The sad realities of Jon Jay

Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

I love Jon Jay. I should probably start off by saying this. And I'm going to spend way too much time explaining my love for him before I get to the point. If you just want to read the realities, scroll until you get to bold font. Good? Good.

Generally speaking, my affections for baseball players do not lie with whomever is the best player. They don't even tend to lie with a specific mold of player. More than anything else, I root for good players (it does not matter if they are great players) who are marginalized by the Cardinals fan base at large. What can I say? I like an underdog. I was fairly apathetic about Lance Lynn until a fairly large segment of Cardinals fans decided in 2012, weeks after he was an all-star, that they did not want Lynn in the rotation. I instantly became a fan of Lynn.

Jon Jay debuted with the St. Louis Cardinals in 2010. He was not an especially ballyhooed prospect and he seemed likely to be a fourth outfielder going forward. The Cardinals had signed Matt Holliday to a long-term deal in the 2009-10 offseason to man left field for the foreseeable future. The much-hyped Colby Rasmus was in his second season, one in which he accumulated 4.0 fWAR and appeared to be setting the stage for a decade as the center fielder for the Cardinals. And Ryan Ludwick, who quickly became a fan favorite in 2008, was manning right field.

But in July, the Cardinals needed pitching and the emergence of Jon Jay as a formidable, if not great, outfield option led to the team dealing from a position of strength to feed an area of weakness, as the team dealt Ludwick for Jake Westbrook. It would be oversimplistic to claim the Cardinals traded Ludwick to make room for Jay--it's not as though the traded yielded zero return whatsoever--but that's the way it feels. And thus, for fans who liked Ludwick, Jay was the usurper.

And while Ludwick had his fans, it was no match for the alienation that Jay would cause through no real fault of his own in 2011, when Colby Rasmus was traded (along with the three guys the team would've inevitably designated for assignment to make room for new additions) for Edwin Jackson, Octavio Dotel, and Marc Rzepczynski (they acquired a fourth guy, too; I just want to test to see how many of you have to Google who it was to remember). The trade didn't make sense from a strict WAR-based perspective, as Jackson and Dotel had contracts expiring at the end of the season and Rzepczynski was considered a marginal bullpen arm with the upside of becoming a marginal rotation arm, while Rasmus had another three years of cost-controlled arbitration years post-2011. But the trade was sensible for one reason--Jon Jay. Even if the team assumed, as most fans did at the time, that Jay was a downgrade in center field going forward, that Jay could even come close to Rasmus's production meant the team could make a trade to dramatically improve pitching depth. And the trade wound up a success for the Cardinals. While Jay struggled late in 2011, Rasmus was even worse, and the Cardinals squeaked into the playoffs in no small part due to the production of the pitchers the team had acquired. And once they got to the playoffs, um, I don't know, I assume things went poorly. 2011 Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Cole Hamels, and Roy Oswalt is unfair and really, isn't making the postseason the honor?

Anyway, in 2012, Jon Jay was unquestionably better than Colby Rasmus. Jay was worth 3.5 fWAR to Rasmus's 0.9. Jay was a better hitter, fielder, and baserunner. 2012 was the salad days of Jon Jay fandom.

2013 went less well. Now, I should point out that Jon Jay was not nearly the unmitigated disaster that history implies he was. But he wasn't great. He was worth 1.8 fWAR; by contrast, Carlos Beltran was worth 1.9 fWAR and was offered a qualifying offer, yielding a first round pick since an MLB team decided a player who was marginally better than Jon Jay in 2013 (and marginally worse over the course of the previous two seasons) was worth $45 million over the next three seasons. But regardless, it became a popular sentiment during the 2013 playoffs that the Cardinals should start, or at least platoon, Shane Robinson. This was never really realistic, though. Robinson was barely in the Major Leagues, much less on the precipice of starting in the World Series. However, in the offseason, a realistic threat to Jay's center field incumbency arrived in Peter Bourjos.

Bourjos, contrary to common belief, actually did begin the 2014 season as the Cardinals primary center fielder. He started the first two games of the season and 9 of the first 12 (one of these was a game in which Jon Jay started in right field) before his offensive struggles led to Jay eventually being the predominant starter. While Bourjos arguably (probably) lost the gig too quickly due to small sample sizes, their 2014 stats suggest that who started in center field probably didn't make a huge difference. And Jay improved from his 2013 season, though his 2014 admittedly was probably every bit as overpraised as his 2013 was overcriticized. But regardless, although Team Bourjos remained adamant going into the 2015 season, Jon Jay entered the season as the starting center fielder.

