Werth’s second season started today, when he arrived early at the Nationals’ spring training complex for informal workouts and batting practice with a handful of teammates. “I’m home now,” Werth said. He is intent on proving last season was a fluke, confident his legacy in Washington will be shaped more by what comes next than what happened in 2011.
“It doesn’t define me as an individual,” Werth said. “It doesn’t define me as a baseball player. It doesn’t define my career. It was one year and 600 at-bats. I’m over it and looking forward to this year. I worked hard all winter. I’m healthy.”
Observers spent last year trying to figure what went wrong for Werth – the huge contract, the new setting, the pressure of it all. For Werth, the answer starts and ends with the most basic of reasons: His swing.
Werth never felt comfortable with his swing in 2011. He fiddled with his stance during spring training and spent April trying to recapture the right feel. He never found it, really.
“The bottom line was, my swing was never where it needed to be,” Werth said. “It started bad, and it didn’t get any better. You have those seasons. I’ve been playing baseball since I was 4 years old. I’ve had really good seasons, I’ve had really bad seasons, I’ve had average seasons. Last year was just a bad season. Whatever. I’m over it. I’m ready to play ball, play 162.
“I don’t think it’s a fair assessment to judge my career or my time in Washington on last year. We’ve got lots of time to make good. We’re going in the right direction.”
This winter, Werth thought back to a conversation he once had with former teammate Eric Bruntlett, a utility infielder who spent time with the Phillies and Astros. Bruntlett shared a story from a spring training batting practice session with Lance Berkman.
Werth again insisted any kind of pressure resulting from his seven-year, $126 million contract did not affect him. (“I don’t even know how to answer that question,” he said.) But, while his swing turned sour, he may have also altered his approach.
Werth swung at 24.2 percent of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone, according to FanGraphs.com, a new career high and an increase from 21.8 percent in 2010, his final season with the Phillies. Once Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche were hurt early in the season, opposing pitchers stopped throwing him strikes – 46.5 percent of the pitches were in the strike zone, per FanGraphs, a new career low.
So Werth had fewer pitches to hit, and, with the Nationals needing a new offensive catalyst, he seemed to press more than he ever had to hit pitches out of the strike zone. Is that succumbing to pressure? Is it difficulty adapting to a new situation? Both? Neither? Werth is content letting others debate.
“People can talk and say whatever they want about last year,” Werth said. “Until you go through it, until you walk in those shoes, I don’t know how really you can comment. I’m over it. I’m past it.”
Werth also bounced between several different roles in the Nationals’ lineup last year, hitting leadoff occasionally and also second and fifth. Werth downplayed the effect it had on his season, but several teammates have said adapting to different spots in the batting order is a challenge for any hitter.
“There was times where I was doing whatever the team needed,” Werth said. “It wasn’t necessarily the best thing for me, but it was probably the best thing for the club at the time. Whatever, I don’t really feel that had anything to do with the numbers. My swing started bad and stayed bad.”
While Werth believes his problems stemmed from his swing, he also thinks the comfort of having spent one year in Washington will help him find it again. Werth lived in the Washington area this offseason and worked out at Nationals Park, the first time he had lived in the city where he plays. He knows the staff, the coaches, his teammates. Nothing is new anymore.
“Yeah, it’s a lot different,” Werth said. “Different feel. I know everybody. I’m home, you know? Last year was a little odd, just because you’re coming into a new place, you don’t really know anybody. New setting, new everything. This year is totally different, in a sense.
“Comfort is a big part of it. But I’m home now. I know everybody in here. I’m comfortable with my surroundings. I think that can definitely play a role. Last year, I got started off on the wrong foot early a little bit, and I was never able to fundamentally get back to what’s made me successful.”
Werth made no changes to his routine this winter, but he feels better about his swing now than he felt all of last year.
“I feel good about my swing,” Werth said. “Fundamentally, it’s solid. There are some things that went on during the year that I couldn’t control. Once the season started going, it just kind of snowballed. I’ve had those years before. But the time off and the loooong winter that I had here this year, I was kind of able to reinstate the fundamentals, just do the things, the drills that I’ve always done. I kind of started from scratch and built up like I usually do. Hopefully, I can keep that path and keep the swing I’ve got going now, which is a lot similar feel and comfort-wise from past years.”
Werth’s added those extras O’s in “long” to point out that, for the first time in four years, he did not play in the postseason. He called watching the playoffs from his living room “enlightening,” and it offered perspective on what the postseason means to a player.
He said the Nationals have the right mix of players and coaches – singling out Manager Davey Johnson as one reason – to make a run at the World Series this year. For the Nationals to contend, they’ll need Werth to improve from last season, a year he’s already forgotten about.
“In ’05, I played hurt all year, and then I had surgery at the end of ’05, and then I didn’t play in ’06, I was a bench player in ’07, I was a platoon halfway in ’08,” Werth said. “That hurt. That was tough. Last year was no big deal. Would I have liked to have better numbers? Of course. You do what you got to do.
“I didn’t have to worry about rehabbing an injury or anything like that. I’ve got seven weeks here to get ready to play a full season and win a World Series.”
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