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Celebrating Jon Jay: The outfielder you never feel you need but are always glad you have

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Jon Jay will achieve 10-years of MLB service time tonight. Let’s celebrate one of the most under-appreciated players in baseball.

St. Louis Cardinals v Minnesota Twins Photo by Brace Hemmelgarn/Minnesota Twins/Getty Images

As Pedro Gomez notes in a nice profile at ESPN, after tonight’s Arizona Diamondbacks game, Jon Jay will have amassed 10-years of MLB service time... a feat achieved by only 6% of all players in history.

I’ll be honest, I was not aware that 1) Jon Jay was still in the league or that 2) Jon Jay was back on the Diamondbacks. But that is relentlessly on-brand for the man we call The Chief Justice.

Jay is a unique breed of player, and unfortunately, that often means he is written about with cliches that are meant to celebrate but instead diminish him. Even in today’s ESPN article, you will find such terms as:

Intangibles: X
Baseball IQ: X
Clubhouse Leader: X
Grinder: (Okay, not written but strongly implied)

It’s been almost 20 years since the first shots in the Battle of Scouts vs. Quants, and clearly the Quants have won. The healing has begun and scouts and quants may again live in harmony. But Jon Jay came into the league while the war was still raging, and his skill set never aligned with the analytic superstar.

He was drafted by the Cardinals in 2006 out of Miami and assigned to the A-ball Quad Cities. Also in that outfield was the Yang to his Yin: Colby Rasmus. The Cardinals top-pick a year earlier out of high school, Rasmus was everything Jay was not. Rasmus’ tools were very “tangible.”

The toolsy Rasmus would ascend faster than Jay, reaching the majors in 2009. Jay would break into the league in 2010, filling in at all three outfield spots. By 2011, Jay was pushing Rasmus out as the primary Center Fielder. And as we all know, Rasmus left St. Louis as the centerpiece of the trade which brought in pitching reinforcements the team leaned on heavily in their run to the 2011 World Series.

Jay would hold that starting spot through 2013, when the Cardinals again went to the World Series. And throughout those years, Jon Jay was... fine. He was never bad. He wasn’t great or really even good. But he was always fine. Setting aside his partial first and final seasons in St. Louis, his WAR was always between 1.7 and 2.9. By that metric, he was consistently on the low-end of what you would want from an everyday player.

And that’s why two years after shuffling Rasmus away, the Cardinals signed Peter Bourjos - another player with more superlative skills in certain areas - to push Jay for the CF job. Like Rasmus, Bourjos was also two-years younger than Jay.

But as with Rasmus, even when the Cardinals tried to give Bourjos the spot, it was soon Jay who was getting most of the playing time. And many of us bemoaned the more exciting player, the player with the superior tools, losing playing time to the more mundane Jay.

Colby Rasmus and Peter Bourjos are both out of baseball now. Jon Jay is about to earn his pension.

That pattern continued even after Jay left St. Louis. In 2017, he was signed to a one-year-deal by the Cubs to serve as a 4th outfielder. He ended the season with more PAs that presumed prospect Albert Almora.

If Jon Jay’s career were a meme, it would be this:

Jay has been on the decline since he left St. Louis, but it has been a very slow decline. He went from being something like a 1.5 WAR player to more like a 1 WAR player, and over these last two years dropped to something more like replacement level. Those are not sexy numbers.

Jay’s skills were never sexy, either. He was not fast. He did not hit for power. His best tool was always his contact, but contact with low power doesn’t exactly capture the imagination. As a defender, his value was generally a bit on the negative side, but not to a catastrophic degree.

The thing that Jon Jay can remind us is that there are many types of Major League Baseball players. We tend to fixate on the superstars, or those who flash big enough tools that if they blossomed or found consistency, they could become superstars.

But some studies have found that teams that reach the postseason often succeed more at NOT rostering bad players than they do at rostering superstars. Those 1-2 WAR guys may not sell a lot of jerseys, but winning teams stock up with players like that so they aren’t stuck with replacement-level talent. And over a 162-game season, that makes a huge difference.