And now, after nearly 900 words of me explaining the adversity that led to my fondness for Jon Jay, I'm finally going to get around to explaining the subject of "The Sad Realities of Jon Jay."

1. At the moment, Peter Bourjos is better than Jon Jay. This isn't really a sad reality for you if you aren't a Jon Jay fanboy. And it's nothing against Peter Bourjos--I like Bourjos as well, but the fervor for Bourjos among my inner circle of the internet assures he will never be *my* guy. In the 2014 postseason, I advocated vociferously for Bourjos to start in center while Jay could start in right, while Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk were each shaky as everyday right fielders. But as it stands, Bourjos is simply better than Jay. Bourjos has been roughly league-average at the plate this season (98 wRC+), and although his defensive stats have been suspect this season to such an extent that his fWAR is actually below replacement level, this seems to be mostly flukish. The eye test suggests he's still the superb defensive center fielder he has been in previous seasons. To expect that Bourjos will remain a 98 wRC+ hitter may be a touch optimistic, though his career wRC+ of 94 isn't exactly a dramatic dropoff, but he does certainly appear to be better than his 82 wRC+ of 2014.

But even more critical than Peter Bourjos's offensive renaissance to this equation is Jon Jay's 2015. Entering today, Jay has a woeful wRC+ of 68. His power has continued its slide of the last several years and his BABIP is currently .266. Now, BABIP is often oversimplistically applied and his generally high BABIPs have been too often treated as some kind of sign that he's merely the benefactor of dumb luck. Jay has had high BABIPs because he tends to hit a lot of line drives and otherwise hard hits. This has not been the case in 2015--his hard-hit percentage is down, his soft-hit percentage is up, and although the .266 BABIP is a bit lower than it probably should be, his deserved BABIP is much lower than it would need to be in order to justify him starting presently over Peter Bourjos. And although Jay's defense has been good (it usually is, in spite of constant, mostly gratuitous mockery of his arm strength), he is not the superb type of fielder that Bourjos is. I do wish people would get past the arm strength argument, because at this point, taking Bourjos over Jay as a starting center fielder because of arm strength is like taking Michael Jordan in a game of one-on-one over me because he can dunk--while this is technically true, there's about a dozen better arguments to be made.

2. Jon Jay is probably not going to lose his job as the starting center fielder for the Cardinals, no matter what. Coming out of the gate in the 2013 season, Mitchell Boggs was terrible as closer for the Cardinals. He was a good setup man in 2012 but when Jason Motte went down to injury, Boggs could not come close to filling his shoes in 2013. Mitchell Boggs was never demoted from Cardinals closer. He was the closer one day and the next day, he was designated for assignment. That was that. It took the intervention of John Mozeliak to move Boggs from the main man in the bullpen to out of Major League Baseball.

In 2014, Allen Craig appeared to have lost it. His OPS+ with the Cardinals was 78, and he continued to be a mediocre defensive player. Yet he remained starting virtually every day in right field over Oscar Taveras. Once again, it took direct intervention of Mozeliak to remove Allen Craig from the lineup, as he was traded to Boston with Joe Kelly (who, to a lesser extent, seemed entrenched in the Cardinals rotation in spite of underwhelming results) for John Lackey.

Mike Matheny appears to be fiercely loyal to his guys. It's an endearing quality in some ways, but it also means that John Mozeliak, who is much more cold and calculating and God knows I mean that as a compliment, has to be the one to lay down the hammer.

3. Jon Jay is probably going to be traded. The Cardinals are a better team at this point if Peter Bourjos starts. But that doesn't mean Jon Jay is worthless. Jon Jay would actually make for a terrific fourth outfielder. He's been solid in pinch-hitting duty in his career and has shown representative ability at all three outfield spots. He doesn't have pronounced platoon splits and he has played well at points in his career in which he was not getting regular playing time. He's the exact archetype of a fourth outfielder except that, for most of his career, he was too good of a player to justify him sitting on the bench. At this point, he's a fourth outfielder on a good team, perhaps a third outfielder on a bad team, but regardless, a good piece to have for a good team on the bench.

Now, this isn't to say that the rational part of me is opposed to trading Jon Jay if the team can acquire something of value for him. But my fear is that he will be traded essentially to get him out of the way. And it's not his fault.

But with this fear, I maintain my sanity by remembering the history of Jon Jay, which is people doubting him and him in turn doing everything right and winning over those questioning him. I find it strange to be on the side of doubters, but while the rational side of me questions if Jon Jay can ever be what he once was, the fanboy side of me knows that he's faced that question before.