The Washington Nationals have played a grand total of eight games without their franchise player, Ryan Zimmerman, in 2011. Since Zimmerman went out, the Nats have gone a respectable (actually, inconceivable) 27-31. That's a .466 winning percentage without the all-star third baseman, compared to a .375 winning percentage with him.
Despite those misleading numbers, which have a number of factors that play into them (Mike Morse's improved play, Ian Desmond not being 0-for-the-season, improved defense, etc.), Ryan Zimmerman's return will have, not only an impact on the team's chances of success in the won/lost department, but also an impact on the $126 million dollar man, Jayson Werth.
I spent the Spring touting Jayson's worth (that was bad) and defending the huge contract; I have spent the first two months of the season searching for glimmers of hope. I have spent countless hours on Werth's baseball-reference and fangraphs pages, looking (hoping?) to find something to cling to.
What I found is, there's only one big difference between the way Werth is playing in Washington than he was in Philadelphia, and it has nothing to do with Werth himself.
So let's look at the biggest complaints we have heard about Werth's short tenure in a Nationals uniform and try to explain them objectively:
"He Strikes Out Too Much"
Sure, Werth strikes out a lot, but we knew that before he signed with Washington. Look at his Strike Out Percentages since his first season in Philadelphia: 2007: 24%, 2008: 24.7%, 2009: 23.1%, 2010: 22.6%. 2011: 20.7%
So in reality, he is actually striking out less than he was in Philadelphia! And, according to his swing percentages, he's been more disciplined in Washington: He's swinging at would-be Balls at a 20.6% rate, compared to a 21.8% rate, last year.
So stop it with the strike out talk; it's nothing new.
His Batting Average is Too Low
In Philadelphia, Werth's batting average was .282; in Washington, he's batting .236. That's a huge and unacceptable drop off. But how much of that is Werth and how much of that is just bad luck?
Again, let's look at his time in Philadelphia for guidance. In those four years, his Batting Average on Balls Put in Play was .336--his career BABIP excluding this season is .333. In 2011, his BABIP is a meager .272.
The thing about the BABIP is that it tends regress back to the player's career average. So in a given season, if a player's BABIP is unusually low compared to his career average, that player is having an unlucky season; if it is unusually high, he's having a lucky season.
Werth's BABIP is unusually low in 2011, and as a consequence of his luck, or lack there of, is a batting average 50 points lower than in his time in Philly.
The counter argument is that his BABIP is low because he's not hitting the ball as well as he did in Philly.
Which would be valid if it were true, but it's not.
His line drive percentage during his four seasons in a Phililes uniform? 20%.
In a Nationals uniform? 21%.
And fortunately for the sake of this argument, The Hardball Times has an expected BABIP calculator, which is based on the type of contact a player is getting (Pop-ups, Line Drives, Ground Balls, etc.).
Jayson Werth's expected-BABIP is .327, 55 points higher than his actual BABIP. Expect his average to start to climb in the coming months.
Where's the Power?
Werth's on pace to hit 20 home runs in 2011. He's not getting nearly as much extra-base hits as he was in Philly. His "Isolated Power", which is the difference between his slugging percentage and batting average, is way down from last year--.236 to .170.
Is Zimmerman's Return the Solution to Werth's Struggles?
And this is where Zimmerman's return comes in to play. As I wrote above, Werth is hitting the ball similar to the way he was in Philly. What is different is his approach at the plate. While he's still seeing the same amount of pitches he was last year--4.36 to 4.26--he's not swinging nearly as much.
We don't know a lot about Werth off the field, but we do know that on the field, and more importantly, in the batter's box, he will wait and wait for a pitch that he likes. It seems, based on the stats at least, he is not getting those pitches, and as a result, he's taking more strikes. While he's getting even more fastballs (59% in 2011, 58.2% in 2010), he's not doing as much with them. His "Runs Above Average" on fastballs is down from 21.3 in 2010 to 1.4 in 2011, which means he's not getting them in desirable locations, where he can do damage.
What's more, Werth took strikes at a 33% rate in 2010; in 2011, he's taking them at a 38% rate, according to baseball-reference.com.
And there's an obvious explanation for that: He doesn't have Chase Utley and Ryan Howard protecting him in the line-up, so he's not getting pitches and he's not swinging. Pitchers can pitch around him in Washington because Morse is the only other dangerous bat in the line-up.
That will change Tuesday when Zim makes his return. Hopefully, we can say the same about Jayson Werth's production.