Jun 22, 2014; Washington, DC, USA; Washington Nationals right fielder Jayson Werth (28) congratulated Washington Nationals center fielder Denard Span (2) after the game against the Atlanta Braves at Nationals Park. The Nationals won 4-1. Mandatory Credit: Brad Mills-USA TODAY Sports
The Nationals finished July with a record of 14-10, outscored opponents by 23 runs, and moved from ½ game back in the East to 1 ½ up. Two big reasons why the Nats averaged 4.63 runs per game, their best scoring average per game all year, were the stellar months by outfielders Jayson Werth and Denard Span. Bryce Harper’s return (last day of June technically) may have stolen all the headlines, but Werth’s and Span’s bats produced all the fireworks.
For July Werth and Span ranked first and tied for seventh in fWAR for all MLB position players. Span finished the month tied for fifth in runs scored (Anthony Rendon ranked first, by the way), tied fourth with seven stolen bases, tied for third with 16 walks, second in OBP, and third with a .368 batting average. Werth tied for 15th in runs scored, tied for seventh with six home runs, tied for 1st with 11 doubles, fourth in OBP, second in slugging, and led and OPS. Oh, and if you like advanced metrics, Werth also led the Majors in wOBA and wRC+, which are used to measure a player’s total offensive value and ability to produce runs.
So what changed? Why the breakout performances?
To say Werth struggled through May and June is both a misrepresentation of the facts and completely accurate at the same time. In 51 games, he batted .259/.335/.328, hitting eight doubles, two home runs, and drove in 19. Between May 15 and June 10, he didn’t hit a single home run in 22 games. He got on base. His 22 walks were second on the team behind only Adam LaRoche, and he swiped a few bags. There was real concern, however. He turned 35 on May, 20, and players don’t normally find bottles of Gummiberry juice stashed away in lockers, not the legal kind anyway.
Most alarming with Werth’s lack of power was his lack of power. His batted ball distance was down for the third consecutive year (discounting 2012 since he missed nearly three months due to injury), coming in at 284.69 for home runs and fly balls for May through June.
In 2013 he averaged 290 feet per while in 2011 it was 302.53. Maybe five or six feet don’t sound like a lot, but for an aging slugger, these things matter. In July, Werth’s batted balls traveled much farther than earlier in the season. In fact, he was back near his ’11 days as he averaged 304.4 feet per.
Watching him through July it seemed like Werth became more patient at the plate, and the numbers certainly back that up. He was swinging at fewer pitches (he swung at 40.6% of four-seam fastballs through May and June while only swinging at 34.8% in July for instance) and at those he hit he made solid contact. His foul ball percentage even dropped across all pitches, indicating he’d regained his timing. There wasn’t one particular pitch that he was hitting better than any other either. Whether it was a fastball, breaking ball, or offspeed, Werth made solid contact and got base hits. His BABIP jumped over .200 points against breaking balls and .100 points against fastballs.
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I’ve written about Span quite a bit this season, and in retrospect, my comments look overly reactionary. He struggled early, bottoming out at .239/.287/.338 by the middle of May before hitting his way back to respectability. Still. Through the end of June he had just 22 walks in 335 plate appearances, having months ranging from 5-8.3% walk percentages, which basically left him subject to lucky bounces of batted balls.
In July, those numbers have changed so dramatically that he’s become a completely different hitter. He’s walked 14 times this month, making his 14.4% walk rate far and away his highest for the year and is good for the third highest in his career, and when he’s swung the bat he hasn’t missed or missed hitting the ball with authority. This isn’t anything new for Span either. Historically, July has been his best month offensively as he’s hit .314/.387/.401 with his walk rate coming in at 10.4%.
Unbelievably, Span is hitting .432 on balls put in play, a figure that is .100 points higher than his next best month at .314. Similar to Werth, Span isn’t just hitting the fastball noticeably better while maintaining against junk and offspeed. He is hitting everything better than his season up through June. Average on fastballs has jumped from .260 to .359, breaking balls from .264 to .353, and offspeed from .320 to .429. I won’t pretend to believe this is sustainable, but in July Span became an offensive force.
Thanks to a great July, Span is on pace to have is best seasons for runs scored, walks, and stolen bases since 2010 with the Twins. Also, Span has now moved up to fifth for in the NL for OBP by a leadoff hitter, a marked improvement over his early year struggles. He’s now top 10 in the Majors for doubles and stolen bases and top 20 for triples and runs scored.
Combined, the two players outpaced the rest of the Majors in fWAR, accumulating 2.8 (1.6 for Werth and 1.2 for Span), coming up 0.5 less than the Tigers collective outfielders. The bodies placed in left for the Nats during July actually brought that figure up to just 2.9, still second in the big leagues. How good were the two? The middle 50% for all qualified outfielders during the month was between -0.1 and 0.5 fWAR (the middle 50% discounting the outliers), which is precisely how much better the two players were than their contemporaries as an outfield unit.
Maybe WAR is your cup of tea and maybe not. If you like your stats more traditional, the median batting average was .250 (Werth: .337, Span: .368), median OBP .312 (Werth: .446, Span: .459), and median slugging was .381 (Werth: .687, Span: .411). Short of neither player posting incredible UZR metrics, Werth’s absence of any stolen bases or Span not crushing home runs like the second coming of Jose Abreau, it’s difficult to find a statistical measurement where both players didn’t excel.
Unfortunately, July had to end. This past month was something special for Werth and Span, and though it’s unlikely they’ll be able to sustain their level of play into the remaining months of the season, it certainly was fun while it lasted. And, if there wasn’t reason enough to hate the All Star game, it also cost us a week of watching these two play.