Of all the existing on-the-roster candidates to hit first, Werth is an obvious answer because he’s done it before, as recently as 2012. But the 36-year-old will be coming off a weird, miserable 2015.
Can an aging Werth really be the guy?
To start, the veteran had offseason shoulder surgery that forced him to start the 2015 season with an abbreviated, rushed spring training. His numbers out of the gate reflected that, as he slogged his way through an ugly .464 OPS in March/April.
And, right on cue, just as at-bats accumulated and his sluggish numbers were turning into more typically Werthian production, he was hit in the wrist with a pitch. And not just any wrist, mind you: the same wrist that has a metal plate in it.
He came back off the disabled list in early August and bounced around all over the lineup as the Nationals struggled to find any consistent offensive structure not named Bryce Harper.
His generally unpleasant 2015 should not obscure just how good he has been for Washington, especially in terms of getting on base, which is a major prerequisite for being good at leading a lineup.[table “” not found /]
Including his extreme down 2015, that’s an average 2011-15 on-base of .364; Span’s career OBP is .352.
Werth strikes out at roughly league average rates – but in each of these years, including his terrible 2015, he’s been several percentage points better than league average at drawing walks.[table “” not found /]
Werth’s 2015 was an exceptionally bizarre beast, well worth further study. When we see his production splits by where he hit in the lineup, we get a remarkable chart:[table “” not found /]
One of these rows does not look like the others.
In this “Late-Career Resurgent Werth” period, the 2012-2014 time frame, he posted an average BABIP of .352. In 2015, he hit the .364 mark batting first – and .253 for the season as a whole.
Why he was so much better batting first? As badly as I want to explain it, the question has driven me into the arms of drink and Camus – I just have no idea. My theories, ranked from most arcane to least:
- He came off the DL during the hottest part of the summer, and hotter months help balls travel, so hits he wasn’t getting in April, he got in August;
- When hitting lower in the order, he was trying to drive the ball and wrist injuries are known to sap power, so balls he would normally hit with authority, he hit weakly, reflected by those impossibly low BABIP numbers;
- Hitting first created a positive feedback loop where he needed a mass of at-bats, and the faster he got them the better he played, and his better play created more chances for him, and so on.
One more point is that when the Nationals won 98 games in 2012, it was with Werth hitting there in 38 of his 81 games. In that span, he slashed .309/.388/.450 … so he was actually a slightly better leadoff guy in 2015 (in 50 fewer plate appearances) than he was in 2012.
If you care about base-stealing, the mega-bearded, hulking Werth might not be the most obvious choice – until you dig. If one accepts that a base-stealer must succeed at least 70 percent of the time to make thefts an efficiency, then Werth’s base-stealing is a major value-adding proposition: he’s a career 86.6 percent base-stealer (123 steals in 142 attempts.)
All of this has led me to think Werth’s 2015 was a case of terrible, no-good, very bad luck.
He is a consistently difficult out, working long at-bats, drawing walks, flashing power, and being disruptive on the bases. But his age and medical history are major questions and I doubt the Nationals want him doing everyday leadoff work in 2016.
This is not to say he won’t be a major part of the club. I believe he will be a frontrunner for 2016 Comeback Player of the Year, a case of serious positive regression to the mean. I just don’t think the Nationals will want to rely on him batting first.