MIAMI GARDENS, Fla. – Sometime last week, Jayson Werth received a text message from his agent, Scott Boras, that unlocked something for him. It was a simple message, because baseball, once you strip away the television cameras and empty clichés and white noise, is a simple game.
The message read: “The key is get on base and use your speed.”
“It was kind of an enlightening moment,” Werth said Saturday afternoon, sipping a cup of coffee at his locker. “It was like, ‘Oh yeah. We’re still playing baseball here.’ Get on base, use your speed. That’s my game. That’s what makes me. That philosophy, it’s very simple, but it’s right.”
Since he joined the Washington Nationals, Werth has often found himself surrounded by a horde of reporters, wielding cameras and notebooks. Each time, he has been asked about the “pressure” he faces in Washington, which seems a vague, hard-to-define notion. “What is that?” Werth said. “What is that, exactly?”
At some point during his first regular-season month with the Nationals – the first 1/42 of the seven-year, $126 million contract he signed in December – Werth realized he had been affected on some level by his new circumstances, in the adjustment that comes with playing for a new team and with a new, more focal position in a franchise.
“Once I get in the box, and once I’m on the field, we’re playing baseball, like I’ve been playing since I was 6,” Werth said. “All that talk, all those questions about, ‘Any added pressure?’ What’s that? To me, it gives the media something to talk about. Is it real? Does it exist? On some level. Is it this huge undertaking, responsibility? No.”
Werth, unquestionably, has started slowly. He’s hitting .227 with a .324 on-base percentage, a .387 slugging percentage and four home runs. He realizes now that he altered his approach as a hitter, pressing to carry the Nationals rather than emphasizing what made him one of the National League’s 10 most valuable players the past two seasons.
In April, he noticed what had happened to Carl Crawford, who signed a seven-year, $142 million contract to play for the Boston Red Sox. He went 15 for 97 in April and the Red Sox moved him to eighth in their lineup. In Crawford, Werth saw himself.
“I think I may have got caught up in trying to do too much,” Werth said. “I think that’s probably human nature a little bit. You look around, I see Carl kind of going through the same thing. Outside looking in at him, it’s pretty easy to see: new situation, he’s just pressing, trying to do too much. I take a look back, probably the same could be said about myself. You kind of see how that would be easy to say, without even realizing it’s going on.”
Boras’s message helped crystallize that. Days later, Werth drew three walks and scored the game-winning run against the Florida Marlins. Werth has power – he drilled 36 homers in 2009 and last year hit 27 with a league-leading 46 doubles. But his offensive success stemmed from a disciplined approach. In 2009 and 2010, Werth had a .380 on-base percentage, 14th in the majors.
“It’s not, ‘drive in all the runs all the time.’ It’s not, ‘get caught up in the numbers.’ It’s not any of that,” Werth said. “Get on base, use your speed. That way, you give your team the best chance to win the game, and all that extra stuff falls into place.”
For Werth, the transition to a new team has presented practical challenges. For example, Werth said, he does not have the same trove of videos of his swing that he had in Philadelphia. And he and hitting coach Rick Eckstein took time to learn one another.
“I think there is a little learning curve for everybody,” Werth said. “Between the teammates, that comes quicker, because that’s who you spend the most time with. Stuff with the coaches and the staff, it takes more time. It’s coming along. I’ve been comfortable since early on spring training. It’s not like it’s a comfort thing. It’s just a learning curve a little bit.”
These are not complaints, simply matters of fact. Werth loves living in Washington and has fit easily into the Nationals clubhouse. His hustle and base running aggression serves as an example. He is an active teammate, discussing certain situations with younger teammates, which he called part of his “responsibility.”
But at the plate, Werth is searching. The important part, for him, is that he moved beyond what does not matter and focused on what is simple and real, what makes him himself.
“I think as time has gone here, especially recently, I’m just back to just playing baseball,” Werth said. “I’m not looking too much into anything. Just reacting. That’s when I’m at my best. . . .
“At the end of the year, the numbers are going to be there. At some point, you got to get locked in and start raking. I think it’s close. The approach is: Get on base, use your speed. I think that’s my game. Get back to that, and I’ll be fine.”