In his first at-bat Tuesday, Jayson Werth spent far less time in the batter’s box than he usually does. The Braves’ Kris Medlen started him with a fastball, and Werth smoked a searing line drive to right field that, with an assist from the wind, skipped off the top of the fence for a home run. As Werth circled the bases, Manager Davey Johnson had one thought.
“I mean, when has he ever swung at a first-pitch fastball?” Johnson said.
Well, we have the answer: Werth swung at 14.6 percent of the first pitches he saw last year, more than only 18 major league hitters. (Ryan Zimmerman actually hacked at the first pitch less frequently – only 11.8 percent of the time, 11th fewest in the majors.) Werth taking the first pitch became a common criticism among fans last year, and Johnson would actually like to see Werth swing more often, too.
“I’d like him to be more aggressive,” Johnson said. “I know he prides himself on seeing a lot of pitches and leading the league in pitches taken. But I like to be aggressive. When they throw you a ball that has a lot of the plate, I like to see that lumber coming through there. He’s been going after it. He’s looked awful good in batting practice. It’s fun.”
Wearing out an opposing team’s starter is one of Werth’s clear strengths. Last year, he saw 4.35 pitches per plate appearance, more than any major league hitter except Curtis Granderson. Since 2008, Werth has averaged 4.43 pitches per plate appearance, which leads the majors. Brett Gardner is second at 4.29, and that is actually a pretty sizable margin.
If Johnson wants Werth to be more aggressive early in the count, that will probably be a delicate balance. Part of what makes Werth valuable is his elite plate discipline. And last year, pitchers found reason to pitch around Werth without Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche in the lineup for much of the season. In 2011, 46.5 percent of the pitches Werth saw were in the strike zone, according to FanGraphs.com, a career low.
The best reason for Werth to swing at the first pitch more often would be to simply let pitchers know he might pounce on a hittable fastball. That would eventually lead to more 1-0 counts, which would let Werth dictate the count and see more pitches, which is what he wants to do in the first place.
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