Is Jayson Werth More Leading Off?
The Philadelphia Phillies had won 21 of 28 games between July 22nd and August 22nd.
They did this in large part without their two best position players, Ryan Howard and Chase Utley. However, all is not well in Philadelphia. The Phils have just dropped three haphazard games in a row to Houston, in what is shaping up to be the worst series of the year. They have also scored two runs or less in six of their last seven games.
Starting pitching this great can only last so long when you have Kyle Kendrick and Joe Blanton as your fourth and fifth starters. The resurgence of Ryan Madson has temporarily shored up the bullpen, but Brad Lidge remains a question mark. This team needs hitting, and with the trade deadline passed, it will have to find extra runs from within the organization.
Luckily, that shouldn't be hard to do. With a few tweaks to the lineup, the Phillies could still run away with the division. The single most important move they can make is to find a new leadoff hitter.
Jimmy Rollins, for all his fielding prowess and clutch hitting, is sporting an inexcusable .336 OBP out of the leadoff spot this season. With each passing game it becomes more apparent; when the Phillies win it is generally despite Rollins, not because of him.
In past years the Phillies have accepted Rollins as a leadoff hitter because there was no alternative. This is not the case in 2010. Jayson Werth has an .390 OBP this season, good for 11th in all of baseball and fifth in the National League.
Since the All-Star break he has been even better, hitting .341 with an other-worldly OBP of .442. Though not nearly as fast or smart on the base paths as Rollins, Werth did steal 20 bases in both 2008 and 2009. In 2010 he has not been quite as successful on the bases, stealing only eight bags in 11 chances so far.
However, the middle of the order is so powerful that speed at the top is not as important as one might think. Manufacturing runs has never been one of this team's strengths. It is far more important that Werth simply finds a way to get on base, and at this, he is exceptionally proficient.
Stealing bases is irrelevant as long as Utley and Howard are hitting bombs behind him.
The most obvious counter-argument to Jayson Werth leading off is the right handed power that the Phillies would then lose out of the middle of their order. In 2009, when he hit 36 home runs, the argument held weight. In 2010, with Werth on pace to hit 22 home runs while driving in 80, the argument falls flat. For whatever reason, Werth has not been hitting for power this year. However, he is still on pace to score 100 runs.
If he had been leading off since opening day, he might have scored 150. Furthermore, plenty of right-handed hitting has emerged this season that could supplant the void left by Werth and successfully support the big lefties.
The most obvious improvement has come from Carlos Ruiz. He has hit .329 against left-handed pitching this year with more walk-offs than you can shake a stick at.
The other guy who could potentially move up in the order is Shane Victorino. He has hit lefties 117 points better than righties in 2010, and he has hit for power in stretches that could become longer and more frequent if he starts seeing more pitches to hit.
Earlier in the season it would have seemed crazy to move Werth out of the middle of the order. He was presumed to be a powerful right-handed bat in a lineup starved for them.
Since then, things have changed and, if the Phillies want to make the playoffs, drastic in-season adjustments will be necessary. Werth has lost his power, but he has also further developed his already formidable knack for getting on base.
At the same time, Carlos Ruiz and Shane Victorino have shown that they can hit higher in the order and effectively break up the left-handed trio of Utley, Howard, and Ibanez.
Every time Jayson Werth works a walk, every time Jimmy Rollins swings at the first pitch, and every time a Phillies slugger hits a solo home run, the lack of a lineup shakeup becomes more and more inexplicable.
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