Last Sunday night, the Nationals’ dreams of contending for one of the five National League playoff spots looked all but dead as right fielder Jayson Werth lay on the Nationals Park turf in severe pain, his left wrist broken.
After surgery the next day (and an e-mail message sent to The Washington Post expressing his disdain for the jeers and taunts of visiting Phillies’ fans as he left the field. Werth plans to use the incident as motivation to return as soon as he can this season), the Nationals’ right fielder now begins a 10-12 week rehabilitation that will cost him roughly half of the 2012 season.
Nationals’ fans may lament how a satisfying weekend, winning a series against Philadelphia and taking back the park from their infamous fans, turned into the despair of a potential dream season lost. Even manager Davey Johnson termed Werth’s injury a “disaster.”
On one hand, it’s difficult to reach any other conclusion. Both on and off the field, Werth is the Nationals’ leader, a winner, a baseball sage, and a fine outfielder who can win games with his bat, legs, glove, arm, and savvy. In his short tenure in D.C. Werth has already:
— confronted Nyjer Morgan and his self-centered disrespect for the game, nearly coming to blows with the former National, to announce and enforce a more professional culture for the club.
— convinced closer Storen, crushed often in 2011 spring training, to junk his new delivery for his trademark tough-to-time slide step.
— blasted a spring training home run off of his own pick-up truck, instantly becoming a legend for his teammates to rally around.
— Gave Bryce Harper inside information about Cole “Old School” Hamels’ glacial pickoff move, enabling the rookie to steal home.
However, using statistical analysis, often called sabermetrics in honor of the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR), we can measure, based on expected wins lost, the potential effect on the Nats’ bottom line record of Werth’s probable 81 game absence.
First, a definition. A few years ago, the folks at Baseball Prospectus developed a concept known as “Wins Above Replacement” value, usually shortened to WAR. Basically, WAR measures the number of wins a player contributes above the wins a readily available player a team could obtain with a minimal expenditure of resources (money or a low level person in a trade) would provide.
Replacement level players’ performance is essentially the average of all back-up players at a given position. For example, in 2011, a replacement level left or right fielder’s batting average, on-base percentage, slugging percentage slash line was approximately .230/.330/.370 or about a .600 OPS.
In 2011, Werth’s WAR, according to FanGraphs was 2.5, meaning Werth gave the Nationals 2.5 wins above what the average back-up right fielder would have. The number reflects Werth’s sub-par 2011 season. In most seasons, good players have a WAR of 4-5, elite players 6, 7 or higher.
While some analysts, such as Fan Graph’s Jack Moore, expected Werth to regress this season (Moore predicted 300 plate appearances and a 1.5 WAR), he was putting up decent numbers in 2012. So, let’s say Werth was on pace for a 3.0 WAR season this year. If Moore is correct, Werth’s WAR will be 1.0. If he does better than expected, his WAR could approach 4 or even 5.
If Moore is right, Werth’s absence for 81 games equates to the loss of half a win. We’ll round up to 1 win lost. If Werth’s 2012 pace is a better gauge, his injury will cost the Nats 1.5 wins. We’ll round up to 2.
Overall, Werth’s absence is expected to cost 1-2 wins. Now, every win is precious when you’re a club fighting for a playoff spot or, at least, a winning season. However, two more losses does not qualify as a catastrophe.
Harper is looking like he will perform at least as well as Werth did and he has five tool talent like Werth does. Even if Harper regresses a bit, he should perform well enough to earn back all but one of those lost wins.
In left field, though, things might be worse than replacement level. Right now, still early in the season Nady and Bernadina are performing even worse than replacement level (as of May 9):
Nady – .129/.169/.194
Bernie – .184/.298/.286
Bernadina’s fielding and base running offset his poor hitting, but Nady cancels out both those strengths as he has below average speed and is a poor fielder. Even with Tyler Moore and, perhaps, Stephen Lombardozzi improving on Nady and Bernadina’s numbers, it looks like the current cast of left fielders will cost the Nats at least one win until Morse returns.
So, measured by expected wins, the full impact of Werth’s absence could cost the Nationals two wins. It may be possible for Washington to overcome this loss over the course of a 162 game season.
Even so, the Nationals are far better off with Werth than without him. The sooner he returns the stronger the team becomes, no matter how you measure it. And with three losses in four games, including a series loss at the hands of the dreadful Pittsburgh Pirates, the wait for Werth’s return right now seems even longer.