Saturday, July 23, 2011

Hating Jayson Werth

Nationals fans have started to turn on the $126 million man, and it's utterly predictable, given his .218 batting average and unimpressive 11 HR. Fans were expecting a near-MVP caliber player, and they've gotten something like the second coming of Austin Kearns.

But before the boo-birds get too worked up, let's stop and consider whether he really deserves the ire.

First, Werth hasn't actually been that bad. He's clearly been unlucky; he has a .263 BABIP, 61 points below his career average. That's a huge aberration.

And despite that, he still has a 93 OPS+, which means he's about 93% as good as the average major league hitter. Now, that's not what you want from your right fielder, but if you normalize the balls in play numbers, his on-base percentage would be right in line with his .361 career average.

The low BABIP doesn't explain his power decline--his ISO power (SLG minus BA) is down to .152 from .236 last year. A ten-point decline could probably explained by leaving the hitter-friendly Citizens Bank Park, but not this. It's still possible that Werth could bounce back this year or next--a 350-AB power drought isn't that usual over the course of a players career. But if Werth finishes the season without ever getting hot, it'll be reasonable to worry.

But the real reason fans feel like Werth isn't meeting expectations is that expectations were unduly raised by his outrageous contract.

Werth had been a good player for about three and a half years in his ages 28-31 seasons. But really he'd only been a quality every day player for the last two full seasons, and it's not unusual for late bloomers like this to fade early. Werth also had big home-away splits in Philadelphia and a long track record of injuries.

Sure, most people figured that Werth would be good for at least a couple seasons and only really become a problem in the out-years of his seven year contract. And some looked at Werth's mix of athleticism, speed, power, defense, and contact ability and saw a guy who could age well.

The point is that casual fans wouldn't be nearly as frustrated with Werth if they hadn't been led to believe that the team was acquiring a perennial superstar. So if you want to boo anyone for Werth's contract, boo Mike Rizzo.

Although I'm not even sure I'd do that yet. Don't get me wrong--I think the Werth contract is one of the worst in baseball. But if he has a bounce-back year next season, and the Strasburg-led Nationals make the playoffs, then it'll be at least in part justified. And we're told that part of the reason that the Nationals made the move was to send a message and change perceptions.

The key question is whether the team is planning on expanding it's payroll over the next 3-4 years and by how much. If the Lerners are prepared to expand payroll to $150 million or more a year like the Phillies and Mets, then the Werth contract won't be crippling. If they intend to stay in the $70-90 range like the Indians or Rockies, then the Werth contract will make it nearly impossible to retain cornerstones like Ryan Zimmerman or compete for free agents in the future.

The true mark of a large-market team isn't so much giving out contracts like Werth's. It's the willingness to eat contracts like Werth's and keep on chugging. It's the ability to make mistakes and move on. The Yankees and Red Sox are full of bad contracts like this. John Lackey. Carl Pavano. J.D. Drew. Kei Igawa. A.J. Burnett. Rafael Soriano. Javy Vazquez. Derek Jeter. Julio Lugo. They survive these deals because they budget for a certain percentage of free agents to become busts, which is what you have to do if you want to play in the free agent market because free agents are by definition older, declining players who cost much more than they can be counted on to produce.

The average NL right fielder this season is hitting .267 / .340 / .438. If you normalized Werth's BABIP, that's basically what his stat line would be now. That's not what the team is paying for, but you can definitely win with that--if you can surround that guy with better players elsewhere. The key question is whether the Nationals are prepared to spend enough to do that. Either way, smart fans won't boo Werth. Blame Rizzo, or don't, but don't blame Jayson Werth for being Jayson Werth.

26 comments:

notoutofthe said...

I guess I don't really get it. Is he keeping us from winning the World Series this year (or even making the playoffs)? I think winning is fun -- even if you're only hovering around .500 -- but I'm having a hard time caring about THIS season's performance, whether it's zero wins or five wins.

CoverageisLacking said...

