Thursday, December 9, 2010

Is He Really Carl's Junior?: The Case for Jayson Werth


Compared to those climactic moments of early autumn, the MLB off-season offers little in the way of substance. Like Hollywood in July, winter is baseball’s blockbuster season: flashy, riddled with false bravado, and ultimately all about one thing, money. It is a season of make-believe and paper games, complete with its own mélange of familiar roles and predictable tropes.

Among the most common off-season archetypes is that of Free Agent “B.”

Free Agent “B” is a good player, a damn good player, but he cannot escape the fact that his skill set and career trajectory parallels that of Free Agent “A.” Unfortunately for Free Agent “B,” Free Agent “A” is a half-step quicker, a couple of inches taller, and probably even a little bit prettier. Because they fill such a similar need, all of the same teams court both free agents. But deep down every team wants Free Agent “A,” and Free Agent “B” is just the store brand substitute.

In 2010, Carl Crawford and Jayson Werth typified the A-B relationship. Werth was the RC Cola to his Coke Classic, the “Deep Impact” to Carl Crawford’s “Armageddon,” the Jason Biggs to Carl’s Ben Stiller. Everyone seemed to agree: Crawford was the more valuable player and the one who held more future potential.

Werth’s 7-year/$125 million deal with the Nationals sent fans and pundits into hysterics, some calling it a Waterloo signing for the franchise. When Theo Epstein nabbed Crawford for 7 years at $142 million Joe Lemire of SI.com called the pick-up “nearly flawless,” typifying a generally glowing response.

Now it is hard to determine whether either player is “worth” what each received. The more accessible questions would be which player is better now and which player will be better over the life of their respective contracts? To both I would answer Jayson Werth, and here’s why.

  1. Werth is the better offensive player

Over the past three years Werth’s offensive production surpassed Crawford’s, and by a fairly healthy margin. From 2008-2010 Werth averaged 29 home runs per season and his OPS numbers over those three seasons are .861, .879, and .921 respectively. In Crawford’s nine-year career, the left-fielder has never hit 20 home runs in a single season or recorded an OPS above .855. Although Crawford holds an advantage in career batting average, Werth has a much higher career on-base-percentage because he walks so frequently. Werth’s career OBP is 30 points higher than Crawford’s, and he’s maintained a sizable advantage in OBP over each of the last three seasons.

Crawford only outpaces Werth in one meaningful offensive statistic, stolen bases, which leads me to my next point.

  1. Werth will age better

Crawford’s speed makes him a better base stealer and defender than Werth, hands down. Werth is no slouch, but it’s difficult to compete with a guy who almost signed at Nebraska to play option quarterback. Carl Crawford is a fast dude, but Red Sox fans still have room for worry. Any player who derives their competitive advantage from speed is always one year or one injury away from mediocrity.

Many corner outfielders regress defensively over the years, and they only retain value if they can hit for power. Crawford doesn’t fit the Manny Ramirez, Barry Bonds, Adam Dunn mold, and if he can’t keep his wheels he risks become a significantly less impactful player by the fourth or fifth year of this seven-year contract.

Werth by comparison has the plate discipline and power that tends to translate well in the latter stages of a player’s career. As I say this I can already here the naysayers groaning, “But Crawford is younger than Werth, he’ll hold up better over the next seven seasons!” To you naysayers I say, “Read on.”

  1. Werth is the “younger” player

“Wait a second,” you’re thinking, “Carl Crawford is 29 and Jayson Werth is 31.” Let me explain what I mean by “younger.” In the comparison between Crawford and Werth, age is a particularly misleading number. Crawford entered the League in 2002. A starter from day one since he played on such a poor team, he's notched 1,235 games in his career.

By comparison, the elder Werth has only played in 775 career games, and broken the 140+ games barrier just twice. To put that discrepancy in perspective, that's almost three full seasons less than Crawford in terms of games played. And it's not like Werth was toiling in the minor leagues, riding buses and playing winter ball every year. Werth's been in the bigs since 2002 as well, but a spate of freak injuries relegated him to the bench. Most of his first five seasons were spent rehabbing or platooning, meaning that he pretty much sat on his ass while Crawford pounded the Tampa turf every night.

I liken Crawford to Andruw Jones, and not in a good way. Like Crawford, Jones was a speedy outfielder who entered the league when he was young. In 2007, at the tender age of 30, Jones experienced a dramatic drop in production from which he still hasn’t recovered. Certainly Jones’ long swing and questionable training methods played some role in his rapid decline, but you have to imagine that the 10 full seasons as a starting centerfielder didn’t help.

Werth’s career, however, maps out like that of his former Philly teammate Raul Ibanez. Ibanez didn’t become a full-time starter until his seventh year in the major leagues, and as a result Ibanez has remained productive well into his late 30s. Werth’s career might last longer than Crawford’s simply because he spent so many seasons waiting for his chance.

  1. Werth has greater offensive potential

I’m puzzled by the notion that Crawford has “emerging power” simply because he hit a career-high 19 home runs in 2010. In 2006 Crawford hit 18 home runs before regressing over the next couple of seasons, and he’s already enjoyed a couple of other seasons at or above the 15-homer mark. The 19 home runs seem more like a plausible statistical spike based on a few good swings rather than a new trend.

Crawford has been a consistently excellent performer in the major leagues for nine seasons now. He regularly hits in the high .200s or low .300s and jacks between 11 and 19 home runs. He’s demonstrated modest improvement in on-base percentage, but nothing indicates that he’s about to become a prolific slugger. My point is this: Crawford has a large big league sample size, and it’s hard to imagine him getting all that much better in the next few years. He is what he is.

Werth, on the other hand, only has two years as a fulltime starter on his résumé. He’s experienced enough to have gone through the league a couple of times without being exposed, but still green enough to consider the possibility that he might improve in various facets of his game. I personally believe Werth has plateaued as a 28 homerun, .375 OBP kind of player, but if either guy has real potential for growth it has to be Werth.

  1. Werth was underappreciated in Philly, Crawford was over hyped in Tampa

One of the big knocks against Werth is that he performed well because he played for a good team and hit in a good line-up. Both are true, but they mean very little. Let me be clear, there is no, I repeat, N-O, statistical proof for the concept of “protection.” Players do not perform better when they’re hitting in-front-of, behind, or in-between certain other players.

Consider two ex-Nationals. Alfonso Soriano and Adam Dunn had almost no line-up protection when they played in Washington, yet both of them performed according to precedent while wearing the red and gold.

I want to consider the opposite effect. I believe that Crawford received much more attention, and thusly gained a reputation as the better player, because he toiled on such a poor team. For years Crawford was the only marketable DEVIL Ray, and he gained All-Star bids and MVP votes for seasons that would have garnered little recognition elsewhere. Werth, by contrast, failed to stand out on a national scale because of the prodigious numbers posted by Ryan Howard, Chase Utley and the like. Werth’s 24 home runs in 2008 faded in the face of Utley’s 33 and Howard’s 48. Based on factors other than their merits, Werth was cast as a bit player and Crawford as an all-star.

And so it was again this off-season, Free Agent “B” versus Free Agent “A” in the battle for riches and fame.

Fade to black, and roll those credits.

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