JAWS and the 2023 Hall of Fame Ballot: Jayson Werth

Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports

The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.

2023 BBWAA Candidate: Jayson Werth
Jayson Werth RF 29.2 27.5 28.3 1,465 229 132 .267/.360/.455 117
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference

Over the course of a 22-year professional career that began in 1997, Jayson Werth appeared to transform from a fresh-faced catching prospect… into a werewolf. Drafted by the Orioles as a catcher, he was clean-cut and even wore glasses, but as the years went on, he moved to the outfield, carved a spot in the majors, and grew increasingly shaggier, with a full beard and hair down to his shoulders.

In truth Werth’s evolution was more than just a visual one. Battling injuries for most of his career, he endured numerous ups and downs while journeying from top prospect to non-tendered afterthought to All-Star. He needed nearly a decade to establish himself at the major league level, and didn’t get 400 plate appearances in a season until he was 29. After playing a key role in the first four of the Phillies’ five straight NL East titles (2007-10) — including their ’08 World Series win and ’09 pennant — he took an even more unexpected step, signing a massive seven-year, $126 million deal with the Nationals in December 2010. An organization that had been something of a punchline looked to him not only to provide middle-of-the-lineup punch but to serve as an impactful clubhouse presence, mentoring younger players (“He’s like an older brother to me,” said Bryce Harper in 2013). By the end of his run, his influence within the organization extended even further. “Ultimately what we have become is a lot to do with some of the things that he brought to the ballclub,” general manager Mike Rizzo told the Washington Post’s Adam Kilgore in 2018. “He was teaching us how to be a championship organization, not only on the big league side but throughout the organization.”

Jayson Richard Gowan Werth was born on May 20, 1979 in Springfield, Illinois, into a family with significant athletic bloodlines. His great-grandfather, John “Ducky” Schofield, played minor league baseball from 1924 to ’38. His grandfather, Dick “Ducky” Schofield, spent all or parts of 19 years in the majors with seven different teams, including the 1960 World Series-winning Pirates, while his uncle, Dick Schofield, spent all or parts of 14 seasons in the majors with four teams including the 1993 World Series-winning Blue Jays; all three primarily played shortstop. That makes the Schofields/Werths one of five families with major leaguers from three generations:

Three-Generation Major League Families
Family 1st Yrs 2nd Yrs 3rd Yrs
Bell Gus Bell 1950-1964 Buddy Bell 1972-1989 David Bell 1995-2006
Mike Bell 2000
Boone Ray Boone 1948-1960 Bob Boone 1972-1990 Bret Boone 1992-2005
Aaron Boone 1997-2009
Hairston Sam Hairston 1944-1951 Jerry Hairston 1973-1989 Jerry Hairston Jr. 1998-2013
John Hairston 1969 Scott Hairston 2004-2014
Coleman Joe Coleman 1942-1955 Joe Coleman 1965-1979 Casey Coleman 2010-2014
Schofield/Werth Ducky Schofield 1953-1971 Dick Shofield 1983-1996 Jayson Werth 2002-2017

But wait, there’s more! Dick’s sister, Kim Schofield Werth, Jayson’s mother, was a state champion sprinter and long jumper who set national records in the now defunct 55- and 100-yard dashes and competed in the 1976 Olympic trials, though injuries prevented her from qualifying in the 100 meters or long jump. Jeff Gowan, Jayson’s father, was a wide receiver at Illinois State and spent one season as an outfielder for the Cardinals’ Rookie League affiliate. Jayson’s parents separated shortly after he was born; in a 2010 Sports Illustrated piece, Franz Lidz described their relationship as “strained,” with Jayson telling him, “He doesn’t deserve credit for anything I’ve accomplished.”

Jayson’s mother threw tennis balls and whiffle balls to her son when he was a toddler. When Jayson was five, she married Dennis Werth, a former catcher who had spent parts of four seasons (1979-82) with the Yankees and Royals. He built Jayson batting cages in the family’s back yard and basement, coached his summer traveling teams for 10 years, and taught him to catch, using a pitching machine aimed low so that Jayson could practice blocking pitches in the dirt.

