Why Jayson Werth takes his time as the Nationals’ leadoff hitter

Jayson Werth

Wilfredo Lee/AP

Batting leadoff has not changed Jayson Werth, but it has revealed a part of how he approaches the game. Werth revels in baseball’s subtleties, constantly thinking about the small edges that become significant over a 162-game season. When he is leading off, he thinks about every aspect of the job, including the moments when he strolls to the batter’s box at a comically slow pace.

The next time the Nationals’ pitcher makes the second out of an inning, focus your eye on Werth. He’ll knock the weighted donut off his bat, take a step off the on-deck circle, swing the bat a couple times, go back to the on-deck circle for some more pine tar, take another few swings, amble toward the batter’s box, take a few more swings, dig a whole in the batter’s box dirt and, finally, take his stance and begin his at-bat.

The point of all that? Werth is trying to give the pitcher more time to catch his breath before heading back to the mound. It is a small thing, but those are things Werth does.

“That’s what you’re supposed to do,” Werth said last week. “That’s part of a leadoff hitter’s job. That’s probably the only thing I don’t like about leading off. Now my focus is not on my at-bat. It’s on giving him time to get in the dugout. Which is fine. You got to adjust and adapt. I think it was [Roy] Halladay, would always want as much time as you could give him. So, like, even the second hitter would take his time. That’s just part of doing it. It is what it is. I like doing it.”

Werth, a big-ticket free agent who has hit 36 homers in a season, is not a conventional leadoff man, but he thrives at the most important job of the No. 1 hitter: He does not make many outs. Since he returned Aug. 2, Werth has a .409 on-base percentage. Saturrday’s game was typical: He went 2 for 3 with a walk and a double and scored two runs.

Werth also takes a ton of pitches, which helps the rest of the Nationals’ lineup. Bryce Harper has said it helps him when he’s on deck, giving him more time to go through his routine and prepare for his at-bat. Werth has seen 4.40 pitches per plate appearance this year, fourth-most in the major leagues.

“The pitches seen and all that stuff, that’s just a product of my approach,” Werth said. “It’s not like I’m going out there saying, ‘I’m going to see as many pitches as I can.’ That’s just what happens. It’s not like that’s my focus. It’s not, ‘Let’s just grind out an at-bat here for no reason.’ I’m trying to do damage. It just ends up I see a lot of pitches.”

Werth volunteered to become the Nationals’ leadoff hitter, and Manager Davey Johnson agreed he fit there best. It puts Werth in the middle of everything, which is how he likes it.

“The other thing about it I like, it seems like the lineup always flips over the end of the game,” Werth said. “I’ve always loved late-inning at-bats. I live for that. You live for hitting with the game on the line. I want that at-bat. So there’s that.”

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