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October 8, 2008
Jayson Werth has contributed significantly to the Phillies' success this year, and is one of the reasons they find themselves in the National League Championship Series against the Los Angeles Dodgers. The right fielder hit .273/.363/.498, finally crossing the 400 at-bat threshold for a major league club after 11 years as a professional. Today we take a look at what took so long for this former highly-touted prospect to become a productive major league hitter.
Jayson Richard Werth was drafted all the way back in 1997, out of Glenwood High School in Chatham, Illinois. The stepson of former Yankee Dennis Werth, the nephew of 19-year big-league veteran Dick Schofield Jr., and the grandson of Ducky Schofield, he was selected in the first round by the Baltimore Orioles and signed soon after. At this stage in his career, Werth was a catcher, and the right-hander hit like one during his first few seasons in the minors. He would hit .295/.432/.398 for the Gulf Coast League Orioles, and in his first full season would put together a .265/.364/.387 line at Low-A Delmarva at the age of 19.
Baseball America would rate Werth the 52nd-best prospect in the minors, and the third-best prospect in the Orioles organization. Baseball Prospectus 1999 felt that Werth was a good catcher, noting that "he nailed 64 would-be base thieves, the second most in pro ball last year" but in spite of this, he was also "big, athletic, and has such potential as a hitter that he may not remain there." He wouldn't disappoint after receiving the attention either, as he was promoted to High-A Frederick in the Carolina League and hit an impressive .305/.403/.394 in 66 games before moving on to Double-A Bowie and a .273/.364/.355 showing in 35. Part of the reason for his decline in production after the promotion was due to a hairline fracture of his wrist, which he played through and predictably struggled with. His '99 campaign would move him up a tick in both his organizational rankings (second) and MLB's (48th) for Baseball America, while Baseball Prospectus 2000 once again applauded his ability, saying "He's a line-drive hitter who hasn't yet shown power, but everybody assumes that will come before long."
His tour at Double-A in 2000 would not go nearly as well as the first go-round, and he would end up being demoted to High-A to help heal what ailed him. The problem was that his issue was a .228 batting average; his Isolated Power of .127 was higher than either of the figures he'd put up the year before, and he drew his share of walks to make up for the low average without adding anything to his strikeout rate. Given we're talking about a 276 at-bat sample where a low batting average like that is a distinct possibility, this fits into the overreaction file pretty comfortably. The O's would take that overreaction a step further and deal Werth to the Blue Jays before the 2001 season, in exchange for lefty John Bale, a reliever that would toss all of 26
Werth would slip down the prospect rankings a bit due to his poor showing in 2000, reflected in his rating as the 14th-best prospect in the Jays' organization by Baseball America. They were concerned about his low career batting average, curious as to where the power everyone assumed would come was hiding, and felt that he wasn't a good enough defensive catcher to make up for these problems at the plate. Baseball Prospectus 2001 felt that a move to the outfield "might free up his hitting development." Toronto didn't immediately switch Werth to an outfield corner, but they did split his time between catcher and first base that year at Double-A Tennessee, with positive results. The righty finally showed some of the power that it was assumed he had with a .285/.387/.499 line in 369 at-bats, belting a career-high 42 extra-base hits.
This would bring him back into the prospect spotlight, with Baseball America shifting him up to third in the Jays organization and back into their Top 100 prospects list, this time at 70th overall. Moving up to Triple-A in 2002 didn't hamper him statistically all that much, with the now mostly outfielder hitting .257/.354/.445 overall. The one major concern was his contact rate; in the past Werth never struck out a ton, but he had now punched out 93 times in 369 Double-A at-bats in 2001 and 125 times in 443 Triple-A at-bats in 2002. The Jays' hitting coach planned to work with Werth in order to cut down on the strikeouts and keep him productive, but that plan wasn't meant to be in 2003. Werth would strike out 68 times over 236 at-bats at Triple-A, dropping to just .237/.285/.441. The power was there, but the punchouts and lack of control over the strike zone did away with any of the good the long ball brought in. His short time in Toronto wasn't any better, with whiffs in 22 of his 48 at-bats and a .208/.255/.417 showing. That was about all the Jays needed to see of Werth to decide that he wasn't in their future, and they dealt him to the Dodgers right before the 2004 season began in exchange for Jason Frasor; at least the quality of the reliever he was swapped for improved this time around.
This was essentially the end of Werth as a minor leaguer; he wouldn't post more than 51 at-bats there in a season following his first year in Los Angeles, and would begin to accrue playing time in the majors on a more consistent basis. This first year would see him hit .262/.338/.486 for the Dodgers, a solid enough line, but one with far too many strikeouts (29.3 percent of all plate appearances). In spite of this, it's tough not to like a guy who can park it and draw a walk around 10 percent of the time, especially given, as Baseball Prospectus 2005 put it, "how tough it is to find 162-game players." He had value as a part-timer for the Dodgers, especially given his platoon splits: Werth hit just .247/.318/.419 against right-handers, but mutilated southpaws at a .293/.381/.630 clip. In 106 fewer at-bats, he hit just as many homers as he did against right-handed pitchers, and was just a pair of extra-base hits behind overall.
