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Jon Jay's batting average is vital to his success

Jon Jay continues to plug along, putting together another solid year in 2014 on the strength of a high BABIP. If he is to see success again in 2015, that BABIP needs to stay up.

Ed Szczepanski-USA TODAY Sports

Jon Jay is not usually the type of player who creates intense debate among fans. He was never a top prospect, and never projected to hit for power. Expectations have never been exceedingly high. He has never garnered a high salary, been heavily involved in trade rumors, or made any missteps with the press or fans. He plays an important defensive position reasonably well, and in his worst offensive season he was essentially average. Jon Jay is a forty-degree player, yet his status with the team has engendered near-constant debate.

In 2011, Jon Jay supplanted former top-prospect and lightning-rod Colby Rasmus. Jay, favored by Tony La Russa, beat out Rasmus for playing time leading to Rasmus' trade to the Blue Jays and considerable criticism. The World Series win seemed to wash away some of the venom and Jay played well in 2012 despite a trip to the disabled list and then played very well in 2013. Unfortunately, much of his successes in 2013 were wiped away by poor fielding in centerfield during the playoffs.

Perhaps as a result, the Cardinals sought alternatives for 2014, bringing in defensive ace Peter Bourjos to compete and likely win the centerfield spot for last season. Bourjos was quickly benched for Matheny-favorite Jay and Bourjos struggled all year with hip problems that would require surgery. Jay rewarded his manager's loyalty with a solid season, hitting .303/.372/.378 and a wRC+ of 115 without the high-profile miscues in the field that plagued him in the 2013 playoffs.

Matheny's abandonment of Bourjos does make more sense in retrospect with the knowledge of Bourjos' hip problems. However, given that Matheny gave Bourjos-as-starter just a ten game trial at the beginning of the season, using the hip issue seems convenient cover for the more logical reasoning that Matheny preferred Jay to the newly-acquired and less proven Bourjos and he made his decision based on that preference. After all, Bourjos still contributed incredible defense despite the injury and per plate appearance, was actually more valuable than Jay in 2014.

Matheny's decision-making intensified the scrutiny on Jay, and, heading into the offseason, on the organization as a whole as the red baron discussed after the season ended.

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?

Joe Schwarz penned his response just a few days later, arguing that Jay's production was not as variable as the 2013 and 2014 stat lines suggest. As Ben noted on Saturday in reviewing preseason projections from 2014, because of his lack of power, Jay's line will be highly dependent on BABIP (batting average on balls in play). As Jay's career .345 BABIP would attest, Jay does have quite a skill at getting base hits by putting the ball in the field of play.

Unfortunately, as we saw in 2013, that number can go down. Predicting the number for 2015 is very difficult. Steamer is pessimistic at .327, which would suggest a return to 2013. Steamer is perhaps regressing high BABIPs in general, as none of the six-closest players to Jay in terms of BABIP from 2010-2014 (Miguel Cabrera, Paul Goldschmidt, Michael Bourn, Lorenzo Cain, Reed Johnson, and Matt Kemp) are projected above .330 for 2015. ZiPS is a little more optimistic at .332.

Through his Age-29 season in 2014, Jon Jay has hit .295 with a BABIP of .345 and an ISO (SLG-BA) of .102 in 2,424 plate appearances. Using Fangraphs Leaderboards, there are seven players from 1974-2013 through their Age-29 seasons with a career BABIP between .330 and .360, an average above .290 and an ISO below .120 with at least 2,000 plate appearances.

Tony Gwynn 4527 0.105 0.342 0.332 0.389 0.437 132
Willie Wilson 4578 0.093 0.342 0.301 0.339 0.394 102
Kenny Lofton 3175 0.118 0.343 0.313 0.379 0.431 115
Luis Castillo 4966 0.063 0.338 0.293 0.370 0.356 99
Willie McGee 4117 0.113 0.335 0.295 0.328 0.408 104
Ichiro Suzuki 2191 0.111 0.349 0.328 0.374 0.440 118
Chone Figgins 2826 0.107 0.339 0.293 0.354 0.400 102
Jon Jay 2424 0.102 0.345 0.295 0.359 0.396 112

If a hitter can hit his way to a high BABIP and never strike out, he can make the Hall of Fame like Tony Gwynn. If not, a very good career can be made by a hitter with Jay's profile. Here is how they performed at Age 30.

Ichiro Suzuki 762 0.082 0.399 0.372 0.414 0.455 131
Kenny Lofton 564 0.095 0.390 0.333 0.409 0.428 125
Chone Figgins 520 0.042 0.333 0.276 0.367 0.318 91
Tony Gwynn 629 0.106 0.315 0.309 0.357 0.415 106
Luis Castillo 652 0.074 0.324 0.296 0.358 0.370 95
Willie Wilson 675 0.097 0.306 0.269 0.313 0.366 84
Willie McGee 211 0.116 0.270 0.236 0.275 0.352 79

Great years from Lofton and Ichiro, and a solid BABIP from Figgins with absolutely no power are a few of the better examples on the list. Another good year from Gwynn, who despite a relatively low BABIP for him, still hit well because he struck out just 23 times all season. Going a bit further, here is a chart showing the seasonal BABIPs of the above players from Age-30 to Age-32.

Age 30-32 BABIP

Keeping in mind that .300 is roughly average, we see a lot of above average seasons, almost all of them. Unfortunately, we see very few seasons above .340 relative to those below .330. Power hitters can live below .330 and be very successful, but for players like Jay who derive almost all of their offensive value on getting hits on balls in play, dropping below those levels means going below average as a hitter.

As players exit their primes and head into their 30s like Jay, it becomes harder to keep up the old standards. Jay is likely to be good again in 2015, but absent a jump in power or a little bit of luck, he is not likely to be as good as he was in 2014. Jay enters the season as the starting centerfielder, but a timeshare with Peter Bourjos might be more appropriate and effective for the Cardinals.