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Aggressive approach paying off for Nationals’ Werth

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Late in the Washington Nationals' victory over the Chicago White Sox on Tuesday, as Jayson Werth stepped into the batter's box, Davey Johnson looked up at the scoreboard and noticed something.

The Nationals' right fielder, known for his patient approach at the plate, had the same on-base percentage as his batting average.

"Unless the scoreboard is wrong, he hasn't walked yet," Johnson said.

The scoreboard was not wrong.

Since 2007, 12.6 percent of Werth's at-bats have resulted in a walk. When it comes to pitches seen per plate appearance, Werth led the National League in 2009, 2010 and 2011. In 2007, 2008 and 2012, when Werth came just short of the minimum plate appearances needed, his percentage would have easily led the league had he qualified.

So: seven games, no walks? Johnson viewed it as a good sign.

"That just tells me he's been swinging the bat more aggressively," the manager said. "His wrist is feeling good and he's being more aggressive. I like that. He'll get his walks, I'm not worried about that."

"I think I have been more aggressive this year," Werth said shortly after he hit a first-pitch home run in the sixth inning and a second-pitch single in the seventh Tuesday.

"But usually I'm aggressive when I feel good at the plate and when I'm not as aggressive I usually don't feel as good. It just depends."

For Werth, any questions that hung over him as he entered the 2013 season centered on the health of the left wrist he broke in May. If it wasn't at full strength, it wasn't clear what kind of power he might have. It wasn't clear what his ability at the plate might be, despite how well he performed down the stretch when he returned in 2012.

Werth has quieted those questions, though, smoking three home runs in his first seven games of the season, and just missing a few others. His power, it seems, has returned in spades.

But the more aggressive approach isn't necessarily tied into that, Werth said, as much as it reflects more of an overall comfort in the batter's box.

Over the course of his career, Werth has averaged 4.44 pitches per plate appearance. This season, small sample that it is, that number is down to 3.90. That's not an insignificant difference.

"A lot of times being aggressive can give you space," Werth said. "Then you can take pitches because you're not worried about hitting with two strikes. I am more aggressive when I'm feeling good, but I also am more confident that I can get deep in the count and not worry about getting to a spot where I don't feel comfortable."

That doesn't mean Werth is changing the approach that has brought him to this point. On the contrary, Werth and the rest of the Nationals' lineup are working to find out just how important seeing a high number of pitches can be.

On Tuesday, the Nationals went down in order in the first inning. They also made Jake Peavy throw 26 pitches to get those three outs. Denard Span saw eight, Werth saw seven and Bryce Harper made Peavy use 11. With his pitch count soaring in the fifth and sixth innings, Peavy surrendered three home runs.

"By the time you get to Harp, [Ryan Zimmerman] and [Adam LaRoche], you've thrown a lot of pitches and that takes a toll," Werth said. "Chances are you're not going to be as sharp as the game goes on. You might leave one over the plate. You might leave one up. With the guys we've got hitting three, four, five, six, those guys can do damage to pitches like that."

In 2009, Werth hit fifth behind Chase Utley and Ryan Howard in the Philadelphia Phillies' lineup. All three of them were in the top 15 in pitches seen per plate appearance in the National League. As the season went on, Werth saw what that did to their opponents.

"By the time you get to the middle of the order, you've thrown more pitches over the course of a season to those three hitters than really anyone else in the league," Werth said.

"It makes it tough on the other team. It makes it tough on the starter. It gets you into the bullpen, gets you to see that sixth-inning guy. Those are the guys you want to see. Those are the guys you can do damage against."

That's the strategy. The plan. So long as Werth remains comfortable, though, his pitches per plate appearance may go down slightly while his production goes up.

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