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Does Jon Jay deserve playing time?

Jon Jay has struggled throughout 2015, in large part due to a wrist injury, but Mike Matheny has continually put him in the lineup since his latest return from the DL.

Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

The Cardinals' outfield has been in a considerable state of flux throughout the 2015 season due to a combination of injuries, underperformances, and breakouts. Jon Jay has been one of the biggest sources of confusion in the Cardinals' outfield situation, as he has missed considerable time with a wrist injury and underperformed when on the field (perhaps because of his wrist injury.) Normally, a player with a 54 wRC+ in 208 plate appearances would not merit much playing time, especially given the fact that Mike Matheny believes in the hot hand and seems to place too much value in small sample sizes.

But Jon Jay is no ordinary Cardinals outfielder. He was proclaimed to be The Starting Center Fielder last offseason, despite providing comparable value on a per plate appearance basis as Peter Bourjos. The Cardinals also rewarded Jay with a two year contract in February, a contract which our wonderful site manager, Ben Humphrey, accurately deemed to be unnecessary at the time it was signed. With Jay's injury issues and underperformance this season, the Cardinals quite likely would have non-tendered him this offseason instead of paying him for his final arbitration year. Instead, this is not an option, since they already decided to guarantee his salary for his remaining year of team control, even though they were likely saving little to nothing by doing so.

Jay has now returned from his most recent DL stint, and Mike Matheny has wasted no time in putting him back in the lineup. Since being activated a week ago, Jay has played in center field in six of seven games, starting four of them. While it would be foolish to read much into his seventeen plate appearances since returning from the DL, we do not yet have any reason to believe that Jay is a different hitter than he was before he went on the DL. He has reached base on two singles and two hit-by-pitches, and he has yet to drive the ball on a consistent basis.

For fun, I went back and watched each of Jay's at-bats since returning from the DL, and I also took a look at the Statcast data collected on all of his batted balls. In total, Jay has struck out six times, been hit twice, and put the ball in play nine times. Here are his batted ball results.

Date Batted Ball Type Exit Velocity (MPH) Distance (Feet) Result
9/4/2015 Line Drive 79 250 Out
9/4/2015 Ground Ball N/A N/A Out
9/6/2015 Line Drive 65 N/A Single
9/6/2015 Ground Ball 84 N/A Out
9/7/2015 Ground Ball 94 N/A Out
9/7/2015 Ground Ball 99 254 Single
9/7/2015 Popup 64 N/A Out
9/8/2015 Ground Ball 59 N/A Out
9/8/2015 Ground Ball 55 N/A Out

Jay has picked up right where he left off before he went on the DL, showing more weak contact while mixing in an occasional single. His two line drives were softly hit, and only two of his six ground balls had an exit velocity over 85 MPH. (I went back and watched the one without an exit velocity, and it, too, was very softly hit.)

I know that this is an incredibly small sample size, and I in no way believe that Jay is anywhere close to this bad of a hitter, but I think these results still have some level of importance. This is now the third time that Jay has attempted to return from his wrist injury, and given his lackluster results the first two times, I think we are at the point now where Jay has to show that he is capable of hitting the ball with authority before he deserves any playing time. While it can be argued that the Cardinals should have taken this approach with Jay the first two times he tried to return from his wrist injury, I think that Matheny and his coaching staff gave Jay the benefit of the doubt due to his track record, hoping that he would work through his issues with more consistent playing time.

The Cardinals are now at a point in the season where they don't necessarily have the flexibility to give away at-bats to a player that may or may not be able to hit. With this team's latest rough stretch and the Pirates and Cubs refusing to go away, the Cardinals must continue to put their best lineup on the field on a daily basis. And with the postseason rapidly approaching, the Cardinals will also have to make a decision on whether or not to include Jay on the postseason roster. The team currently has an outfield logjam that includes Jason Heyward, Steven Piscotty, Randal Grichuk, Peter Bourjos, Tommy Pham, and (potentially) Matt Holliday. (Brandon Moss has also played outfield, but he figures to see more time at first base.) If Jay is no longer the hitter he was prior to this season, he may have less value to the team in the playoffs than any of the other outfielders currently on the roster.

In the past, Jay's value has come from his ability to sustain a high BABIP and get on base at an above average rate. With his wrist injury, Jay's BABIP has fallen to .253 this season, well below his career average of .338. While it can be argued that Jay's high BABIP was ultimately unsustainable, it is clear that his drop in BABIP this season is largely related to his quality of contact. According to Fangraphs, Jay is hitting more ground balls and fewer line drives. His hard contact rate is down and his soft contact rate is up.

If Jay's ability to hit and get on base has been compromised, then he is not the Cardinals'  best option in center field. I realize that the Cardinals' other options in center field are not perfect. Randal Grichuk cannot make throws at the moment, and Peter Bourjos isn't a great hitter. Still these players are able to provide value to the team in different ways. Grichuk can still hit for power, and Bourjos can play outstanding defense. This season, Jon Jay has has shown no signs of being able to hit the ball with authority and get on base, and until he does, he will be of very little value to the Cardinals.