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Randal Grichuk as the Bizarro Jon Jay

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Despite an almost polar opposite playing style to his center field predecessor, Randal Grichuk fulfills a similar role for the Cardinals to Jon Jay.

MLB: St. Louis Cardinals at Los Angeles Dodgers Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

In the Superman universe, Bizarro is a mirror-image of the titular character. Instead of heat vision, he has freeze vision. Instead of an ability to make objects appear larger to himself, he can make objects appear smaller to everybody else. At least according to Wikipedia. I mostly know the reference from Seinfeld.

And while it would be tempting to label Bizarro as Superman’s opposite, the two have similar effects on their worlds. They just happen to go about their business in different ways.

For being two players who play the same position, Cardinals center fielder Randal Grichuk and former Cardinals center fielder Jon Jay bear little resemblance. Grichuk is a power hitter who has 26% more home runs than Jay despite having only 28% of Jay’s career plate appearances. Jay’s on-base percentage in his worst season of full-time duty, .344, is head and shoulders above Grichuk’s career OBP mark of .301.

Both players have been dismissed by critical fans as “Mike guys”, but if Jon Jay and Randal Grichuk are the defining archetypes of Mike Matheny’s preferred style of baseball player, it’s hard to grasp what exactly Matheny desires. It’s like if somebody’s two favorite musical artists are Beethoven and Public Enemy—defensible, but it would be awfully audacious to declare that you sense a real trend there.

Grichuk’s current career wRC+ is 114, which is just a tick lower than Jon Jay’s wRC+ in both 2012 and 2014 of 115. Let’s compare these two sets of statistics while keeping in mind that, per FanGraphs, each is essentially the same player on offense.

Jon Jay, 2012 and 2014: 970 PA, 7 HR, 25 SB, .307 BA, .373 OBP, .389 SLG, .359 BABIP

Randal Grichuk, Career: 827 PA, 39 HR, 7 SB, .251 BA, .301 OBP, .496 SLG, .315 BABIP

I should probably clarify something—my point here is not arguing Jay vs. Grichuk. The latter was in the Angels organization while the former had a career year in 2012, and as the latter had an incredible August this season, the former was on the Disabled List for the San Diego Padres. The only time the two were in any earnest competition with one another for playing time, Jon Jay was in the middle of what was easily the worst season of his career, and Grichuk earned the majority of playing time for good reason. Also, I’m cherry-picking Jay’s two best seasons not because I’m a Jon Jay fanboy (though I am) but because they are the most Jon Jay-like seasons Jon Jay has ever had.

The point is that there are multiple vastly different approaches which can produce similarly effective results. Besides the aforementioned home runs, which is certainly the most obvious difference between the two, Jon Jay stole considerably more bases, though Grichuk was a more effective base runner by Baserunning Runs Above Average—neither is an especially efficient base runner, but Jay’s higher rates of steal attempts and basepath outs give Grichuk, slightly above average, an edge over Jay, a hair below average.

The flip side to Grichuk’s unquestionably superior power is that he reaches less often on balls in play. This isn’t strictly a matter of luck: throughout his career, Jon Jay has produced a consistently higher line-drive percentage, and despite Grichuk’s semi-legendary exit velocity, the two have a nearly identical percentage of hit balls classified as softly hit by Baseball Info Solutions.

Their offensive styles differ tremendously, though their defensive backgrounds were fairly similar. In each case, an outfielder came to the St. Louis Cardinals in a primarily backup role, expected to be largely implemented in a corner outfield spot, and eventually emerged as an everyday center fielder. As defensive center fielders, each has arguably surpassed expectations, as they are right around average after being players not expected to be capable of hanging every day in the middle of the outfield.

Using each’s career metrics in center field as a barometer, Jon Jay is ever-so-slightly above average and Randal Grichuk is ever-so-slightly below average. Jay has a career Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games of 1.7 runs saved above average, while Grichuk’s UZR/150 stands at -1.0 run saved. With a difference of 2.7 runs over the course of a season, and with Grichuk’s center field innings logged only clearing 1000 on Wednesday night, I’m willing to call them essentially a wash defensively.

What’s strange is that, like their differing offense, their similarly effective defensive skill sets are hardly clones of one another. Grichuk is decent in all facets of center field, though his strongest attribute is his arm. Jay possessed better range and was less prone to errors, but he gave back nearly this entire edge with his decided non-cannon. Grichuk is certainly the better thrower. Most of the time.

The aesthetics of the two are different, and whichever one you prefer is a matter of taste. Having been raised on a steady diet of Mark McGwire and Albert Pujols, it is hard to pass on Randal Grichuk’s dinger propensity. Though I believe it was Cardinals superfan Will Leitch that I first heard make a comparison between Jon Jay, often maligned in the advanced stat era for his single-heavy batting profile, and Willie McGee, beloved after playing in an era in which relatively empty batting averages could be a player’s bread and butter. Whether you prefer one style is an argument not worth having, since front offices will side with productivity, and in this case, once one of the two seemed to be on the decline (and, as it turns out, could garner home run superhero Jedd Gyorko), he became disposable.

Ultimately, aside from net productivity, one thing Grichuk does have very much in common with Jay is constant competition. In 2010, Jay took Ryan Ludwick’s starting job, and then Colby Rasmus’s in 2011, and he fended off competition from Peter Bourjos in 2014 (and to a lesser extent Shane Robinson in 2013) before finally succumbing to Grichuk’s 2015 breakout.

Meanwhile, Randal Grichuk became a regular right fielder in 2014 after Allen Craig was traded, while most expected Oscar Taveras to take the position. Grichuk won the starting center field job in 2015 over the more experienced Bourjos and Jay. And in 2016, Tommy Pham (and Jeremy Hazelbaker, and at one point Kolten Wong) threatened Grichuk’s playing time, but now he is mostly relegated to backup duty.

Like Jon Jay before him, Randal Grichuk is an occasionally very good, definitely above replacement level, but probably not transcendent player. And that is fine. It means that the Cardinals will always be on the lookout for a true star to replace him, but it also means that even if he is an incomplete package, even if in different ways from Jon Jay, he may be able to carve out several years as a solid contributor at the Major League level.