"First, Werth hasn't actually been that bad. He's clearly been unlucky; he has a .263 BABIP, 61 points below his career average. That's a huge aberration."

Classic mis-use of BABIP from a member of the SABR-geek set. Stephen, have you been able to watch many games up in Maine? Werth's BABIP isn't low because he's been unlucky and hitting the ball hard right at guys. No, it's low because he has been making horrible contact all season long. Hopefully he will turn things around, but it's not a turn of luck that is going to do it for him.

To his credit, even Kilgore has recognized that Werth has just been bad, not unlucky: http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/nationals-journal/post/inside-jayson-werths-slump/2011/07/06/gIQAV5WC1H_blog.html

Steven said...

So I guess you think that Werth will maintain a .263 BABIP going forward? Do you realize that there are exactly zero players in all of MLB with 500 or more career ABs with a BABIP that low? The closest is Juan Castro at .264.

Werth has had a bad season, and I agree that his BABIP will not normalize to his career rates just by regression. He's also hit the ball with less authority, and league-wide BABIP is down, which is likely a function of improved defense in MLB.

CoverageisLacking said...

"Do you realize that there are exactly zero players in all of MLB with 500 or more career ABs with a BABIP that low? The closest is Juan Castro at .264."

I have no idea what chart you are looking at, but I see several active players with career BABIPs lower than .264 with more than 500 career ABs: Andy LaRoche; Rob Johnson; Justin Smoak; Carlos Santana; Brandon Wood...

I do think Werth's BABIP will increase at some point going forward. But that's because I expect his performance to turn around to an extent, not because I expect his luck to turn around.

I also think there may be something physically wrong with him. He has had many swings--including many that result in weak contact--where he isn't breaking his wrists at all. What do you think about that?

Steven said...

Ah ha--you're right, I accidentally had a minimum of 1000 games played included in the query.

The point is that I think you're underestimating just how low a .263 BABIP really is. I agree that he's unlikely to return to the kinds of numbers he had in Philly on balls in play, because I agree he looks off, and there are plenty of indications in the numbers that he's not the guy he was there (ISO power one of the most important).

Players can have low-BABIP seasons, or even two. But for the vast majority of players over time things even out to a range of between .290 and .320 or so. Very good or very bad hitters can fall outside that range for a sustained period, but .263 is really, really low.

Take a look. Because the 500 AB limit is really too low to reduce the statistical noise, we need to look at players with a lot more repetitions.

Looking at all the players with 3000 PAs in the high-offense era since the expansion of 1993, when league-wide BABIPs jumped significantly, there are just 5 position players out of 397 with BABIPs of .263 or lower. That's 1.26%, and none of them come close to having Werth's speed.

Now, filtering for players with 3000 PAs is a good way to reduce sample size noise, but it also means you get a skew towards better players, because to get 3000 PAs you have to be pretty good at baseball.

But there are some pretty awful hitters who have got that many PAs without suffering the rates Werth is getting. Rey Ordonez, Cesar Izturis, Neifi Perez--these are guys who define "weak contact"--all managed balls in play numbers better than Werth has had this year. Here's that list sorted by OPS+.

And don't forget--however weak Werth's contact has been, we're still talking about a guy who has managed 11 HRs and 41 total XBHs. For a .263 BABIP to be completely about his skill level with no randomness or statistical noise at all, we'd have to be talking about a historically poor hitter, someone who either almost never makes good contact or is incredibly slow or both. Werth hasn't been either of those things.

Is he a disappointment? For sure. Can we count on him returning to the kind of performance on balls in play that he gave the Phillies? Doubtful.

But if you're thinking that his .263 BABIP is completely a function of poor skill, you're just too far down on him. He's really not that bad.

Steven said...

One other thing--groundballs more often become hits than flyballs. Kilgore is making a mistake there when he says an increase in GB% corresponds with a decrease in BABIP. It's the opposite.

Now, more groundballs does correspond with less slugging and overall less offensive value, but not lower BABIP.

Steven said...

