Sunday, December 12, 2010

What's Jayson Worth?

Taking a break from the usual neighborhood stuff this weekend to do a little write-up on one of my other passions, the game of baseball.

If you follow the Nationals at all (full disclosure: I was, am, and will continue to be a Reds fan, but the Nats do pop up on my radar screen from time to time), you know that they recently signed former Phillies outfielder Jayson Werth to a seven year, $126 million contract. The deal provoked a lot of dropped jaws and eye rolls throughout DC and all of MLB due to its length and its total (although Carl Crawford could not have been more thrilled). I was willing to write it off as simply the latest example of a mid-market MLB time desperately trying to prove that they're relevant by overpaying for a player. (ESPN columnist Jayson Stark tweeted after the deal was announced that Werth's agent, Scott Boras, told him that the Nats' offer was so high he (Boras) didn't even bother to ask if other teams wanted to match it. The Nats front office shouldn't be too thrilled to learn about that.)

But then I opened yesterday's Post and, in my usual momentary lapse of reason, turned to the ever-engaging "Free For All" section, where I read this letter from Doug Snyder of Bowie:

The three Dec. 6-7 Sports articles, two by Adam Kilgore and a column by Thomas Boswell, gave us plenty of information on the pros and cons of outfielder Jayson Werth joining the Washington Nationals for more than double his 2010 salary but failed to include his 2010 statistics: 27 home runs, 85 runs batted in and a .296 batting average. These can be compared with the numbers of Adam Dunn, the hitter Werth replaces: 38-103-.260. Werth also had more doubles, a league-leading 46 to Dunn's 36, and, at 147 strikeouts, had 52 fewer than did Dunn.

These kinds of false comparisons help demonstrate why franchises such as the Nationals continually make mistakes on players like Werth. They look at a player who is coming off a career year, and extrapolate those numbers out throughout the life of a lengthy contract. However, the reality is Jayson Werth is virtually guaranteed to disappoint anyone who thinks that he is going to come close to replicating the numbers he put up last year in Philadelphia. Here's why.

First, it's important to examine Werth's numbers outside of the vacuum of last season alone. His numbers last year (.388 OBP/ .532 SLG/ .920 OPS) clearly placed Werth in the upper tier of NL outfielders. They also represent a marked increase over his career averages of .367/.481/.848 (numbers which, it should be noted, include Werth's 2010 career year). Looking back on Werth's last three seasons in Philadelphia prior to 2010, his OPS (on-base plus slugging) was .863, .861 and .879. Solid, but not superstar quality.

Werth's power numbers (HR totals of 24, 36 and 27 over the last three years) are decent enough, but also throw up a couple of red flags. Werth's 2009 season, in which he hit 36 HRs, is beginning to look more and more like an anomaly as his HR total fell by 25% last year (much closer to his 2008 number). Second, he benefited substantially the last several seasons from the protection offered by a Phillies lineup that featured Chase Utley, Ryan Howard and Jimmy Rollins batting around him--a luxury he won't have in Washington. Additionally, Werth benefited from hitting in a park--Philadelphia's Citizens Bank Park--that was slightly homer friendly (a HR factor of 1.125), and will be moving to Nationals Park, which offers no HR benefit whatsoever.

Inevitably, Werth's numbers will be compared with Dunn, as the Post letter writer did above. If they are, Werth will almost certainly come out on the short end. Dunn was much maligned for his strikeout totals, which over the last six seasons have been consistently towards the top of the NL. But those numbers tell only part of the story with Dunn, who is a model of consistency not just in regards to strikeouts, but across the board. He has a lifetime OPS of .902, and 4 of his last six seasons have seen him put up OPS numbers in excess of .900. He is a virtual lock to hit nearly 40 HRs every year--and will benefit immensely from moving to Chicago's absurdly homer-friendly U.S. Cellular Field. He stays healthy (having played 152 games or more each season since 2004), and has put up RBI totals of 100 or more for each of the last six seasons, despite playing in lineups that offered him little or no protection.

Werth, meanwhile, has seen his career peak at ages 31-32. It is exceptionally rare to see a player the caliber of Werth go on to post career numbers in their mid-late 30s, as the National's contract with him seems to imply that he will do. More than likely, Werth will post numbers at or close to his career averages for the next several years--OPS numbers around .850, HR totals around 25, RBI totals around 80-90--and then a tapering off from there. By the time he gets to age 39, it will take either an act of God or a prescribed regimen of pharmaceuticals more fitting for competitors in the All Drug Olympics for Werth to put up the good-but-not-great numbers he put up in Philadelphia. Werth does play better defense than Dunn, and will be an upgrade for the Nationals in right field.

Meanwhile, the Chicago White Sox signed Dunn to a contract that includes both less years (four) and money ($4 million less per year) than the deal the Nats signed with Werth. Clearly, there are other factors involved here: perhaps Dunn wanted to go to a team that had the potential to be a World Series contender next season, or he just wanted out of Washington. But the takeaway is this: Werth isn't a bad player by any means, but he is unlikely to approach Dunn's offensive production, and there's little doubt that the Nationals overpaid for him. Additionally, the length of the deal almost certainly ensures that the Nationals will be trying to unload him as it reaches its later years, and will have a difficult time doing so.

Nats fans, meanwhile, will likely have to suffer through at least another year or two of mediocrity on the field, while the only one who really makes out on this deal is Werth.


Q-Street said...

I think the front office knew that they needed to show the potential free agents over the next two years that they are committed to winning.

No doubt, Werth alone is not worth his contract. But with other players around the league seeing the Werth signing and knowing that Strasburg is going to be back in 2012 and Harper is waiting in the farm system, you just made yourselves really competetive in the 2011 free agent market.

Tough to see Dunn go though. He had a great year.

I'm a huge Phillies fan, and we loved Werth. He hit when it really mattered. Honestly, at the end of the season, if you could choose one guy to get you the winning run, you'd pick Werth over Howard, Utley, Rollins etc etc . I would not have been pleased if we signed this contract with him, but I think it's a move the Nats HAD to make.

Anonymous said...

As a fellow huge Phillies fan, I couldn't agree more with Q-Street. I think the Nats will be very satisfied with Jayson

Mr. 14th & You said...

To be clear, I'm not saying that Werth won't be a good player for the Nats. I am saying that, by himself, he won't replace the loss of Dunn's offensive production, and the length of the contract will almost certainly hamstring the Nats during its later years. I would have sought out something in the 4 yr/$70 mil range.