Stuart Wallace: Could Werth be at start of defensive decline?

It’s been a decidedly dismal start to the season for the Nationals defensively. They find themselves in sole possession of last place in the National League in terms of team fielding percentage, while also leading the NL in errors with 22 after last night’s series opener against the Angels.

This total would have been higher were it not for a scoring change of Yadier Molina’s liner at Jayson Werth in Thursday’s 8-0 loss to the St. Louis Cardinals -- a ball Werth either lost in the lights or simply misplayed.

While much of the talk of poor defense revolves around the infield - in particular, Ian Desmond’s MLB-leading nine errors - there have been a surprising number of miscues coming from the normally defensively steadfast Werth in the infancy of the 2014 season. Despite his error total now reset to a clean slate, there have still been some unbecoming plays that make one question whether we are seeing the beginnings of a defensive decline from the right fielder. Bad jumps, circuitous routes, and off-balance, off-target, or just plain poor throws back to the infield have all been seen from Werth early on.

Looking at the some of the advanced defensive numbers, we find that Werth’s defensive prowess has been in decline since his arrival to D.C. While they don’t agree exactly on years, both metrics Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) have Werth as contributing a subpar defensive showing in three of his four seasons as a National, with 2014 being the worst of the bunch thus far. However, there is plenty of season left, so there remains time for Werth to continue to accumulate steady defensive innings to balance out the rough start in the field.

Is there some merit to some of the objective and subjective data indicating a Werth defensive decline this year?

With the caveat that the previous two stats are probably not the best to use for such a small sampling of data, let’s instead turn to another defensive metric that could help us in the interim in getting a grasp of how Werth has fared this season. Using out of zone plays made (OOZ), which can be found over at FanGraphs, we find that Werth has made seven plays out of his “zone,” which figures out to be 0.4 out of zone plays per nine innings.

Comparing his previous OOZ plays, he made 0.68, 0.48, and 0.60 OOZ per nine innings in 2011, 2012, and 2013, respectively. Even when considering his injury-shortened 2012 season, he is still not getting to many of the balls he normally would in previous seasons currently, showing a possible slowing of Werth and an erosion of his range.

Looking at another statistic kept over at Fangraphs -- Inside Edge -- we find that Werth is still perfect for the season for plays that are likely to be made and routine plays, with those numbers hovering around 98-100 percent for the previous two seasons. Overall, these numbers point to Werth still remaining sure-handed with the plays he is supposed to make, while some of the tougher balls that he once could corral and convert into outs are now not getting chased down. Add to it a decline in his once above-average arm, both subjectively and with the statistic Outfield Arm Runs Saved runs above average (rARM), and we find a player whose defensive influence is shrinking.

Despite this inclination towards thinking Werth’s losing a step, the shrinking range might have something to do with the man to his right, Denard Span. Span’s superlative defense in center field, much of which arises from his ability to cover so much ground, could be compounding what is seen with Werth, providing less ground that the right fielder needs to cover, and skewing these numbers. While Span has the right-center gap more than covered, he unfortunately can’t get to everything, leaving the Nationals to keep Werth in right, as his offensive skills still remain sharp and will continue to keep him in the lineup.

However, with increasing age, decreasing range and a fading arm, one begins to wonder when a position swap between Werth and left fielder Bryce Harper will become a reality, allowing for Werth’s declining defense to be less of a liability further down the line, should these early results become standard fare.

For now, there’s still a lot of season left for Werth to find the first step that has kept him in shouting distance to most of the balls hit to right. But if the objective and subjective details of the first 20 games are any indication, Werth’s once admirable defense is on shaky ground.

Stuart Wallace blogs about the Nationals at District Sports Page. Follow him on Twitter: @TClippardsSpecs. His work appears here as part of’s season-long initiative of welcoming guest bloggers to our site. All opinions expressed are those of the guest bloggers, who are not employed by but are just as passionate about their baseball as our roster of writers.

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