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Why Is Jayson Werth Struggling At The Plate?

Alex Remmington of Big League Stew busted out the Slumpbot .200 to take a look at why some of the bigger stars in the game are slumping. Here is what he had to say about Washington’s own Jayson Werth:

“This was never supposed to be the Nats’ year. They brought Werth in so that he could be a booming bat in their lineup in time for the 2013 youth movement, when Stephen Strasburg, Bryce Harper, Derek Norris, Jordan Zimmermann, and Ryan Zimmerman could all be in the same clubhouse at the same time. Werth was supposed to be the lineup mainstay who helped the team remain credible until they were ready to contend. They certainly didn’t expect him to struggle to stay over the Mendoza line.

But right now it’s looking like a run of bad luck for Werth because his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) is an extraordinarily low .239 and he’s walking and striking out at normal rates. He’s hit a lot more pop-ups and ground balls than usual, and fewer line drives and fly balls, so it will be worth monitoring his approach to see whether his approach has changed or it’s just a fluke of the early going. Right now, his steady plate discipline indicates that there’s nothing to worry about just yet.”

The good news is that Werth is included on this list with other such superstars as Kevin Youkalis, Francisco Liriano, and Derek Jeter, so the fact that his .200 batting average is alarming enough to join the company of these former All-Stars is hopefully a good sign. Remmington is right that Werth was brought in to serve a purpose, put butts in the seats until the Nationals could compete in 2012 or 2013, but unfortnately his bat has not carried much weight through the first month of the season.

16 games in Werth is batting just .206/.296/.365 with two home runs and four RBI. It’s just a 16 game sample, but in Werth’s worst month last season he still hit .271/.340/.573 with six home runs and 19 RBI, a much better line. 

Remmington is right that Werth’s batting average on balls in play is down tremendously. Right now it is at a paltry .239 when his career mark is a much higher .330. Conventional wisdom, as was pointed out, is that Werth is simply getting unlucky and that his BABIP will eventually return to his career mean. Unfrotunately, it may not be that simple for Werth. You see, the idea that a low BABIP is an indicator of bad luck rests on the assumption that the batter is hitting the ball as hard as ever, just directly at people…Werth’s numbers tell a little different story though.

In Weth’s career he has had a very healthy 21.1% line drive percentage as his quick bat has been able to spray the ball to all fields. This year however he has a horrific 10.4% line drive percentage, by far the worst of his career. Instead Werth has been hitting a lot of weak grounders when he hasn’t been able to fully square up on the ball. His ground ball percentage is up from a career 38% to a whopping 58.3%. 

The odd thing is that you would expect this to be a result of Werth seeing less pitches to hit after moving from the dangerous Philadelphia lineup to a Nationals lineup without Ryan Zimmerman, but that’s just not the case. Werth has seen 60.3% fastballs this season, which is actually up from 58.2% last year. He’s not trying to do too much either by chasing pitches outside the zone either, in 2010 he swung at 21.8% of pitches outside the zone, but this year that number is slightly down to 20.1%.

The real change between this year and last year seems to be that he’s making significantly MORE contact in 2011 than he did in 2010. His contact percentage at this point is a whopping 93.9% on pitches which he swung at inside the strikezone, which is up from his 82.7 career mark. He has also made contact on 87.2% of pitches he has swung at total, which is up from 76.8% on his career. That would explain the increased ground ball rate and perhaps why he’s not hitting the ball as hard as he was in the past. Sometimes when batters swing to contact they tend to take something off and instead of driving the ball they slap it. 

Is that what’s going on with Werth? Someone would have to ask him or Rick Eckstein that question, but the numbers seem to suggest something has forced him to start 1. making more contact and 2. ground out more. The good news for Werth is that while his hitting has been pretty awful, people in Washington aren’t calling for his head like they are in Boston with Carl Crawford. Part of that may be the apathy of the Nationals fan base, but another part is the result of Werth’s obvious contributions with his glove and on the base paths. He has been a significant contributor, even when he isn’t driving in runs. 

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