The summer after ninth grade, Jayson’s growth spurt took him from “a scrawny kid the family called ‘Stick’ to a six-foot-tall muscular man with a graceful stride,” wrote the Illinois TimesDusty Rhodes in 2008. As a high school senior at Glenwood High School in Chatham, Illinois, he hit .652 with 15 homers and 27 steals, impressing scouts with his size and his ability to drive balls to the opposite field.

The Orioles chose Werth with the 22nd pick of the 1997 draft and signed him for a bonus of $885,000, enough to convince him to forgo a scholarship to the University of Georgia. He began his professional career with the Orioles’ Gulf Coast League affiliate, hitting .296/.432/.398 with one homer in 32 games but allowing 24 steals in 21 starts behind the plate. He split each of the next three seasons between various A-level teams and Double-A Bowie, posting high on-base percentages but showing only modest power. In 1999, Baseball America hailed him as “a catcher with legitimate five-tool potential” whose “baseball background and intelligence give him the perfect package to become a leader behind the plate” but noted that his power was slow to develop, and that his arm strength was probably his weakest tool. Still, he debuted at number 52 on the publication’s Top 100 prospects list, his first of four straight appearances.

A broken right hand ended Werth’s 1999 season in July, however, and his performance took a step back the following year. With Double-A manager Andy Echebarren calling him “uncoachable,” he was traded to the Blue Jays for pitcher John Bale in December 2000. “In the span of three years, Werth went from the Orioles’ 1997 first-round pick to commanding only a journeyman lefthander in a December trade with Baltimore,” lamented Baseball America while dismissing industry comparisons to 6-foot-4 catcher-turned-outfielder Dale Murphy.

With the change of scenery, the 22-year-old Werth began hitting for power, clubbing 18 homers at Double-A Tennessee in 2001 while batting .285/.387/.499 and sharing catching duties with Josh Phelps. His stock was back up, but with a glut of catchers that also included Kevin Cash (yes, the future Rays manager), and concerns about Werth’s size and durability (only three catchers 6-foot-5 or taller have at least two seasons with 100 games caught), the team transitioned him to the outfield at Triple-A Syracuse. He got a late-season cup of coffee with Toronto, debuting against the Yankees on September 1 by going 2-for-4 with singles off of David Wells and Sterling Hitchcock. He hit .261/.340/.348 in 53 PA while making 10 starts in right field, four in left and one in center.

After straining his wrist in the spring of 2003 and rehabbing with High-A Dunedin, Werth joined the Blue Jays, but bounced back and forth to Syracuse a couple of times, getting just 51 PA in the majors, and not hitting well in either spot; pitchers exploited the holes in his long swing, and his plate discipline deserted him. In March 2004, he was on the move again, traded to the Dodgers for reliever Jason Frasor.

Werth spent three increasingly injury-wracked seasons with the Dodgers. He made one plate appearance in the late innings of the 2004 season opener, strained his oblique, and missed two months but hit a promising .262/.338/.486 with 16 homers in 89 games upon returning, then homered twice while going 4-for-14 in the Dodgers’ Division Series loss to the Cardinals. He didn’t even make it to Opening Day in 2005, instead suffering a fractured left wrist in the Grapefruit League opener when he was hit by an A.J. Burnett pitch. After returning in late May he sank to .234/.338/.374 (89 OPS+). In the offseason, doctors discovered he’d also torn a ligament in the wrist; he needed two surgeries and missed all of 2006, after which he was non-tendered by the Dodgers.

