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Jon Jay is a Problem, and Apparently Always Will Be

Or: The Triumph of Results, the Death of Process, and Losing Faith in John Mozeliak.

This picture was the third result when I searched for Jon Jay. I thought it was funny, so I'm using it.
This picture was the third result when I searched for Jon Jay. I thought it was funny, so I'm using it.
Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

There were plenty of interesting things to come out of the John Mozeliak/Mike Matheny postmortem presser the other day, most of them disappointing. Disappointing, that is, if you can actually choke back the bile long enough to concentrate on formulating an actual emotion, rather than simply focusing in on the searing pain in your throat. You know, on account of all the bile?

No? You weren't choking back bile the whole time you were listening to the brain trust of the team talk about how they expected every arbitration-eligible player would get the arb offer, and pretty much all of them were expected back next season? Hmm. Well, okay. I guess maybe that's just me.

Anyhow, let me couch what I'm about to say (or spew, perhaps, you might prefer to think of it, as one typically spews a screed, I believe), in such a way that takes into account two things I feel I should get out of the way right up front:

1.) It's entirely possible that John Mozeliak will end up making really good moves this offseason, and when we look back on the exit interview presser, he was just blowing a whole lot of smoke. After all, you can't really expect the man to come out and torpedo his offseason plans by telling everyone what he's really thinking if those thoughts include something along the lines of, "You know, I really need to make a bunch of moves to shake up this roster and improve it in some very specific areas." Actions speak louder than words, and whatever Mr. Mo ultimately does this offseason will inform how I feel about the team going forward far more than what he may have said back in mid-October, and

2.) In no way am I trying to suggest that Jon Jay was not a valuable contributor to the Cardinals this past season. He had a good year. Keep that in mind, because I'm probably not going to say a whole lot of other nice things about him.

Now, here's where I have a problem with Jon Jay, and why the comments about him give me pause about not only Mike Matheny, but John Mozeliak's decision-making process as well.

Coming into the 2014 season, Jon Jay looked like he was on his way out of town. He endured a pretty miserable 2013 -- though, to his credit, he did turn the season around after an appalling start to approach league-averageness -- and was viewed as enough of a liability that Mozeliak went out and traded away a World Series hero in the person of David Freese to bring in Peter Bourjos, one of the most underrated and underappreciated players in all of baseball (at least in the estimation of some observers, of whom yours truly may or may not be among that number), to hopefully upgrade the position. Jay was seen as a weakness, and center field an area to be improved.

We all know the story by now, of course; Bourjos gets playing time early on, struggles to hit out of the gate -- which may or may not have had anything to do with his coming back from wrist surgery; it's tough to really say one way or the other -- sees his playing time virtually disappear, and Jay miraculously reclaims the job so many believe he deserved all along, aided by a huge second half when it seemed National League pitchers just couldn't get the plucky lefty out.

Now, I'm not going to even bother heading down the road of trying to argue for Bourjos over Jay on merit, since I can't imagine winning that debate. Never mind that Bourjos was, in fact, worth more per plate appearance than Jay for the whole season according to fWAR -- which includes the early struggles which, again, may or may not have been related to the previous injury -- and almost exactly the same amount per inning played, since some here have brought up the idea that Bourjos's defensive numbers somehow skew too high since he received time in the field without a plate appearance on plenty of nights. (If you do the math for WAR by innings played, Jay does, in fact, come out slightly ahead of Bourjos, by five ten-thousandths of a run per inning.) Also never mind the fact Bourjos is the vastly superior defender and two full years younger than Jay and, thus, less close to the steepest part of that downward aging slope, or the fact that from the first of July through the end of the regular season, when Jay was putting together what everyone seems to believe was this amazing run of hitting, his OPS of .760 didn't exactly demolish Bourjos's .745 over that same period. I freely admit there is an enjoyment bias on my part, in that I enjoy watching Peter Bourjos play baseball more than just about any other player on the club outside of Matt Carpenter, and I'm sure you're all tired of listening to me loudly and sloppily fellate the former Angel every chance I get. So, I won't try to argue for Bourjos over Jay right now. (I reserve the right to revisit the topic when I can't think of anything interesting in the dead of winter, however, and that dead horse is just laying there, staring at me with its maggot-eaten eye sockets, just begging for another good beating.)

Rather, what I have a problem with is this: coming into 2014, Jon Jay was seen to be on the shakiest of footing, and a player the front office was looking to upgrade on. Now, following up the 2014 campaign, the General Manager and the field manager are falling all over themselves to heap praise on Jay and tell the world his performance this season certainly has changed his standing within the organisation, and he's absolutely the guy going forward.

The problem? Jon Jay wasn't really any better in 2014 than he was in 2013.

Actually, let me soften that: he was better. However, the difference was nowhere near the kind of improvement you really want to see from a player to change your opinion of him dramatically.

First off, I will say this: Jay absolutely did play better defense in 2014 than in '13. The numbers have him going from a below-average defender in 2013 to above-average this season, and those numbers largely agree with the eye test, I think. Did I see anything to suggest Jay is really a better defender now than he was in 2013? No, not really. But, I do think he played better this year. I still think, on the whole, Jay is approximately the same kind of defender he's been most of his career: slightly below-average to roughly scratch. He's not going to kill you in center, certainly, but I don't think he's adding a ton of value out there, either. Still, he was better this season than last, and so I'll give credit where credit is due.

On the other hand, whereas the 2014 season was seen as a big-time stepping up of the offensive game for Jay in the face of adversity (you know the narrative by now, right? Jay always plays his best when he's being challenged for a spot, and he loves it when everyone is counting him out, and look how he took the job and ran with it, and blah, blah, blah), with a .303/.372/.378 line that was good for a 115 wRC+ and really left no doubt whatsoever as to who owns center field in St. Louis.

