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How to Make a Starting Center Fielder Out of Jon Jay (Or James Ramsey, Maybe)

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ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 14: Jon Jay #19 of the St. Louis Cardinals attempts to catch a deep fly ball against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium on May 14, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri.  (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
ST. LOUIS, MO - MAY 14: Jon Jay #19 of the St. Louis Cardinals attempts to catch a deep fly ball against the Chicago Cubs at Busch Stadium on May 14, 2012 in St. Louis, Missouri. (Photo by Dilip Vishwanat/Getty Images)
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It is a testament to how little trust I have in Shane Robinson's bat that I'm looking forward to Skip Schumaker's return, tonight, to the Cardinals' lineup and up-the-middle defense. I look at it as a trade of uncertain adequacy for certain adequacy, stats I kind of trust for stats I trust; I know Shane Robinson can't hit, and that Skip Schumaker, by comparison, can, while I only think that Robinson is a much better defender. (And if Robinson's newfound status as a Proven Veteran means Matheny will keep Schumaker out of the lineup against left-handers, all the better.)

Of course Jon Jay's rehab appearance, tonight in Memphis, is more important to the position overall. Jay was a member of one of the first two or three draft classes I followed all the way through the minor leagues—the 2006 second-rounder—and had a bit of the James Ramsey concern about him, if I remember right; he was a high-polish guy who, even on draft day, was being projected by some as a highly polished fourth outfielder. Now, for what this is worth, he's fourth in his round in career WAR, behind three pitchers. (Trevor Cahill, Justin Masterson, and Brett Anderson, all chosen ahead of him.)

At some point, Jon Jay went from being a future fourth outfielder whose defense was kind of in doubt to being the starting center fielder on a team that won the World Series. So far as I can tell, here's how it happened, and how to turn your very own Jon Jay or James Ramsey into an MLB center fielder:

1. Ignore league effects. Jon Jay's line in the major leagues (.303/.355/.425) is nearly identical to his line in the minor leagues (.301/.367/.432.) It's pretty close, besides, to what he hit in AAA and AA, though it is worse than what he hit in his half-season in the Quad Cities.

This, for me, has been the biggest surprise about Jon Jay; my worry was always that he wasn't overwhelming enough in the minor leagues to whelm in the majors, but apparently it was enough for him to whelm everywhere.

Jon Jay, like fellow ex-tweener and 2006 pick Allen Craig, has never not been Jon Jay. He didn't blow up the low minors and then slowly fall back to earth on his way to becoming an average major leaguer, he just shook off a mediocre adjustment-season in Memphis. If your would-be tweener looks like a starting center fielder in the minor leagues, and he's age-appropriate for the level, maybe that's enough.

2. Ignore defensive evaluations. I'm willing to believe that Ryan Jackson is a very good shortstop, and that Brett Wallace is a very bad third baseman; I'm willing to believe that six-four, 250-pound slugger you drafted who played shortstop in high school might actually be a first baseman. But at the margins, where scouts are always wondering whether a player will stick at a given position, I've stopped paying attention. By the time he was a minor leaguer Jay was getting good-to-very-good scouting reports on defense, but when he was drafted a lot of people were convinced he wouldn't stick in an outfield corner. (Here's a red baron post from 2007 in which he suggests Jay, whom he loves anyway, might end up in left field.)

As it turned out, Jay stuck in center field and the defensive conventional wisdom shifted around him.

3. Pay attention to nice college stats, apparently. Jay was sold in large part on his outstanding statistical performance as a Floridian college outfielder playing uncertain outfield defense. At the time I was writing for about 125 unique visitors a day, and didn't know much about the draft anyway, but rest assured that if I'd had commenters back then, some of them would have been pissed. Probably me too, thanks to The Chris Lambert Draft.

2006 was a lot closer to the Moneyball moment than 2012, but it was also close to the Cardinals' extraordinarily bad, college-heavy 2004 draft, which was so terrible, so immediately and obviously terrible, that its ghost has haunted the Cardinals blogosphere ever since. So I can't imagine he would have gotten uniformly stellar reviews if we were paying as much attention to the draft then as we do now. (Jay was also a year younger than Ramsey is, which would help.)

4. Be creative. Here's another great post from the VEB Jon Jay Archives: First, Erik asks whether the hitch in Jon Jay's swing is important, both in particular—will he hit with it?—and in general—should we ignore what he's doing because of it? Then, in the comments, the red baron comes around with what seems to me like an accurate indictment of the game as it was seen in 2007 and a solid position statement for where it is in 2012:

I've been enamoured of Jay since the moment the Cardinals drafted him. During the College World Series, I made sure to catch all the Miami games that I could, in order to see Jay and Chris Perez. Personally, I like Jay an awful lot. Looking at his production in college and his first pro season, he seems to be a second round steal.

The perception of him as a fourth outfielder, at best, seems to underscore a larger trend that, to me at least, is a little disturbing. The game of baseball in general, at least to my mind, has become so power-centric that the idea of an offense being able to produce in any way other than the home run is inconceivable. Unfortunately, the scouting done today reflects that prejudice. The major league clubs seem to be managed by thirty Earl Weavers. I think Jay is the perfect player to illustrate this point. The guy has the potential, at least, to be a top level MLB hitter, but the less than monstrous home run totals are thrown out as reason that he'll never make it. What do you think would happen if Tony Gwynn were coming up today? "Good bat control, a little speed, good instincts in the field. He doesn't really have enough power to profile as a regular outfielder, unless he can stay in center, and his range isn't really sufficient." I think this really illustrates how one dimensional the modern game is in danger of becoming.

Baseball, both as it's played and as it's analyzed, has changed a lot in the five years separating us from this comment, and I think Jon Jay remains a perfect player to illustrate that change.

Jay appears now to be a supremely competent defensive center fielder, in addition to his other BAbip-defying virtues. But even if he hadn't managed that trick, the Cardinals could have gotten a lot of use out of 847 at-bats with an OPS+ of 115 and above-average corner defense. Corner outfielders don't look quite like they used to—center fielders don't, either—and in drafting a player like Jay the Cardinals seem to have been aware of that possibility already.

If, with Colby Rasmus already in the system, they weren't always set on making a starting center fielder out of Jon Jay, they certainly knew it could happen.