Jayson Werth took a jab at the media shortly after arriving at spring training. He was steadfast in his belief that, at 36 years old, turning 37 in May, he would be able to play like he always had. All he needed was his health. Though, he said sarcastically, based on what he had been reading, he may already be done.
Werth was extrapolating the discussion around how to insert outfielder Michael A. Taylor into the lineup after flashes of power and speed as a rookie were backed by a hot spring. Nationals manager Dusty Baker said he was going to find a way for Taylor to play. When outfielder Ben Revere was placed on the 15-day disabled list on Wednesday because of a strained right oblique, the path for Taylor to get on the field became clear.
However, there has been a problem with plans to play both. It’s that neither, at the moment, can reach base.
Now, we’ll go through this with the heavy caveat that the Nationals are just three games into the season. But, here’s a look at what’s happening with each:
First, Werth. He’s 0-for-11. He has struck out three times. According to FanGraphs, his line-drive percentage is just 12.5 percent and his groundball percentage is a soaring 62.5 percent, so even when he does make contact, it has been feeble, despite facing 73.5 percent fastballs — that includes cutters and two-seamers — so far this season.
His contact rate on pitches in and outside of the zone is also well off its typical rate. Werth’s career contact rate on pitches inside the strike zone is 84.5 percent. It’s just 69.2 percent so far. Outside the zone, he’s at 57.1 percent, down from 65.2 percent for his career.
“When you’re in between, you’re kind of in no-man’s land,” Baker said. “You’re late on fastballs and you’re early on breaking balls. Right now, his timing is off. He’s frustrated. I can see it in his face. But, we’re all frustrated. We’ve played three games. Three games, all you need is a couple good games and you’re right back on top, especially early in the year like this. I was hoping that he’d have a big game [Thursday]. Just going to put him back out there [Saturday].”
The negative math has been bolstered by Werth also failing the old-fashioned eye test at the plate and in left field. He swings are unbalanced gropes. In the outfield, Werth has been having trouble corralling fly balls since the Nationals returned from Florida and played the final two spring training games at Nationals Park.
Taylor’s time at the top of the order in place of Revere has been equally doomed during the first baby steps of the season. He’s 0-for-11 with four strikeouts and no walks.
His line-drive percentage is just 12.5. Most of his outs have been fly balls. One he hit to the warning track on Thursday, a healthy out that may serve as a precursor to better things. The most troubling number for Taylor is his contact percentage on pitches outside of the strike zone: It’s 16.7 percent, down from 52.1 percent. Inside the zone? A 94.7 percent contact rate.
Taylor is not the standard leadoff type, nor does Baker expect him to be. He’s seen just 3.33 pitches per plate appearance this season which is 92nd out of 105 National League regulars this season (for comparison, Bryce Harper sees 4.71 so far). Baker has advised Taylor to swing at a good pitch, even if it’s early in the count. He explained before Thursday’s game that Anthony Rendon, entrenched at the No. 2 spot in the order, works the count. Harper follows with the same approach, which means the Nationals are not starting the game with three free-swingers, despite Taylor’s frisky ways at the plate.
Unlike Werth, Taylor’s defense has been exceptional, as it was last season after uncharacteristic yips in the first couple games. He has two outfield assists and had such a good jump and route on a fly ball to right-center field Thursday that he made the catch look much simpler than it was.
Baker has contended since spring training began that veterans start slower than young players, but tend to sustain it once they do start going. At the moment, he needs a youngster and part of the old guard to both get moving at the plate.
• Todd Dybas can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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