Jayson Werth is, as Nationals Manager Davey Johnson affectionately called him, a 6-foot-6 donkey patrolling center field for the Nationals. Now, with the team’s lineup just about intact, Werth also has become its leadoff hitter, a role he accepted willingly.
Despite missing considerable time with a broken wrist mid-season, Werth has proven to be a more than capable leadoff hitter, although an atypical one.
On Friday night, the second time he led off this season, he went 2 for 4 and scored two runs. Since Aug. 2, when he returned after missing 75 games with a broken wrist, he has been the Nationals hottest hitter — even better than slugger Michael Morse. In that span, Werth is hitting .413 (19 of 46) with nine walks and an eye-popping on-base percentage of .509.
Coupled with a strong start before his May 6 injury, Werth’s hitting has been much improved over last season, his first in Washington. Even though he has hit in the fifth spot of the lineup much of his career, Werth fits the profile of a leadoff hitter. Johnson joked that Werth is likely the tallest guy that has ever led off for him.
“He takes a lot of pitches and a lot of times will try to hit the pitcher’s pitch,” Johnson said. “He’s not your normal 6-foot-4 talented, gifted athlete that goes up there and tries to hit a bomb on the first pitch he sees. I mean, he’s a good hitter and he likes to look at a lot of pitches and when he is swinging the bat well he’s a tremendous on-base percentage guy.”
Werth, in 168 plate appearances (a small sample), leads the Nationals with a .417 on-base percentage and .889 on-base plus slugging percentage. His OPS+, which adjusts for a hitter’s ballpark, is 141 — best on the team and in the top 20 in the majors.
Werth is patient at the plate. He sees 4.31 pitches per appearance – which, if he qualified for league-wide statistics, would rank him third in the majors. From the top spot in the order, he forces opposing pitchers to throw more pitches, helps tire them out and reaches base.
Johnson said success for Werth and the rest of the team has resulted from a change in the team’s hitting philosophy. Johnson did away with the notion of encouraging hitters to drive the ball to the opposite field if it didn’t suit them.
“I talked about that approach with him at the end of last season. I said, ‘I remember you being a good hitter, driving the ball to all fields.’ And he came into spring training this year doing just that,” Johnson said.
Johnson told talked to the team’s hitters last season when he took over as manager and started pushing for a different approach. Ian Desmond and, slowly, Danny Espinosa, have shown improvement. Even Ryan Zimmerman had to move away from the old philosophy, Johnson said. The results, he said, have shown.
“Now, our philosophy is not just going the other way,” Johnson said. “Hit the ball hard where it’s pitched. . . .That’s just a mental adjustment change. You make adjustments when clubs start pitching you certain ways. And to a man, we’re doing that.”