In the top of the third Saturday night, Jayson Werth came to the plate with a runner on third and one out, an excellent chance for the Nationals to score and for Werth to pick up an RBI. Only the Diamondbacks and pitcher Joe Saunders made clear they would not allow that to happen, at least not easily.
Saunders threw Werth five pitches – two balls, a strike on the corner on 2-0, and two more balls. Werth drew a walk, letting the inning fall to Michael Morse. He struck out, and Danny Espinosa tapped back to the pitch. The inning ended without the Nationals scoring a run.
Surely, some fans blamed that zero on the scoreboard on Werth. Here he is, batting third in the lineup, the big-ticket free agent. Why not poke a pitch outside the strike zone for a sacrifice fly? Take the RBI when you can get it.
Should Werth be blamed for taking the walk and passing on a possible RBI? No, and here’s why:
Using this handy expected runs chart, we see that teams, on average, score .09 runs when the bases are empty and there’s two outs. So let’s say Werth swung at a ball out of the zone and flied to left, deep enough to score the run. The Nationals would have their one run and would score, on average, .09 runs in the rest of the inning. The sac fly gives the Nationals 1.09 runs.
But Werth didn’t hit the sac fly. He walked, and that put runners on first and third with one out. What did that do for the Nationals’ chances to score? Going back to the expected runs chart, teams score, on average, 1.12 runs in an inning when there is one out and runners on the corners.
The walk would have given the Nationals their best theoretical chance to score the most runs in the third inning. Now, that’s a very marginal difference, and so in this one given situation, it probably would not have mattered. In a larger sense, the decision to take the walk does matter.
His on-base percentage now is .350. Werth’s value lies in his ability to reach base almost 40 percent of the time. He sees pitches, draws walks and clobbers mistakes. I’m not talking about whether or not he’s worth his contract; that’s tiresome and beside the point. But he’s a very valuable player because of his skill at reaching base. He’s hitting third now, a spot in the lineup associated with driving in runs. But he shouldn’t get blamed for being miscast while Ryan Zimmerman is out of the lineup.
There has been much talk about whether or not “the pressure” of his contract will affect Werth. That seems a very vague notion. Last night, if he tried to score the run by hitting a sac fly on a tough pitch, that would have been a very real example of that happening, of “the pressure getting to him.” Werth would have been doing something that does not best suit his skillset. The Nationals are paying him a lot of money, sure. But the money doesn’t play. In order to be the best version of himself, Werth knows, he’s got to reach base. It’s why he wanted to hit second when Zimmerman was in the lineup. It plays to his strength.
Werth taking the walk, and then seeing backfire, speaks to a weakness in the Nationals lineup, not a weakness in Werth. Three times last night, Werth walked or was hit by a pitch. All three times, Michael Morse struck out behind him. It was frustrating each time. But Werth should not be faulted for his proficiency at not making outs, which is merely the most important thing an offensive player can do.
I think makes for a pretty interesting discussion. I’d be interested to hear thoughts in the comments — and to read Mark Zuckerman’s response. (Mark and I have had some press box conversations, you could say.)