Amid his injuries, Werth had at least made a very strong transition to the outfield, compiling 25 DRS in 180 games, the majority of which were in left but with some in right and even 36 in center. Within a week of being non-tendered, he signed with the Phillies. Despite spending most of the first half of 2007 in a reserve role (42 games, 100 PA) and then missing all of July with yet another left wrist injury, he took over for injured right fielder Shane Victorino in August, and hit .298/.404/.459 (120 OPS+) with eight homers, 12 DRS, and 3.0 WAR in just 304 PA. The Phillies, who hadn’t been to the postseason since 1993, won the first of five straight NL East titles but were swept by the Rockies in the Division Series, in which Werth scarcely played.

With the departure of free agent center fielder Aaron Rowand, the Phillies moved Victorino from right to center, opening up more playing time for the 29-year-old Werth. Sharing the job with Geoff Jenkins and seeing additional time in center, he broke out to hit .273/.363/.498 (122 OPS+) with 24 homers (including three in one game on on May 16), 20 stolen bases (with just one caught stealing) and 3.7 WAR. The Phillies won 92 games and the division, then beat the Brewers, Dodgers, and Rays in succession to give the team just its second World Series championship ever. Werth hit .309/.387/.582 along the way, with homers off the Brewers’ Jeff Suppan and the Rays’ Dan Wheeler.

Werth followed that triumph by putting together the best season of his career to that point, his lone All-Star season and the rare one in which he was fully healthy; in fact, his 159 games set a career high and began a streak of three straight seasons with at least 150 games. He hit 36 homers and went 20-for-23 in stolen bases (including a stolen base cycle on May 12) while batting .268/.373/.506 (129 OPS+) with 4.5 WAR. In the postseason, he went on a rampage, batting .275/.403/.725 in 62 PA and homering seven times, one short of the record at the time; he went yard three times against the Dodgers in the NLCS and twice apiece against the Rockies in the Division Series and the Yankees in the World Series. He homered twice in the NLCS clincher, with a three-run shot off Vicente Padilla and a solo shot off Hung-Chih Kuo, and lit up Andy Pettitte twice in a losing cause in Game 3 of the World Series.

In 2010, Werth — whose trademark goatee had by now expanded to a full beard (though not the mountain man version that was to come) — was even better at the plate, with a 144 OPS+ (296/.388/.532), 27 homers, and a league-high 46 doubles; only a dip in defense held his WAR steady with the previous year’s 4.5. After a quiet Division Series, he homered twice and drove in five runs in the NLCS, but the Phillies came up short. With that, the 31-year-old right fielder reached free agency. He landed a seven-year, $126 million deal from the Nationals, who were coming off a 69-93 season, their fifth straight below .500; they outbid the Phillies, Tigers, and Red Sox. The contract was the third-largest free agent deal for an outfielder to that point, after those of Manny Ramirez (eight years, $160 million) and Alfonso Soriano (eight years, $136 million).

The move, which shocked the baseball industry, built on the relationship between agent Scott Boras — who represented Washington’s 2009 and ’10 number one picks, Stephen Strasburg and Harper — and Nationals general manager Mike Rizzo. “It kind of exemplifies phase two of the Washington Nationals’ process,” Rizzo told reporters. “Phase one was scouting and player development, building the farm system… Now it’s the time to go to the second phase and really compete for division titles and championships.”

“It makes some of our contracts look pretty good,” quipped Mets GM Sandy Alderson. “That’s a long time and a lot of money. I thought they were trying to reduce the deficit in Washington.”

The contract did not get off to a good start. Though he played 150 games in his inaugural season in Washington, Werth was hampered by a series of nagging injuries and slipped to a .232/.330/.389 line (97 OPS+) with 20 homers and 1.3 WAR. A fractured left radius, this one suffered as he attempted a sliding catch, cost him half of the 2012 season, during which he managed just five homers and 0.8 WAR. The injury occurred less than two weeks after Harper’s debut.

