Jayson Werth, in third year of big contract, is playing like he deserves it

The Post Sports Live crew debates whether the Nationals upcoming soft schedule is their last chance to turn the season around. (Post Sports Live/The Washington Post)
Thomas Boswell
Columnist August 21, 2013

This week, the Angels shut down limping Albert Pujols for the year amid concerns that his 10-year, $250 million deal may be one of the worst ever. The Machine is broken, hitting .258 and steadily fading four years in a row.

The Yankees would sell their soul — and may already have inked such a deal — to get them out of the last $86 million of Alex Rodriguez’s contract. Mark Teixeira (wrist) will play just 15 games this season, has hit just .240 the past two years and has three more years on his $180 million deal. Add the Phillies’ Ryan Howard to the list of abominable injured aging gazillionaires.

Tom Boswell is a Washington Post sports columnist. View Archive

So who’s worth the money? What player with a famously fat contract who’s well into his 30s would you actually consider picking up for the rest of his deal? Not Josh Hamilton ($125 million for five years, hitting .228), that’s for sure.

Even Prince Fielder, 29, is hitting .258 with just 20 homers. Last October, he hit .173 with one extra base hit. The 2007 Prince (50 HRs, 119 RBI) or 2009 Prince (141 RBI) is gone. Would you grab his next seven years for $168 million?

Who’s left? Is there anybody now 32 or older who got a $100 million deal, with tons of it still due, who’s playing as well or better than he ever did? Matt Holliday is close, but his stats slip a bit every year.

The only player who fits this description is the last one I would have guessed two years ago: Jayson Werth, hitting .330 after the Nationals’ 11-6 win over the Cubs on Wednesday. He may win the batting title.

The Washington Nationals’ right fielder has hit .388 since the ides of June, won the NL player of the month award in July, then got even hotter in August (.452). But this news began long ago. Since Werth came off the disabled list 13 months ago, he has adapted his batting style, revived his career and hit .323.

Yes, this is the same man who hit almost 100 points lower (.232) in 2011 under the weight of his seven-year, $126 million “you’re not Werth it” deal.

Few D.C. athletes have been booed or criticized as much. Few hitters have come back from late-career injuries worse than his snapped left wrist last May, his second major injury to that wrist.

“I’ve got one plate, three screws and eight pins in there,” he said. “It’s never going to be 110 percent again. But I’m hitting as well as I ever have.”

In a week, he’ll have enough plate appearances to appear among the league leaders. Assuming he starts 29 of the Nats’ last 36 games, he’ll qualify at year’s end, too. As of Wednesday night, he would be third in the NL in hitting, third in on-base percentage (.408), fifth in slugging (.530) and, almost amazingly, fourth in the game’s current glamour statistic, on-base-plus slugging (OPS), at .938.

All those levels are higher than any year he ever had with the Phillies.

“I’m not a one-dimensional ‘slugger; I’m a ballplayer,” Werth said in March. This year, he has shown he can rebalance all his offensive skills.

This season’s Nats have had many disappointments, but almost all are young players who might bounce back. Their least likely positive surprise this year has been Werth. He was the financial dark hole that would get only worse with time. How could the last four years of his contract ($83 million from 2014 to 2017) not be a weight on the team? With just five homers last season, how could he be worth even half that much at ages 35 through 38?

Werth may still become a burden. But that no longer seems certain. Werth wears No. 28 in honor of one of his close friends, Raul Ibanez, who was a late-bloomer with a big breakout year at age 30. Werth erupted at 29. He knows Ibanez averaged nearly 100 RBI from ages 34 through 39 and has 25 homers so far this season at age 41. So the lanky Werth, a yoga and diet fanatic, declines “the age excuse” and cites the good genes of relatives, such as his grandfather and uncle who “played in the big leagues forever.”

At a glance, Werth seems an unlikely contender for a batting title. But look again: Starting last August, he used a lighter bat, hit to all fields more, cut his strikeouts by a third and even batted leadoff to help win the NL East last year. So .330, while perhaps unsustainable, is an evolution more than a fluke. As his wrist has strengthened this year, with 18 homers in just 336 at-bats, he has been able to crouch less, stand more erect in the box and blend his new approach with much of his old power. His height (6 feet 5) and chopping axe-like stroke help keeps his bat “on plane” through the strike zone. That helps foul off tough pitches, allows him to wear out pitchers (4.26 pitches per plate appearance, one of the highest in baseball) and get cheap hits when fooled.

Yadier Molina (.332) who has hit .315 and .305 the past two seasons, is a logical favorite for the batting title if he finishes as strongly in September as he did in 2011.Others, such as Chris Johnson and Michael Cuddyer, are long shots who’ve never hit .300. The cream, Andrew McCutchen and Joey Votto, at .319 and .316 will have to hit over .400 the rest of the season to get to .333. So the race is wide open.

But it doesn’t matter. Werth has proved his . . . (pause) . . . value.

At 34, Werth has two remaining issues. He needs to hit better with runners in scoring position than he has this year. But his career clutch numbers are strong, so he should regain that form. His bigger problem will probably be injury. He has missed 112 games this season and last combined. Age and injury are almost synonymous. Werth is almost the only Nat who’ll chew out anyone for stupidity or lack of effort. But he may have to rein in his lead-by-example style to play 140-or-more games a year. Ask Ibanez how he does it.

For D.C. fans, there is an all-too-familiar bitterness in late-season praise for individual honors and reignited careers. Just when the area had its first taste of real baseball excellence in eight decades, we’re back to enjoying batting-race chases and Jordan Zimmermann’s NL lead in wins?

The best that can be said of Werth is not his flashy stat line, his player-of-the-whatever awards or his adaptability with age. The best part of Werth is that, of all the Nationals, he may despise such consolation prizes the most.

To get where he and his team someday want to go, it’s vital that his days as a star player, not merely a veteran leader, are not finished. The most ridiculed Nat just two years ago, the one they call Werewolf, still has a bite.

For more by Thomas Boswell, visit washingtonpost.com/boswell.

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