There’s not much about the 2011 season that was similar to the 2010 one for Jayson Werth. There’s the obvious: new team, new place in the standings, new paycheck size. But there’s also the unexpected, like the fact that it’d take him until August to feel like he’s completely comfortable at the plate — to feel like himself again.
Monday night, in a 1-0 game, Werth did something very typical of the player he was before he arrived here: he took a 1-1 pitch from left-hander Joe Saunders and deposited into the right field seats. He turned on a 93 mph fastball over the heart of the plate and sent it to the opposite field. He also doubled off Saunders in his first at-bat, a 2-for-4 night for the Nationals right fielder.
When the Nationals headed back to the clubhouse after their 4-1 victory over the Diamondbacks, Nationals manager Davey Johnson greeted Werth with something of a backhanded compliment: “So you can hit lefthanders,” Johnson said.
“Yeah,” Werth said with a smirk, knowing he was hitting a paltry .169 against left-handed pitching entering Monday’s game despite a .279 career average against them.
“I didn’t really appreciate that.”
It was a light moment that the two could share now because Werth, in spite of his still underwhelming offensive numbers (.229 batting average, .331 on-base percentage, .388 slugging percentage, .718 OPS), has begun to feel like his old self in the batters box again. He’s chipped away all season at getting his timing right, getting his stance right, getting into what hitting coach Rick Eckstein refers to as “the good hitting position.” All the tinkering finally has Werth feeling comfortable.
“For sure,” Werth said, the most confident he’s been all season when asked if he’s feeling good at the plate. ‘I think the past week, 10 days, really locked it in. It was a struggle really to find it. Been a long time coming. I knew where it was I didn’t really know how to get there. Finally I feel like I got there.”
In truth, it can’t be all that surprising that Werth hasn’t hit left-handed pitching well. He hasn’t hit well for much of the season. There have been times where he’s felt he’s close, felt he’s locked in, and then he’d go backward or lose what had him feeling so good in the first place. There have been days where Werth has come in after an 0-for-4 night at the plate and looked at Eckstein and said “Eck, I felt great. I felt great.”
“Good,” Eckstein would tell him. “Let’s build off that.”
It’s been a long, grueling season as they’ve tried to build off that and toward the Jayson Werth type of production the Nationals were hoping for when they signed him this past offseason. Werth had hit 14 home runs before Monday night, but the fact that Monday’s came against a lefty was perhaps another step in the right direction for Werth.
“Really for me, if my swing is right I should hit lefties good,” he said. “I should hit lefties and righties good. When its not good, I could pitch and probably get me out sometimes, it feels like.
“Hopefully the rest of the way I’ll be right and stay right there.”
Werth’s numbers are clearly still not there. But if baseball is about measuring yourself against your past experiences, in Werth’s case especially, it’s best to look at the recent history. At the All-Star break — and even a week later — his average had tumbled to .211. He was flirting with the Mendoza line and it was easily shaping up to be one of the worst, if not the worst, seasons of his career. At the very least, it was dramatically worse than what the Nationals were expecting.
“The whole ballclub’s offense is really starting to come around,” Johnson said. “Everybody’s been kind of sleeping and feeling their way. He’s been no different.”
He’s gotten that number up to .229 and he’s hit 15 home runs (only two fewer than the 17 he had at this time last year). It’s still not great, but it’s improving. There are five weeks left for him to keep raising those, and all of his other marks.
“Jayson’s worked hard,” Eckstein said. “Now, the hits are starting to fall for him. He’s starting to get that swagger back that he knows he’s more locked in.”