By that point, the Nationals’ fortunes had begun to turn. They went 80-81 in 2011 even as Jim Riggleman, who had championed the signing of Werth based upon the pair’s days with the Dodgers, resigned as manager in midseason and was replaced by Davey Johnson. The team was 18-10 when Werth went down in 2012, and 61-42 when he returned nearly three months later. They held on to win 98 games and the NL East title, and Werth sent the team to Game 5 of the Division Series against the Cardinals with a walk-off home run off Lance Lynn in Game 4. Unfortunately, the Nationals couldn’t hold a two-run ninth-inning lead in the rubber match and were eliminated.

Despite missing a month due to a hamstring strain, Werth set new career highs with a 153 OPS+ and 4.6 WAR in 2013, but the Nationals sank to 86 wins, missed the playoffs, and ousted the 70-year-old Johnson at season’s end. With Werth putting in another strong and mostly complete year (147 games, 134 OPS+, 4.2 WAR), they rebounded to 96 wins and an NL East title under new manager Matt Williams, but lost a four-game Division Series to the Giants; Werth went just 1-for-17.

In January 2015, Werth underwent surgery to repair the AC joint in his right shoulder, which he’d injured the previous August. He missed only the first week of the 2015 season, but struggled mightily at the plate, then landed on the DL for yet another left wrist fracture, this one via an Odrisamer Despaigne fastball. He missed 2 1/2 months, but never got it going offensively, finishing at .221/.302/.384. Meanwhile, the team fell apart, with the acquisition of closer Jonathan Papelbon just before the trade deadline adding to the disharmony. In his role as clubhouse leader, Werth added fuel to the fire with an August 22 tirade, after he realized he wasn’t playing — something Williams hadn’t given him a heads-up about, exemplifying the lack of communication between the manager and the team. In a season postmortem by the Washington Post’s Barry Svrluga, Werth reportedly ripped down the lineup card and confronted Williams by asking him, “When exactly do you think you lost this team?” The day after the season ended, Williams and his staff were fired.

Under new manager Dusty Baker, the Nationals won the NL East in both 2016 and ’17, more in spite of Werth than because of him. He managed just a 97 OPS+ and 1.1 WAR in 143 games in 2016, then missed nearly three months with a fractured metatarsal in his left foot while hitting for an 83 OPS+ with -0.7 WAR in ’17. He did add another postseason homer in the 2016 Division Series against the Dodgers; his total of 15 such homers (in 271 PA) is tied for 12th in the Wild Card era.

Werth hit free agency, and continued training while additionally focusing on lobbying work on behalf of organic farmers, the upshot of his purchasing 500 acres of farmland in Central Illinois late in his career, and establishing a farm “that matched my philosophy on food and diet.”

In April 2018, Werth signed a minor league deal with the Mariners. He spent about six weeks with the team’s Triple-A Tacoma affiliate, but didn’t hit much, and was sidelined by a hamstring strain; soon afterwards, he decided he’d had enough. He formally announced his retirement on June 27.

To some, Werth’s contract in Washington looked like a dud; after all, he had produced 9.0 WAR in six years, 8.8 of that in 2013-14 but a net of 0.2 in the other four seasons. Rizzo refused to see it that way, telling Kilgore, “His play on the field can be analyzed and evaluated based on the numbers. What he brought to the organization cannot be. He’s the unsung hero of what we have become.” Via Kilgore, he did just about everything but redesign the uniforms:

Werth made recommendations — which the team acted on — about the food the Nationals serve in their clubhouse and the medical specialists they sent injured players to. He pressured ownership to invest in better workout equipment in the weight room. He insisted the Nationals expand auxiliary staff — batting practice pitchers, bullpen catchers. The baseballs the Nationals use in practice, from the majors to the Dominican Summer League, are better quality than they were seven years ago, thanks to Werth.

“Werth will not go into the Hall of Fame. But two cities will remember him fondly,” concluded Kilgore. “He helped one franchise to its highest point and utterly changed another.”

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky @jayjaffe.bsky.social.

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CC AFCmember
1 year ago

Also served as the template and key inspiration for Gritty. So major major contributions to the Philadelphia area there. This is a true fact that I did not just make up on the spot.