Also, looking at Werth's balls in play numbers, it's not so much the LD% and GB% that pop out at you. It's the 13.5% infield fly rate. THOSE are balls in play that almost always become outs, and going from 8% career to 13% will definitely hurt you. Still doesn't mean that .263 is 100% signal and 0% noise, but that's the number Kilgore should have cited in making his case.

CoverageisLacking said...

This is good, Steven, I've enjoyed the comments. I think the comments and your analysis in them has been better than the initial post. I read the initial post as saying "low BABIP well below career norms necessarily equals bad luck." As our subsequent comments have shown, it's not always that simple, and certainly not in this instance.

I'm not as down on Werth as I think you are suggesting. I am down on his performance this season. It has pretty much been a horrid onslaught of pop-ups (as you rightly point out), weak grounders and fly balls, and passive-AB Ks (obviously not reflected in BABIP).

I think he will be better in the future, because I think there is something wrong with him--either physical or mental--which he will eventually fix, though maybe not this season. I do think it's a bit tough for you to compare a single season BABIP to other guys' career BABIPs, because I agree that most guys will be out of baseball if they have that level of sustained performance. .263 BABIP is indeed really bad, I agree. But it is possible to just have a horrible season, without it being a horribly unlucky season. That's what I think is going on with Werth this year, at least so far.

Steven said...

yeah, I mean, in the post I'm guessing that if you normalize his babip, he'd end up somewhere around average for an RF. That's taking him from a 93 OPS+ to a 101 OPS+. That's just an off the cuff guesstimate--I didn't actually crunch any numbers. But suffice it to say, that's not a regression anywhere near to where he was last year or to what the Nationals were expecting. But it's a reasonable expectation for what Werth would be, which is why everyone (me included) thought the Nationals were dumb o give him the years and money that they did.

JayB said...

What a great thread...thanks Steven and CIL.....I watch every game in person or on TV and CIL is correct.....He is not unlucky he is bad this year....I could count on two hands how many hard balls he hit right at someone....He is kind of weak ground balls and pop ups.

He is a mess mentally...I know Steven hates when I use my eyes to understand baseball....but you can see it in his eyes....lost and given up most as he steps in....In the OF...he used to move with the pitch...last two months...he just puts his glove and hands on this knees and says on his heels with the pitch...He may well be hurt as well but his is defeated mentally as well.

Harper said...

"it's not unusual for late bloomers like this to fade early."

SO after I read this I took a look at his comparitive players in B-Ref and saw disheartening comparisons to Brad Hawpe (done at 32), O' Henry (done at 33), and Trot Nixon (done at 33). None are perfect comparisons but still it doesn't give one hope.

Here's the counter q - can you find a late bloomer that didn't fade early? Closest I could come was Dante Bichette. Then I tried to find one not in the steroid age and I really couldn't (outside of those from like pre-war years). It wasn't a complete search but I found guys that were good who got better and lasted. Or who were "late" bloomers at the age of 25/26. But no one that was struggling until 28 then turned it on and kept it on for a good 6+ years.

Steven said...

Raul Ibanez? Maybe Jose Bautista is on his way?

Harper said...

ibanez is a good one. He'd argue that he needed regular playing time but I always find that a bit hard to believe. That makes me feel a bit better.

Jose Bautista - we need to wait and see.

Section 222 said...

When two SABR-geeks go at it without personal invective, the results are scintillating. Thanks to you both.

One thing I'd point out is that using career averages to argue that Werth's slump probably won't continue for the rest of year doesn't make alot of sense. There may be only a small number of hitters who have had a .260 BABIP over 3000 ABs, but a whole lot more have done it over 500 ABs.

I would agree with CiL and JayB that Werth's BABIP is abysmal mostly because he's been a terrible hitter this year. He swings defensively, pops up a lot, grounds weakly to short or third even more. He's nervous and uncertain at the plate, twitching and off balance. And since he takes so many pitches, he's often hitting with two strikes which increases his defensiveness. His swinging strikeouts usually come on weak, flailing swings at balls out of the strikezone, usually away or in the dirt, rather than mighty cuts.

