After subpar 2011, Jayson Werth finally feels at home with Nationals
VIERA, Fla. -- An hour before Sunday's Grapefruit League game, Jayson Werth and Nationals' hitting coach Rick Eckstein remained in the batting cage beyond rightfield at Space Coast Stadium, working on a drill that brings Werth back to his productive days with the Phillies. Werth stood at the plate. Twenty feet away behind a net, Eckstein threw hard fastballs that Werth cracked all over the cage. Eckstein said it's a unique drill, not the average soft-toss, something he's never seen before.
Werth agreed. "It's not for everybody, and I don't know if it is for anybody," he said. "It works for me. It simulates game speed and gets the nervous system read. I did it in Philadelphia, but got away from it here. I don't know why. I started doing it in the second half of last season and I'm going to do it this year.''
As Werth prepares for his second season in Washington after a disappointing 2011 -- one in which he hit just .232 with 20 home runs -- he's determined to get back into a routine of familiarity, one that makes him feel at home, whether it is batting drills, attitude or approach. He thinks his swing is back, and is not going to try to incorporate every piece of advice that comes his way. He won't try to fix everything and he'll stop trying to be someone he isn't.
And he's not going to pay attention to critics who judge him for one bad season. He believes his time in D.C. will be defined by winning in the future, not what happened last season.
"There's so much to look forward to with this team,'' Werth said. "Last year, I got caught up in trying to be too pleasing, trying to make everybody happy. I wasn't true to myself and I wasn't the same guy that got me into this situation.''
Werth, 32, will play rightfield and bat fifth or sixth in a Nationals' lineup that needs more offense to support a trumped-up rotation and bullpen. Last season, the Nationals scored just 624 runs, 12th in the National League. They'll bank on healthy comebacks from Ryan Zimmerman and Adam LaRoche, improvement from Ian Desmond, Danny Espinosa and Wilson Ramos and a return to form from Werth to spur increased run production.
There was a chance that Werth would switch to center to make room for prospect Bryce Harper, 19, in right. But Harper was optioned to Class AAA on Sunday, putting Werth back in rightfield and leaving Rick Ankiel, Roger Bernadina and Brett Carroll to compete in center.
Nationals manager Davey Johnson said Werth's legs will take less of a beating in right ield, and that when Harper returns, he'll play in center. And even though Werth played 17 games in center last season, Johnson doesn't want to put anything more on Werth.
"Jayson is a great rightfielder and an above-average centerfielder,'' Johnson said. "He took on a lot last season. He was coming from a winning team and wanted to turn things around right away. But I like where he is at this season.
"When [Ryan] Zimmerman and [Adam] La Roche were out, Jayson was the only experienced player in the lineup, and that affected how everyone pitched to him. He didn't get many pitches to hit.''
According to Fangraphs.com, Werth swung at 24.2 percent of pitches out of the zone, a new career-high. And when Werth batted, opponents threw 46.5 percent of their pitches in the strike zone, a new career-low.
In fact, nothing went right for Werth last season. He hit just .232 and had 20 home runs, both by far the worst since he became an everyday player with the Phillies, and he struck out a career-high 160 times. After serving a pivotal role in helping Philadelphia win four National League East titles, two pennants and the 2008 World Series championship, Werth struggled mightily after signing a seven-year, $126 million contract with the Nationals, a team that hasn't had a winning season since moving from Montreal to Washington in 2005. He was even booed by D.C. fans after his average dropped to a season-low .211 on July 18.
Once the season ended, Werth stayed at his suburban home in northern Virginia and worked out regularly at Nationals Park. It was the first time he spent the winter in the city where he played, an attempt to feel more at ease come spring.
"Comfort is important,'' Werth said. "Last year, everything was so new. This year, it's different in a comfort way. I feel like I am at home.''
The winter in Washington helped him gain perspective. He realized the ups and downs of baseball and knew that he could rebound from a bad season.
"There wasn't a whole lot of sting,'' Werth said. "The perception was worse than it was. That's baseball. I've had all kinds of different years. When I was 13, I hurt my elbow and couldn't throw. That was a rough year, but I bounced back.
"Last year was one of seven seasons here and one of eight in my career. Judging me by last season is not only not fair, it's not accurate.''
Throughout the season, Werth tried everything: He toyed with open and closed stances. He shifted his hands up and down on the bat. He raised his front leg to start his swing, and then he didn't. He batted everywhere from leadoff to the middle of the order.
"I started out of sync, and couldn't get the feel,'' Werth said. "My swing was bad and stayed bad.''
The frustration bubbled to the fore in May. After a 6-3 loss in Milwaukee that completed a miserable 1-7 road trip, Werth told reporters that there needed to be changes. He wasn't specific, but it led to media speculation that he wasn't happy with general manager Mike Rizzo and manager Jim Riggleman.
He and Riggleman met to clear the air, and Werth explained his frustrations, including that the team wasn't aggressive enough. As the season concluded, Johnson and Eckstein each met with Werth to talk approach and not trying to do too much.
The Nationals' new relief pitcher, Brad Lidge, a teammate of Werth's in Philadelphia, said he knows that a player's first year with a new team and contract can be difficult.
"It's tough because everything is different and it's a juggling act, with the expectations, trying to do well and being in the spotlight," said Lidge. "I think he's learned to be himself. He's going to have better numbers and be good at base running, defense and working the pitchers into high pitch counts. Those are the things that go under the radar with Jayson.''
In New York during early January, Werth had a chance encounter with outfielder Carlos Beltran and the two compared notes. Beltran had a similar experience to Werth: He signed a $119 million contract with the Mets in 2005 before falling flat. Now with the Cardinals, Beltran hit a forgettable .266 with 16 home runs and 78 RBIs in his first season in New York.
"It was the ultimate parallel,'' Werth said.
Beltran told Werth that he had the same problems living up to contract expectations and trying to win while feeling comfortable in an intense spotlight in a new place. His insight was invaluable.
"It helped me put everything into perspective,'' Werth said. "I could see the big picture. It was refreshing to know that some one else had the same struggles and the same stuff. It wasn't just me.''
In 2006, Beltran shook off his bad start by hitting .275 with 41 home runs and 116 RBIs. Werth will look to find similar success in 2011, and a few days after gaining renewed energy, was back in the batting cage looking forward to spring training.
"It meant relaxation,'' Werth said. "I could exhale again.''
Werth is healthy and doesn't have to rehabilitate. He has an iconic manager in Johnson, a man he calls a pillar of strength. He likes the Nationals' chemistry and the fact that they added pitchers Gio Gonzalez, Edwin Jackson and Lidge in the offseason.
Now that the miserable memories have faded, Werth is finally starting to see positives.
"We've got a chance to get into the playoffs, especially if we play like we did in September," he said. "And we are going to have more wins going into September then we did last year. Last year is over. We have a lot to look forward to.''