Just like in Baltimore and Toronto, Werth's first impression made him appear to be a great investment. But just as had happened in Baltimore and Toronto, that perception would change overnight with a poor follow-up campaign. Werth would kill the ball during a short, 49 at-bat stint at Las Vegas, but his time in the majors was less productive, as he cobbled together a .234/.338/.374 line. He drew a walk 12.5 percent of the time, but he also punched out nearly 34 percent of the time and posted a .139 ISO that was a significant dip from his previous showing. Injuries were an issue, as Werth made three separate trips to the disabled list in 2005, and never could get it going during the year despite reaching a career high in games played and plate appearances. The initial injury was a broken wrist suffered due to an A.J. Burnett plunking in spring training, one that obviously had an adverse effect on his power. Exploratory surgery after the season revealed two ligaments that needed to be repaired, but that didn't do the trick; Werth would miss the 2006 season recovering from these injuries, and the Dodgers would non-tender him prior to the 2007 season.
Phillies GM Pat Gillick, the general manager in Baltimore back when Werth was drafted 10 years prior, scooped him up to be a Phillies reserve. Though Werth wouldn't play a full season, he would at long last begin to build on that 2004 season that gave him promise as a major league hitter by hitting .298/.404/.459 in 255 at-bats. His .161 ISO wasn't great, but it was an improvement on the wrist-hampered output of 2005, and came packaged with a 14.7 percent walk rate. His strength was once again mauling lefties, with Werth posting a .375/.467/.591 line against them, while putting up a less impressive but still-useful .257/.371/.398 showing against right-handers. Werth also managed to challenge an old record, getting a hit in nine consecutive plate appearances from August 26 (five hits against the Padres) to August 27 (four hits against the Mets) to surpass Pete Rose's previous 8-for-8 mark, but falling one hit short of the NL record.
The 2008 season was when Werth let everyone know he was back and a capable regular hitter, as he hit .273/.363/.498 in 418 at-bats, splitting time between center (when Shane Victorino was on the disabled list) and right field. He held his own against right-handers, posting a .255/.360/.407 line, but again, it's against lefties where Werth is at his most werth-while: .303/.368/.652 in 155 at-bats. That also wasn't a case of just producing with the benefit of home cooking; Werth also had value outside of Philadelphia's bandbox, hitting .275/.366/.522 elsewhere. That's something to remember during this LCS, given the flack the Phils as a team have taken for their home/road splits. On a more personal note for Werth, while facing the Blue Jays this year, he had three hits in 11 at-bats, with all three balls going yard and Werth driving in eight runs. Those all came in one game, and he was a two-run homer short of a different kind of cycle, since he had a solo shot, a three-run bomb, and a grand slam to his credit all in one evening. It had to be a good feeling for Werth to beat up a club that dealt him like that, though it would have been far more poetic if the bombs came off of the starter who broke his wrist back in 2005.
What changed for Werth that made him such a valuable contributor this year? First of all, he was at long last healthy. His wrist, which was broken in 2005, was finally healed up, and the power potential Werth had flashed back in 2004 and that scouts anticipated 11 years ago was once again part of the package. Between the playing time, the exposure to left-handed pitching, and the newfound health, Werth was able to put up a season many thought he was capable of during the early years of the decade, when he was a highly-touted prospect. It's a good thing for the Phillies that Werth is capable of solid production against right-handers, even if his power is lacking, because the Dodgers may very well throw four of them against the Phillies during the NLCS. If Clayton Kershaw ends up drawing a start at home, it's Werth's chance to shine both as a lefty-killer and as a hitter capable of producing outside of Philadelphia's hitter-friendly home field. Despite being a relative unknown compared to teammates Jimmy Rollins, Chase Utley, and Ryan Howard, like last week's profilee, Shane Victorino, Werth is one of the important pieces that keep the Phils' offensive machine running, and his performance against right-handers is one of the intriguing subplots of this upcoming series.—Marc Normandin
Belonging to a club like the one designated for players with 20-plus homers and 20-plus stolen bases shows that you have at least two tools. The players in 2008 who hit 24 or more long balls and stole 20 or more bases include as toolsy a group as you'd expect: Grady Sizemore and Hanley Ramirez (who were both 30-30 members), Matt Holliday, Carlos Beltran, Nate McLouth... and Jayson Werth. The first five all found themselves in the Midsummer Classic, and are fairly well known; Werth was not even a household name in Philadelphia until July. Granted, as we mentioned last week when profiling another lesser-known productive Phillie in Shane Victorino, it can be quite tough to make yourself known when playing in the same lineup with Rollins, Utley, Howard, and Burrell, but Werth actually had a more productive season than many All-Stars and players with more fame and stature.
