In midst of ‘MVP year,’ Jayson Werth at his best since joining Nationals

PHILADELPHIA — Jayson Werth doesn’t really want to talk about it. He’s coy and evasive, though he smiles when asked.

He doesn’t want to discuss what is going well for him at the plate this season, or when it started to click. He finds new ways to avoid the question each time it is posed. Save for admitting he’s holding his hands higher in his stance, in order for them to be in a better position when he makes contact, he has hardly said a word about it.

“Oh, I don’t know,” he says, on one of the many occasions in the last two months the topic has arisen. “Silence is golden.”

His teammates have no shortage of words for him, though.

“He’s having an MVP year,” said outfielder Bryce Harper.

“Since he came off the disabled list, he’s been the best player in baseball,” said third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. “He’s done a lot to get us where we’re at. He’s really carried this team, pretty much.”

“He’s playing unbelievable,” said shortstop Ian Desmond. “This is the Jayson I remember playing against in Philadelphia.”

That last part, the part about this being the Werth that people remember, that may be the most intriguing subplot in the Nationals’ season.

This year has not gone the way the Nationals hoped. While they cling to slim playoff hopes, 6 ½ games back of the second wild card spot with 23 games remaining on the schedule, their record remains far from what they expected when manager Davey Johnson slapped a ‘World Series or bust’ tag on them.

Despite all of that, and outside of the month he missed with a hamstring strain, Werth’s season has been something to marvel at.

As of Thursday morning, he had the fourth-best batting average in the National League at .320. After winning the NL Player of the Month award for July, he played better in August — though Martin Prado took home the monthly honor. Werth will receive MVP votes when it comes time for writers to cast ballots later this month.

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In Philadelphia, where they watched Werth become the type of player the Nationals wanted to spend $126 million to acquire, they know exactly what they’re seeing.

“It looks like the guy that was here for a number of years, a big part of our run,” said Phillies shortstop Jimmy Rollins, who remains close friends with Werth. “He’s always been a guy that’s been able to get locked and stay there for a while. He’ll go through a span where he’s not even touching the ball — can’t swing, little hesitant — and then he’ll come back, slowly but surely, hit a couple home runs.

“Home runs turn to doubles, singles, home runs, singles and it’s like ‘Man, does he make an out?’ And when he does, he’s hitting bullets. It’s like you have to get him out because he’s not getting himself out. We’ve seen him develop to that when he was here. Seems like he’s finding his stride again.”

Werth came off the disabled list on June 4. In the 80 games he has played in since, he has hit .342 with a .425 on-base percentage and .527 slugging percentage. He’s seeing 0.17 fewer pitches per plate appearance, and swinging at the first pitch more (19 percent of the time). He’s hitting .394 with five home runs when he does.

The adjustment of holding his hands higher in his stance was an idea he had to help him generate more power. Right after he did it in July, he hit five home runs in four games.

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Werth’s first season in Washington was abysmal. His second, the most successful in team history, though he missed a lot of it with a broken left wrist. Now, playing every day, producing the way he is, Werth admits he feels as much like himself as he has since he was a member of the Phillies.

“I’d say that’s fair,” Werth said. “Even last year, I was dealing with some circumstances with the wrist. I think right before I did get injured [in 2012], I was starting to get rolling and feel pretty good. But I would say ever since I came back from the DL, I’ve been feeling more like myself and I think the type of player that I knew I was. In the end, that’s what brought me to Washington.”

Said Rollins, “[Early on in D.C.] he was still trying to find out who he was. He was a Phillie. He was a champion as a Phillie. The organization gave him an opportunity to blossom, to become who he is.

“So now it’s like ‘Where’s my home? Who am I?’ [He’s there] but I’m sure his heart was still here in Philadelphia, initially. But you get over that. Like anything, it’s a breakup. It doesn’t happen overnight. It takes time.”

His old teammates can tell how much more comfortable Werth is now with the Nationals, compared to his first year. They see the same ferocious opponent who grinds out at-bats and, as a .360 batting average on balls in play can attest, is hitting the ball hard an awful lot. He has accepted his role as a leader in the Nationals’ clubhouse and thrived in it, rather than having it thrust upon him.

So he’s not much interested in talking about it. Werth is an insightful and analytical player, so there’s no doubt he knows precisely what the “whys” are behind it. He just doesn’t want to publicly delve into them.

“He’s in an awfully good place,” manager Davey Johnson said. “Very seldom does he not have a quality at-bat.”

Might Werth, the manager was asked while sitting in the dugout at Citizens Bank Park this week, be back to being as good as he was when he was with the Phillies?

“I think he’s a better hitter than he was here,” Johnson said. “He had a rough finish in 2011. Aside from injuries, he played awfully well last year. Coming out of injuries this year he’s been good as I’ve ever seen him.”

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