was 32 points below his career rate of .264. His home run per flyball rate (HR/FB) also fell a tick, from a career rate of 15.4% to just 12.3% last year, which helps explain why his power declined. Generally speaking, players can't really control the year-to-year variations in BABIP and HR/FB, which is why they're considered indicators of "luck." Last year, Werth got plenty unlucky.

The Werth contract was always likely to be an overpay, because he was a very good player who had a career year in 2010. But he's still a very good player, despite the fact that he had a down year in 2011. Assuming that his skills haven't fundamentally degraded, it's likely that he can produce at a level not far off his career batting line of .264/.360/.464. Especially given that they're considering making him their center fielder, the Nats would surely take it.

Admittedly, the above paragraph is a lot more optimistic than the major projection systems, which take a much more jaundiced look at a 32-year old coming off the worst full season of his career. The Bill James Handbook, always the most optimistic, predicts .259/.360/.451 with 23 homers. ZiPS, usually the most pessimistic, predicts .245/.342/.418 with 20 homers. And CAIRO, in between as usual, predicts .258/.350/.448 with 24 homers.

I think that forms the low end of expectations. Werth is much more athletic than a one-dimensional hitter like Adam Dunn. (So is Crawford, which is why I predicted that Crawford would have a 2012 bounceback campaign close to his career averages.) Werth probably won't be able to return to the heights he achieved in his late 20s, which is the time that every hitter experiences his absolute peak. But he hasn't lost his skills. Because of the type of player he is, he's likely to lose them gradually rather than all at once.

The Forecast for 2012: He probably isn't that much worse than the guy who posted a .276/.376/.494 line from 2007-2009, but he's a little older, and offense throughout the league is down. So, applying the appropriate discount, as I said above, I would predict something around his career average, around .260/.360/.460. (He might not hit quite as well if he plays a full season in center, because that's exhausting work, but that decision is well above my pay grade.) So Nationals fans have something other than Bryce Harper to look forward to. Werth may be overpaid, but he's still a good player.

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