The first of Jayson Werth’s seven seasons in Washington will come to an end later today. From the start, Werth sought to place his Nationals tenure in the context of the franchise’s advancement. In Viera, Fla., this past March, Werth sat in the dugout at Space Coast Stadium and largely deflected questions about his personal history. He was more interested in sharing how he envisioned the Nationals progressing.
Werth’s season by any objective measure would be classified as a letdown. After signing a seven-year, $126 million contract, he’s hitting .233/.332/.391 and has produced fewer than three wins above replacement, the catch-all metric formulated by FanGraphs.com that aims to measure a player’s total contribution. But Werth chafes at the popular notion that his first season here was a disappointment. He views his success and failure through the prism of the team’s success and failure. He feels comfortable with the Nationals’ improvement this year and the role he played in it.
“I read something where somebody said the season was ‘lost’ or it was a ‘lost season’ or something like that,” Werth said. “Absolutely not. Whatever the numbers say, they speak for themselves. I could have hit .330 with 30 and 100. Would we have been in playoff contention? Probably not. Hard to say. But this team wasn’t ready to be a playoff-contending team until probably about the last six weeks.
“I feel like I’ve played a big part in getting this team to this point. Maybe not numbers-wise. But as far as feel-wise, comfort, where we are now and where we’re going, the culture was the biggest step. The losing culture when I got here, it was thick in the air. That’s not here anymore. All that stuff, it’s gone. We got things going in the right direction. I think there’s a lot to be said about that.”
Werth was quick to credit other veteran teammates, like Rick Ankiel and Jonny Gomes, for helping turn the Nationals around. He singled out Michael Morse for having a “huge year.” He praised Danny Espinosa and Ian Desmond for their growth over the season. “I’m a very small part of a big, big operation,” Werth said. “But we’ve got the right guys.”
At times, Werth drew criticism for how he publicly identified his views on that “culture.” In May, at the end of a dreadful road trip, he was vocal about wanting changes to be made. He later clarified he did not imply anything about then-Manager Jim Riggleman, but at the time many media members took it that way.
“Looking back to Milwaukee when I said things had to change, did I say that out of frustration? Yeah, I was frustrated,” Werth said. “We weren’t playing good baseball. We didn’t have good team chemistry. We didn’t have the sense of urgency that I felt like was needed to be a contending team. Now here we are months later. People can see it. I know I do. I feel it. Did I take a beating for saying things need to change? Yeah, I got smoked for it. I wouldn’t change what I said. I meant it. Things did need to change. Things have changed. In that sense, that’s gratifying. That’s why I feel so good about where we’re at.”
“We’ve still got work to do with the intangibles and the winning culture,” Werth added. “You can feel it. It’s all coming out in September. That expectancy of losing is no longer. That’s gone. And I feel like that was pretty heavy. That’s hard to change. That’s deep-rooted.”
Werth has spoken up — and acted on — one of the symbols of what he labeled “an expectancy of losing.” In May, Werth asked, “Why doesn’t Teddy get to win?” Over the weekend, Werth literally shoved the Tom mascot to the ground in an effort to help Teddy win the Presidents’ Race for the first time.
“It was a joke on some levels, but on some levels not with the whole Teddy thing,” Werth said. “There’s an expectancy of losing there. It goes back to the first month of the season when we won two games in a row and [a reporter] asked me about the two-game winning streak. It’s like, ‘No.’ That whole thing had to stop. That had to stop in a big way. When an organization or a team is really young and is coming from many losing seasons, it starts to get ingrained. I’m not saying that I’m the one who changed it. It’s got to be a conscious effort on everybody’s part. But I definitely wasn’t complacent when I saw that happening.”
While Werth worked to improve the clubhouse, he struggled at the plate. He had trouble finding his swing and for large swaths of the season hit groundballs with an alarming frequency. Werth bottomed out on July 18, at which point he was hitting .211/.318/.352. Werth has rebounded in the 57 games since, hitting .269/.355/.454, a slash line that roughly conforms to his career norm.
Still, the final, black-and-white numbers are inescapable. Werth hit 20 home runs, his fewest since 2007. He has 157 strikeouts, a new career high. His .724 OPS is 124 points below his career average entering this year. Out of 144 qualifying major leaguers, Werth’s 99 OPS+ ranks 98th.
“My numbers weren’t typical numbers that I can put up,” Werth said. “Everybody thinks that I was pressing too much and trying to be something I wasn’t, whatever. The fact of the matter is, I wasn’t swinging the bat very well because my timing was off. I don’t think it had anything to do with wearing too many hats or trying to do too much.”
Werth admitted he felt personal disappointment during his season, but looking back he feels he never allowed it to affect his performance. Werth could not find his rhythm. Werth has cited the difference in the Nationals’ and Phillies’ video systems as a partial cause, but mostly he believes he fell into the kind of slump he has experienced in prior seasons, and that the scrutiny he faced played no role.
“I’m not very good at failure,” Werth said. “I don’t slough it off like, ‘Oh, well.’ I’m not that type of player. Yeah, I took it to heart how I was playing. At the same time, each day I woke up the next day, I was ready to go, ready to feel good, ready to put it all on the line again. I didn’t feel the weight of the contract, or the pressure of being the team’s whatever-you-want-to-call-it. I didn’t get that. I didn’t feel heavy shoulders or any weight. I didn’t play well, and I didn’t like it. But there’s been times in my career when I didn’t play well. I didn’t like it then, either, regardless of the situation.”
Werth will have plenty of time to improve his numbers and continue to chase contention with his new team. His new team, actually, is now just his team. Yesterday, Werth was asked about what it would be like to report to spring training next year.
“I’m going to show up,” Werth said, “and be home.”