Oh, yeah, and the whole thing is bullshit, by the way.

From 2013 to 2014, Jon Jay saw his walk rate drop significantly, from 8.3% to 6.0%. His strikeout rate stayed almost exactly level (actually, it went up slightly, from 16.4% to 16.7%, but that's such a small change as to be meaningless), which means his BB/K ratio was markedly worse. His isolated slugging, already one of the weakest aspects of his game, fell off a cliff, going from .095 in both 2012 and '13 to a slaptastic .075 this past season. Okay, so maybe not 'off a cliff', since an ISO below .100 probably doesn't qualify for cliff status (he fell off a hillock, perhaps?), but the fact is, Jay's ISO has gone from being in the .120s his first couple seasons in the league to something that would look at home in Juan Pierre's repertoire.

Jay's value on the bases dropped significantly from 2013 to '14, as well, from half a run above average to 2.2 runs below average. There's actually a three-year trend here of declining baserunning value, but the +4.0 runs he posted in 2012 are well out of range with his career numbers, so I freely admit he may have just sort of fluked into one good year on the basepaths. Jay stole only six bases on nine tries, so he came in below the 70% threshold of success stealing that is generally seen as the break-even point on stolen base attempts, also.

So, the walk rate got worse, the power continued to disappear, the baserunning was notably worse. Why, then, does the public at large seem to think Jon Jay had such an amazing offensive season?

Well, he did have a big year in two categories. Batting Average on Balls In Play, more commonly known as BABIP, and being hit by opponent's pitches. In those categories, Jon Jay was a man among men this year.

For the season, Jay posted a .363 BABIP, and collected a league-leading total of 20 free bases via the HBP in less than 500 plate appearances. So he managed to collect a bunch of hits and leaned into a few extra pitches, right? What's the problem with that, you ask?

The problem, of course, is that neither of those outcomes is particularly likely to repeat in the future. The .363 BABIP was a career high for Jay, and is the reason his batting average jumped from .275 in 2013 to .303 this year. And before anyone starts complaining and arguing that Jon Jay is just one of those guys who always has a high BABIP, I concur. He probably will always have a higher BABIP than league average (which is still down in the .300 range, I believe), but I'm not particularly confident he's going to set a career high every season. (That's the kind of thought process which led to surprise when the Cardinals' historic success with runners in scoring position from 2013 failed to carry over to 2014 and took a bunch of runs with it.) For instance, in 2013, Jay's BABIP was .325, still well above league average, but below his career mark, to be sure.

Now, in fairness, Jay did move even more batted balls from the fly ball category into line drives and grounders, losing 3% off his fly ball rate and dividing those fairly evenly between LD and GB%. So, there is some real difference in the type of balls he hit in 2014. However, the point remains: the reason Jon Jay looked so much better in 2014 than 2013 is primarily because one of the most volatile offensive statistics in all of baseball broke further in his favour than ever before and ensured his batting average (which, of course, we all know is the best way to evaluate a player), crept up above that magical .300 number.

And as for the hit by pitch number which helped push his OBP up in spite of a rather large decline in his walk rate, here's the problem: From year to year, HBPs by batters don't have a very good correlation. In other words, while you may be able to say, in a very general way, that a given hitter is more likely to be hit by a pitch than some others (and Jon Jay probably falls into that category, I would say), there's very little to suggest that the year-to-year numbers are really all that likely to be similar.

What we have here, ladies and gentlemen, is results-based thinking at its very finest; Jon Jay excelled in 2014 at two of the most volatile, least repeatable statistical categories in the game of baseball, while declining in his ability to hit for power, patience at the plate, and value added on the bases. How do you think we would be feeling about Jay's 2014 season if everything had remained the same, but his BABIP was, say, right in line with where it was in 2013 (i.e. 40 points lower, with an extremely similar batted-ball profile), and he was only hit by a pitch once every 45 trips to the plate (again, 2013 rate), instead of once every 23.4?

My problem, I would like to say again, is not with Jon Jay. Jon Jay is a fine baseball player, and one who enjoyed something that, on the surface, looks a lot like a career year in 2014. In fact, looking at Jay's 2014 season, it looks like exactly the sort of season you would like to convert into value on the trade market, seeing as how he was really quite valuable and isn't yet super expensive. No, my problem is with looking at Jon Jay's 2014 campaign and saying he's clearly cemented his place in center field for the foreseeable future for the Cardinals. If he was such a liability this time a year ago that the club was looking for an upgrade (and maybe you don't think they should have been; that's really another question entirely), then why, after a season when he declined in more meaningful ways than he improved, is he clearly the guy going forward?

Jon Jay was not the problem with the Cardinals' offense -- or the team as a whole -- in 2014. But, considering he's the Platonic ideal of the high-variance, BABIP-driven, low-power (or no-power, as you will), ground-ball hitting machine the Cards seem so intent on stocking their lineup with over the past few seasons, I don't think it's a huge stretch to consider he's at least emblematic of some of the problems we saw so painfully illustrated this year. Sure, when he's putting up a career-high BABIP and unsustainable HBP numbers, he looks pretty damned good. But, really, is that what you want to be betting on?

Or maybe it's all a smokescreen. Like I said earlier, actions speak louder than words. But we already know the manager can't tell who's actually valuable and who isn't on this roster. And after listening to the press conference on Monday, I'm more than a little worried the GM may not be able to, either.

Also, finally, you may wish to accuse me of stirring the pot, or deliberately writing something provocative to get a response. That's...not entirely unfair. But, I'm in a rather terrible mood this morning, have been since the season ended, and am also extremely bored at the moment. So, you know. Come get some.

And have a nice day.