In his second at-bat Thursday night, Jayson Werth did everything right. He took Edinson Volquez’s curveball for strike one, waiting for a pitch he felt he could drive. Volquez left a 94-mph sinker over the plate, and Werth annihilated it to center. But Andrew McCutchen sprinted to the warning track and snared the line drive, which led to a familiar routine for Werth: A right turn short of first base, a skyward glance, a resigned exhale.
“He’s tired of it,” hitting coach Rick Schu said. “He’s getting real tired of it. It’s been ongoing from the opener. He’s really swinging the bat well. Hopefully, they start falling for him.”
In the season’s first 47 games, Werth has accumulated decent numbers. He’s .hitting 277 and slugging .407 with a .363 on-base percentage and five homers. His 114 OPS+ ranks 38th in the National League. Werth is having a pretty good year.
But, based on the contact he has made, Werth could be having a great year, one of the best in the league. His highlight tape would be a maelstrom of warning track fly balls, blistered line drives into gloves and other assorted smoldering outs. According to ESPN statistician Mark Simon, a subjective video tracking service ranks Werth fourth in the majors in at-bats that ended with hard contact.
The most telling figure about Werth’s hard luck: Major league hitters have collectively batted .661 when they hit a line drive, per Baseball-Reference.com. Werth is hitting only .435 on his line drives.
If Werth’s batting average on his 46 liners matched the league average, it would give him an extra 10 hits and boost his overall batting average from .277 to .333. His overall on-base percentage would climb from .363 to .412.
“He’s absolutely crushed the ball,” bench coach Randy Knorr said. “I’m actually starting to feel bad for him.”
Werth has missed out on home runs, too. Denard Span pointed out that Werth could have as many as 10 if he hadn’t launched pitches at the wrong time or place. At Nationals Park last weekend, Juan Lagares pulled back one of his drives from the other side of the center field fence. In Houston, Werth blasted a flyout some 420 feet to the base of Tal’s Hill. Early in April, Werth tattooed a pitch against the Marlins, and the ball died in the cold air – teammates were stunned the ball didn’t carry over the fence.
Schu believes the Nationals’ penchant for hard-luck hard contact has spread throughout the lineup. According to ESPN’s hard-hit statistic, the Nationals rank second in percentage of hard-hit balls.
“It gets frustrating,” Schu said. “Guys get tired of coming back to the dugout and hearing, ‘Hey, nice swing.’ Span the other day said, ‘Forget the nice swing. I want a hit.’ ”
In a conservative estimate, imagine Lagares hadn’t robbed Werth’s home run and that of those 10 extra line-drive hits, only two had been doubles. Werth would have 12 extra total bases to add to his slugging percentage, and it would bounce from .407 to .474.
Without an unrealistic amount of luck, then, Werth could be hitting .333/.412/.474. That would rank him fourth in batting average, fifth in on-base percentage and 23rd in slugging percentage in the National League. His hypothetical .886 OPS would rank 14th in the NL.
Schu said he has stressed to Werth, along with Wilson Ramos and Anthony Rendon, not to alter their approach out of frustration. He wants them to focus on the nature of their contact, not raw numbers.
“Because you’re not getting your hits, you don’t want to start changing mechanics,” Schu said. “Because you are hitting the ball hard, getting in good position. Keep the confidence. They say it evens out. Let’s hope it does.”