The contrast is stark when he's hitting behind Morse, who this year is the model of calm confidence in the batter's box. Morse may have modeled himself on Werth as he strove to become a force at the plate at a late age, but it's time for Werth to start taking some instruction from his mentee.

I'd like to see Werth get a day off more often and hit lower in the order for awhile. One good hit or even one multi-hit game does not mean he's back (as Ray Knight always seems to think).

Steven said...

There may be only a small number of hitters who have had a .260 BABIP over 3000 ABs, but a whole lot more have done it over 500 ABs.

Correct. That's because there's more statistical noise in a 500 AB sample than in a 3000 AB sample.

No one's arguing that Werth is having a good season, or that his troubles can be totally or even mostly attributed to randomness in batted ball outcomes.

I'm merely observing that in the entire history of modern baseball, there has never ever been a hitter who sustained a BABIP as low as Werth's while also having his speed and enough pop to hit 41 XBHs in 2/3s of a season. So it's incredibly unlikely that these outcomes aren't being depressed by statistical randomness (which always exists, even in the largest samples).

In other words, he can be bad and unlucky at the same time. (And moreover, even as "bad" as he's been, he's still got a 93 OPS+. That's bad for a guy with his contract, but he's clearly still a starting caliber player, and not far from being an average one at that.

BTW--since I wrote the post Werth's BABIP is up 2 points to .265. I wonder if you could "see" a 2-point improvement in skill over the weekend? Can you see 2 points worth of confidence in his body language?

Section 222 said...

No I can't "see" that. But I'm sure that if he has another good game, Ray Knight will say "he's swinging the bat as good as I've ever seen him swing it" or something like that. Until he puts together several weeks of solid hitting I won't be convinced, and I doubt you will be either.

I think that CiL and others were reacting to your suggestion that his BABIP is so low that it has to be an aberration and he's bound to turn it around because his luck will improve. But if it's not bad luck that's hurting him, then his BABIP probably won't get back to his career average.

My fear is that statistical noise or not, he's not going to turn it around this year. And all the "confidence" that Davey Johnson and Rizzo still have that he will won't help. In the meantime, it's hurting the team to keep him batting 5th (or 1st or 2nd or 3rd) just because DJ is "confident" that he just has to get better.

By the way, I totally agree with the rest of your post. The Lerners are billionaires, the richest owners in MLB. They can afford another Werth-like contract this off season -- for Pujols, or Fielder, or Reyes, if they can convince one of them to come to DC. If they build a winner they'll get their money back and more. But if they send Rizzo back to dumpster diving alone, having been burned by the Werth contract, we're in trouble.

Steven said...

Oh, there's no guarantee that any of his numbers will improve. He could get hurt. His core talent level could be in steep decline. He could continue to have bad luck. Maybe he does have some kind of deep mental block or confidence problem (though I doubt very many professional psychologists would support the notion that this could be diagnosed by watching his body language on TV).

That said, if you played the 2011 season a million times over, each time with Jayson Werth having exactly the same core talent level, he would have a better babip than .263 the overwhelming majority of the time. Even with the reduced LD rate and increased IFFB rate, a guy with his speed should still be in the .285-.290 range at minimum.

And even before you get to the BABIP adjustment (or non-adjustment if you want to be stubborn), you have to recognize that he has a 93 OPS+. That's not good, but it's better than Rick Ankiel or Roger Bernadina, and no one's booing them. Danny Espinosa had a 92 OPS+ last season, and everyone was all atwitter about how promising he was in his call-up.

The reason he's become the guy everyone loves to hate is because he got a massive contract, one that no one else would have given him. If he was on a 3-year, $30m deal, no one would be booing him or mocking him with beer promotions. The contract is the thing, but if you want to be mad about the contract, you should be mad at Rizzo, because what we're seeing from Werth is completely within the range of what could be expected. This isn't some impossible to explain, unheard of decline like Adam Dunn.

