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Jon Jay is not a problem

"In a year that the Cardinals didn't count on him, he basically said, 'Hold on, I can still play and I'll prove it.'" -- Alex Cora

Thearon W. Henderson

On Wednesday, the red baron published a thought-provoking, very well-received article titled, "Jon Jay is a Problem, and Apparently Always Will Be." If you have not yet read it, I suggest you do so because it will be referenced a few times in this post. Per usual, I thoroughly enjoyed the construction of RB's article because, in my opinion, he is one of the best writers on the planet. However, if you follow me on Twitter or generally know where I stand on the issue, I am not on the same page with RB's conclusions, and I obviously disagree with his choice of a title. I believe Alex Cora said it best when I asked him his thoughts on the situation, "In a year that the Cardinals didn't count on him, he basically said, 'Hold on, I can still play and I'll prove it.'"

All right, let's jump in...

2.) In no way am I trying to suggest that Jon Jay was not a valuable contributor to the Cardinals this past season. He had a good year. Keep that in mind, because I'm probably not going to say a whole lot of other nice things about him.


He endured a pretty miserable 2013

At 1.8 fWAR, Jay had his worst season as a major leaguer in 2013. The league average center fielder was worth 2.6 fWAR in 2013, so it is clear that Jay was below league average last season. However, this "miserable" season was bested by just one-tenth of one fWAR by Carlos Beltran (1.9 fWAR), and yet, there weren't all that many people pointing out 2013 as a statistically rough season by the right-fielder. In fact, though completely misguided, there was a portion of the fan base that blamed the team's offensive woes in 2014 on the departure of Beltran (109 games, -0.5 fWAR this season).

Defense discussion

Jay absolutely did play better defense in 2014 than in '13. The numbers have him going from a below-average defender in 2013 to above-average this season, and those numbers largely agree with the eye test, I think. Did I see anything to suggest Jay is really a better defender now than he was in 2013? No, not really. But, I do think he played better this year. I still think, on the whole, Jay is approximately the same kind of defender he's been most of his career: slightly below-average to roughly scratch.

What makes 2013 the benchmark for judging Jay's defensive ability? Why not 2012, when his 3.7 UZR was sixth best among MLB center fielders? Why not this season? Heck, in 2011, he was in the top 20, which by no means is spectacular, but is still nowhere near as poor as he was in 2013. Thus, if you chalk 2013 as the start of Jay's decline or even what fans should "expect" from him in the field, then how do you explain his 6.0 UZR from this season, one year after the start of his decline?

Jay is not a speedster and never will be. Because of this, he relies on his jumps and routes to make all the plays he is supposed to make as well as a handful of plays that are considered "out of his range." Will he make spectacular plays or be anywhere close to Bourjos in UZR over the same amount of innings? Nope, but characterizing Jay's defense based on one really bad season is not fair and is not the best representation of who he is as a defender. Since his defense isn't dependent on a physical attribute like speed, it is not unreasonable to think that his defensive decline will not be as sharp as a player who relies solely on his speed to make plays. A player's speed diminishes a lot sooner than a player's instinctual reactions to the ball off the bat. Thus, what we saw from him this season should not be considered unattainable next season.

BABIP discussion

VEB community member Paulspike created an Expected BABIP (xBABIP) calculator which I used on Jay's 2014 hitting numbers.


Using this calculator for the 2014 season, Jay's actual BABIP was only one one-hundredth of a point higher than his xBABIP, providing at least some substance to Jay's ridiculous BABIP. Did we see a pretty significant spike in Jay's line drive percentage this season? Absolutely, at 28.3%, only two major leaguers (Freddie Freeman and Nick Castellanos) had a higher LD% than Jay. However, since 2010, Jay's first season as a big leaguer, he has had the 13th highest line drive percentage in all of baseball at 24.1%. Thus, if he returns to his career average LD% next season, his xBABIP falls to a still spectacular .330 range. However, with a fully healthy wrist, one could reasonably expect his ISO to return to or fall just below his career average (.102), subsequently bumping his xBABIP up closer to the .340 range.

Arguing against Jay's high OBP because of a high BABIP, with 2013 as the main evidence, just isn't fair, again. Jay had a bad 2013, but as I stated earlier when discussing his defense, in no way should 2013 be considered what to expect from Jay. His walk rate indeed dropped by 2.3% this season. A large reason for this drop in BB% is the fact that ~14% of his plate appearances lasted only one pitch this season, slightly elevated from his career average of ~11%. Was Jay swinging at the first pitch more due to growing impatience as a hitter/his known power outage or was he swinging at the first pitch because he felt it was the best pitch for him to make solid contact on and subsequently put the least amount of stress on his nagging wrist? His .383/.397/.550 slash on the pitch suggests the latter.

HBP discussion

From year to year, HBPs by batters don't have a very good correlation. In other words, while you may be able to say, in a very general way, that a given hitter is more likely to be hit by a pitch than some others (and Jon Jay probably falls into that category, I would say), there's very little to suggest that the year-to-year numbers are really all that likely to be similar.

Since 2012, Jay has had the second most HBPs with 49 (Shin-Soo Choo has 52). He had 20 this season, 14 last season, and 15 the season before that. To me, this seems like a skill Jay has developed (as you will see in his walkoff HBP below), but if further reassurance is needed:


If Jay gets 10 or more HBPs in a season (which is not unreasonable given his last three seasons) and you lump it in with walks, his BB+HBP% is around 10%, and it makes a .360+ OBP all that more attainable for a line-drive hitter like Jay.

jj gif

Concluding thoughts

Jon Jay was not the problem with the Cardinals' offense -- or the team as a whole -- in 2014. But, considering he's the Platonic ideal of the high-variance, BABIP-driven, low-power (or no-power, as you will), ground-ball hitting machine the Cards seem so intent on stocking their lineup with over the past few seasons, I don't think it's a huge stretch to consider he's at least emblematic of some of the problems we saw so painfully illustrated this year.

Though RB stated that he was "not going to argue for Bourjos over Jay right now," this is essentially what he ended up doing. By stating that Jay is a problem (and apparently always will be), the only other "solution" on the current roster is Bourjos. If you blame Jay for his defense, especially with a defensive juggernaut like Bourjos available, I'm perfectly fine with that. However, arguing against his offense due to the variability of BABIP/HBP and low BB% in favor of a player with a career .304 OBP, 5.8 BB%, and 94 wRC+ makes zero sense to me. Plus, if Kolten Wong can provide at least part of the power surge we saw in the postseason and Oscar Taveras hits the way we know he can, Jay's number one fault, his low ISO, becomes much less of an issue, as his primary job will be to get on base so that the power bats can knock him in.

In conclusion, it is in the best interest of the St. Louis Cardinals to retain both Jon Jay and Peter Bourjos for the 2015 season. This post is not meant to read as "Jay is better than Bourjos" because in reality, comparing the two is not really fair. They provide the bulk of their value in two very different ways. As many have pointed out, Jay's value has probably peaked on the trade market. But with relative unknowns in Randal Grichuk, Stephen Piscotty, and Tommy Pham, does moving Jay really make the Cardinals better next season? Until the Cardinals know exactly what they have in their crop of young outfielders, it is prudent to keep a known quantity in Jay. With it being his second year of arbitration, a one-year deal (worth $5, maybe $6 million) is likely. The organization can reassess its outfield depth after a 2015 World Series title.

"In a year that the Cardinals didn't count on him, he basically said, 'Hold on, I can still play and I'll prove it.'"