Jayson Werth’s performance coming into the 2013 season was anything but a certainty. Werth was coming off a season in which he had suffered a gruesome wrist injury that cost him 81 games and sapped him of his power when he did return. He was 33 going on 34, and it had been 3 years since his last truly productive season, 2010 in Philadelphia. Werth responded to the criticisms and question marks by having arguably the strongest season in his 11-year career. Despite being limited by a hamstring issue to only 129 games, Werth tied or exceeded career highs in batting average, slugging percentage, OPS, and wRC+. His season wasn’t just a personal best; his .318 average and .532 slugging percentage were 5th in the National League, his .398 OBP and .931 OPS were 3rd, and his 160 wRC+ was first. Werth’s exploits did not go unnoticed – despite his injury-limited playing time, he finished 13th in the MVP voting, the second-highest he has finished in his career. His performance begs the question that no one on April 1st expected they’d be asking: did Jayson Werth have the best season in Nationals’ history?
There are several arguments to be made on Werth’s behalf. His wRC+ (a statistic that is helpful for this exercise, as it accounts for era, ballpark, and opposition) was by far the best in the brief 9-year history of the team, besting Michael Morse’s 2011 by 12 (meaning he was 12% better offensively than Morse). His 2013 ranks second all-time in average (bested only by Dimitri Young in 2007), third in OBP, fourth in slugging, and second in OPS among Nationals’ hitters who qualified for the batting title. So purely by offensive rate stats, Werth’s season is right near the top of the list, if not atop it.
But Werth’s value on the year was hampered by his injury. Though it did not affect his production, his hamstring troubles limited him to 129 games, only 79.6% of the schedule, and 532 plate appearances. Thus, though he created the most runs per plate appearance of any National, he did not have the most valuable offensive season in Nationals history. His 36.0 offensive runs created ranked only second all-time in team history (behind whom? We’ll get to that later). So, looking at only offense, Werth was superlative, but not record-setting. And in the other facets of the game, Werth was average or worse. His baserunning was barely a positive for the team, and he cost the team 9.0 runs on defense (according to FanGraphs), fifth-worst among NL rightfielders.
After looking at the data, it becomes clear that, while Werth’s season was astounding, it was not the greatest in team history. So which seasons best Werth? According to FanGraphs fWAR, Werth’s 2013 was the 8th-most-valuable season from a Nationals’ position player. Of the seven that bested Werth, several were obvious, and several made me look back into the annals of the brief history of this team and reconsider just how good these players really were.
7. Ryan Zimmerman, 2007 — 4.9 fWAR
By this time in his career, Zimmerman was firmly entrenched as the best player on a struggling team; the Face of the Franchise. But this year, his offensive numbers, while good, don’t jump of the page. His .266/.330/.458 triple-slash (good for a 105 wRC+, lowest on this list) don’t suggest a player as valuable as Zimmerman was that year. Indeed, most of Zimmerman’s value in 2007 lied in his defense and his durability. Injuries have plagued Zimmerman since 2008, but in 2007, he played in 162 games, started every single one, and missed only 8 innings all season. And manning the hot corner, Zimmerman’s defense was magnificent; according to FanGraphs, he was the second-best defensive third baseman in the major leagues, saving 18.3 runs with his defense alone.
t3. Nick Johnson, 2006 — 5.0 fWAR
This, to me, was the biggest surprise on the list. All I think of when I envision Nick Johnson’s 2006 campaign is its grisly end, the broken femur that curtailed a promising career. But Johnson wasn’t just good in 2006, he was fantastic. The oft-injured Johnson played in a career-high 147 games, and hit a career-high 23 home runs. But what stands out, what always stood out when anyone ever discussed Nick Johnson, was his on-base percentage. Johnson’s .428 OBP was best in Nationals history, fourth in the league, behind only the all-time greats Barry Bonds, Albert Pujols, and Miguel Cabrera. In fact, Johnson in 2006 was the only player to be more valuable to the Nationals offensively than Jayson Werth in 2013. Johnson’s line in 2006 should both be lauded for what was and rued for what might have been.
t3. Ian Desmond, 2012 & 2013 — 5.0 fWAR
Looking at these numbers makes me want to send Ted Lerner a personal email imploring him to open up the checkbook and give Desmond his well-deserved extension. Desmond, despite his flaws (namely, his low OBP), has been one of the most valuable players in Nationals history over the past two years. On a rate basis, he was actually more valuable in 2012, but an oblique injury limited him to 130 games. Desmond’s value lies in his defense (FanGraphs rates his defense very highly), his above-average offense (122 wRC+ over the last two years), and the overall weakness of the shortstop position; that 122 wRC+ is first among qualifying shortstops, but would rank 39th among all qualifying players. In short, Desmond plays a position of scarcity, and plays it well, making him a very valuable commodity.
t3. Alfonso Soriano, 2006 — 5.0 fWAR
Soriano’s tenure in DC was brief, but it sure was memorable. In only one year in the nation’s capitol, he set the Nationals record for plate appearances (728), runs (119), slugging percentage (.560), stolen bases (41), and, of course, home runs (46), all of which still stand. The then-30 year old became only the fourth 40-40 player in MLB history, and was the only Nationals player to start in an All-Star Game until Bryce Harper in 2013. The only thing keeping Soriano from having the greatest season in team history was his defense; in 2006, Soriano made the transition from second base to leftfield, and while he wasn’t as atrocious as initially predicted (he did lead the league in outfield assists with 22), he was only an average defender, limiting his value.
t1. Ryan Zimmerman, 2009 & 2010 — 6.8 fWAR
This should come as no surprise to anyone who watched Zimmerman play during those otherwise dark years. From 2009 to 2010, Zimmerman was not just the best player on the Nationals, but one of the best players in the major leagues. Indeed, by fWAR, he was the second-most valuable player in the National League over those two years, behind only Albert Pujols. He was a complete player; durable (averaged 150 games a season), strong offensively (135 wRC+) at a position where his bat stood out (by offensive runs created, the best third baseman in the National League), and brilliant defensively. He flashed both Hobbsian power (in August 2010, he took out a bank of scoreboard lights at Sun Life Stadium) and Robinson-like defense (like this, this and this, his calling card). By both statistics and the eye test, it is clear that Ryan Zimmerman in 2009 and 2010 was the best the Nationals have seen.
So, nearly 1200 words later, we have reached a near-definite conclusion. While Jayson Werth was remarkable, statistically speaking (and not counting intangibles, as FanGraphs still lacks statistics to measure either Value over Replacement Grit or The Will To Win), Werth in 2013 was not the most valuable player to ever don the Curly W.