Julie B said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
JayB said...

Steven is taking his normal shots at me on seeing a game....but Steven...have you ever tried to hit a baseball? At this level if your mind is not clear and confident....it will not happen...Much like golf...hitting has a huge mental component and he is clearly messed up and lost....your stats tell you that and my eyes do to.

Steven said...

You and CIL are right. I never watch games and I've never tried to hit a baseball. So clearly I don't know anything.

Question: why are you reading my blog?

JayB said...

Man why are you is such a bad mood all the time (or anytime people do not agree with you?)....I am just pointing our that your stats view on this is questionable in Werth's 2011 season. He is not unlucky in my view which is clearly not your view.....Isn't that one function of a blog and comment section?

Werth's skills have not suddenly declined to this degree nor has his luck just turned bad....it is explainable in his mental approach which I can see in his eyes and body language....a guy who used to follow the pitch and move his feet with his hands ready in April is now standing still on his heels with both hands on his knees....it is that simple really.

Steven said...

I am not in a bad mood. But saying "have you ever tried to hit a baseball" is obnoxious. If you don't want people to respond to you this way, you should stop being obnoxious.

JayB said...

Fair Enough

JayB said...

"BTW--since I wrote the post Werth's BABIP is up 2 points to .265. I wonder if you could "see" a 2-point improvement in skill over the weekend? Can you see 2 points worth of confidence in his body language?"

Perhaps a tad obnoxious too?

Section 222 said...

I take back what I said about lack of personal invective. Oh well.

"The reason he's become the guy everyone loves to hate is because he got a massive contract, one that no one else would have given him. If he was on a 3-year, $30m deal, no one would be booing him or mocking him with beer promotions. The contract is the thing, but if you want to be mad about the contract, you should be mad at Rizzo, because what we're seeing from Werth is completely within the range of what could be expected."

I'm going to disagree with this just a little. First, I don't think it's the contract per se, but more the expectations created by the contract, which the Nats did all they could to tout with promotions and publicity. I personally don't care how much Werth makes. The Lerners are billionaires and as long as they are willing to keep spending big bucks to put togehter a winner, I'm fine with wasting money on Werth. But the contract and the hoopla surrounding his signing made an unmistakeable statement that the Nats had signed a superstar. And when a supposed superstar completely fails to live up to that billing, people will boo and make fun of him. After all, Rizzo isn't out on the field to boo every day. And his body of work for the Nats hasn't been quite as disastrous as Werth's has. Ankiel and Bernadina don't get booed (well Ankiel does a little) not because they have smaller contracts (they still make way more money than all of us do) but because no one really expects them to be that good.

Second, while many people predicted based on his career numbers or their observations of his play in Philly, or whatever other metrics they wanted to employ that Werth would not perform at a superstar level in years 5-7, I can't remember anyone saying he would be anywhere near as bad as he has been so far. And for months we've been hearing "don't worry," that historically he's done better in the second half, that his numbers are bound to improve, that he has great "clubhouse presence," etc. etc. He still had a chance to at least leave us with a less bad taste in our mouths. But time is running out, and I don't think it's crazy to look for explanations (eye sight, injury, mental issues) beyond bad luck.

Finally, I haven't tried to hit a baseball since 6th grade, or a softball in about 20 years. So I'm not a hitting expert. I admit it. And I also have totally accepted and enjoy the SABR revolution, though I don't have the patience to do a lot of original number crunching myself. That's why I love reading blogs like this one. (I do trash batting averages and saves with the best of them though, and I've stayed in a Holiday Inn Express.) So I'm sorry if pointing out that Werth's swing in the past few months has been pathetic offends anyone. It just seems obvious and this thread gave me the chance to sound off about it.

Mississippi Snopes said...

I won't pretend to have enough savvy to add to the sabermetrics vs. "I know what I see" discussion here, but I will predict a possibly ugly night on Saturday at Nats Park. It's Jayson Werth Bobblehead Night. Let's hope we don't see a right field full of the ugly little things.