Looking at MLVr, that Woolner-suite stat pegged Werth as worth a sixth of a run above an average player per at-bat. While tying for third with Burrell on the Phillies behind Utley and Howard in MLVr, he actually ended up higher than the likes of David Ortiz, Carlos Pena, and Bobby Abreu. His 30.4 VORP also finished higher than a number of everyday stars in right field, notably Alex Rios, Corey Hart, and Brad Hawpe.
Suffice it to say, this kind of production was unexpected. Where did it come from? The difference between last year's .298/.404/.459 line and 2008's .273/.363/.498 can largely be diagnosed with a regression in BABIP. His .391 showing last year was in no way sustainable, so his batting average (with OBP following in its wake) was expected to drop a bit. His slugging percentage did not necessarily have to fall if he could increase his power output. Both of these things occurred: Werth dropped from .298/.404 to .273/.363 in average and OBP because of a still high but definitely sustainable .327 BABIP, and he increased his ISO from .161 to .225. Against lefties, he looked almost Pujols-like, with his 1020 OPS and 16 of his 24 home runs in just 171 plate appearances. In 155 actual at-bats, these 16 home runs amount to one every 9.8 AB.
If patience is a virtue, then Werth was among the most virtuous this year, as his 4.51 pitches per plate appearance led the entire NL in the category (400 PA). He works counts to stay alive, resulting in a frequency of pitches seen from opposing pitchers that varies greatly, instead of primarily facing a strict majority of fastballs with a side offering of curves. He did strike out his fair share because of this, and his 28.5 percent strikeout rate finished ninth highest in the senior circuit (again, 400 PA). This can definitely be a concern for the Phillies, who already have Ryan Howard and Pat Burrell in the lineup, two sluggers who are no strangers to the punchout.
Another concern for the Phillies is Werth's very poor September, in which he hit just .242/.308/.389. Before their NLDS against Milwaukee, many analysts pointed out that one of the keys to a Phillies win would be that both he and Pat Burrell had to get back on track. In Game One, Werth looked foolish against Yovani Gallardo, but he rebounded in Game Two to smack two doubles off of CC Sabathia. Then, in his first at-bat in Game Three, he struck out on a Dave Bush curveball that was not only a foot outside, but also lacking the distance to even reach home plate; he did manage to record a triple off of Bush later in the game, though I still contend that Corey Hart caught that ball and it was a fly out. He rebounded in Game Four by hitting a home run off of Jeff Suppan.
The performance against Sabathia was not shocking, given his propensity for hitting southpaws, but depending on the schedule, he may not face a lefty in the upcoming series against the Dodgers, nor will he face a starting right-hander of Suppan's caliber. Instead, they will be throwing Derek Lowe, Chad Billingsley, and Hiroki Kuroda, with Clayton Kershaw or Greg Maddux perhaps getting a Game Four start if need be. Kershaw is a lefty, but the rest are all righties, meaning Werth will not have the ability to feast as he did in the regular season until the bullpen begins to come into play. However, Lowe and Kuroda are strict ground-ball pitchers, and Werth performed quite well against pitchers of that type this season, with a 902 OPS that would be his highest against any type; Billingsley is a power pitcher in the truest sense of the term.
Ultimately, though, Werth finds himself in some form of a paradox, because if the Phillies are relying on him to be a go-to guy on offense in this series, it isn't likely they'll win it. Adversely, if they are winning the series thanks to the meat of their lineup, it will not be imperative that he deliver in each plate appearance. If he simply does what he did both this year and last, and work the count in his favor, he should have a productive series, but he will need to do so against right-handers, off whom he was not nearly as dominant as against lefties.—Eric Seidman
Interestingly enough, Matt Wieters wasn't the first physically massive high-ceiling catcher in the Baltimore system of relatively recent vintage—Jayson Werth was. In 1997, he was the first catcher selected in the draft. Coming out of a small high school in central Illinois, Werth was ultra-athletic, especially for a catcher, and as the rare multi-tool catcher, his potential was sky high. But that potential never showed up in his stat lines, as he basically developed into a singles-hitting player with great plate discipline. The power started to come once he was traded to Toronto. The Blue Jays decided to move him to the outfield in order to hasten the progression of his bat, but it also involved an acknowledgment of some troubles controlling the running game. Injuries and struggles at the upper levels all but had him pegged as a permanent up-and-down player before his semi-breakout with the Dodgers in 2004. Even with this year's fine season, he remains the same player—a solid right fielder with above-average speed who crushes left-handers, but he doesn't make enough contact to be much of a consistent threat against righties. He's the classic example of the kind of player people get too excited about—people always want to see what he could do as an everyday player, but the track record shows that it wouldn't be a pretty picture. A nice part of a platoon for sure, but not someone you want to pencil into the lineup every day, year after year.—Kevin Goldstein
Eric Seidman is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. You can contact Eric by clicking here.
Eric Seidman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.