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TCN Blog 2014 Top Story #14: Centerfield Consistency

Prior to the season, if anyone had forecast consistency in centerfield for the 2014 St. Louis Cardinals, they probably would have been referring to Peter Bourjos, not Jon Jay.

Last November, the St. Louis Cardinals made a major trade with the Los Angeles Angels. Dealing away 2011 World Series hero David Freese was hard for many fans to take. Others focused on the promise of biggest name moving the other way, outfielder Peter Bourjos.

At the Cardinals Winter Warm-Up in January, the speedy Bourjos shared his plan to steal 30 to 40 bases for the 2014 club. Many, myself included, figured Bourjos’ arrival also marked the end of Jon Jay’s time as the club’s starter in centerfield.

It did not work out that way at all.

In fact, not only did Jay hold onto his job, he became a consistently solid performer on a Cardinals roster that included a number of other players experiencing down years offensively.

The 29-year-old Jay made 109 starts in the outfield in 2014, including 91 in center. Bourjos made just 65, all in center. In 294 plate appearances, the newcomer swiped just nine bags and finished with a disappointing line of .231/.294/.348/.643. He underwent hip surgery following the season.

Jay’s .303 batting average led the Cardinals, but he finished 34 plate appearances short of qualifying for the National League leaderboard. It is worth noting that the league had only seven .300 hitters for the season, led by Michael Cuddyer at .319.

Batting all over the line up, though most often in the number seven spot, Jay quietly logged an impressive on-base percentage of .372. It was just three points short of OBP whiz and team leader Matt Carpenter. With enough plate appearances, Jay would have joined Carpenter and Matt Holliday (.370) in the league’s top 10. One unusual element of Jay’s high on-base mark is his MLB-high 20 hit by pitches.

Inconsistency, a concern with Jay in the past, was not an issue in 2014. In fact, the left-handed batter went 45 games down the stretch without going hitless in consecutive games, from July 25 to September 18.

Another major area of improvement was his performance against left-handed pitching. A year after he hit .220 and was expected to be benched against lefties in 2014, Jay excelled instead. In fact, his .375 average (33-for-88) was tops among all NL left-handed batters with at least 80 at-bats against left-handed pitching.

In important situations, Jay was far from an automatic out. He batted .327 with two outs (48‐for-147), ranking second in the NL. Albeit in a limited number of opportunities, he excelled with the bases loaded, batting .500 with 13 RBI (6‐for-12). That was tied for fourth in the league. Jay also batted .306 (22‐for-72) in close and late situations, also fourth in the NL.

Jay was especially effective coming off the bench, batting .333 (6-for-18) as a pinch hitter, including two doubles and four RBI.

Defensively, Jay has his same limitations, most notably a below-average throwing arm. Yet overall, he played an adequate centerfield. In the SABR Defensive Index, used for 25 percent of the Gold Glove scoring, Jay ranked fifth among all NL centerfielders this season. His 2.8 SDI score was one of seven positive marks among the 14 fielders ranked at his position. As a point of reference, 2013 NL MVP Andrew McCutchen was second-to-last at -7.1.

All in all, though unexpected by many, Jay delivered a very strong performance in 2014 and should report to spring training camp with many fewer questions about his job security.

Link to The Cardinal Nation Blog’s top 20 stories of the year countdown

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Brian Walton

Brian Walton runs The Cardinal Nation and The Cardinal Nation Blog, covering the St. Louis Cardinals and minor league system.
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47 Responses to “TCN Blog 2014 Top Story #14: Centerfield Consistency”

  1. Brian Walton says:

    The world would be a much calmer place if Matt Adams could improve against lefty pitching from year to year as much as Jay did. The reality is that Jay will likely come back toward middle ground in 2015, but his 2014 against LHP was still quite an impressive turnaround.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I went back and looked at the numbers. Had Jay hit .220 against lefties in 2014 as he did in 2013, that would have dropped his 2014 BA to .269 overall. He would have lost at least 34 points of OBP as well.

      • crdswmn says:

        Some expected BABIP regression will lower it too. Also, he had a record number of HBP, but a lower walk rate in 2014. If the HBP isn’t sustained or he doesn’t increase his walk rate, that OBP is going down too.

  2. crdswmn says:

    Jay delivered an above average performance based on an abnormally high BABIP. He has sustained a high BABIP for many seasons, even his 2013, arguably his worst season, was still with a marginally high BABIP. Players who are able to sustain a high BABIP over a career are generally either power hitters (Miguel Cabrera) or speedy guys (Ichiro Suzuki). Jay is neither. So Jay doesn’t fit the profile, which makes his high BABIP hitting worrisome to some, who think his hitting is teetering on a precipice, to crash and burn soon. Maybe it will and maybe it won’t, only time will tell. There are always exceptions to every rule. If he does crash and burn offensively (I do hope he doesn’t) he has no other remarkable skill to fall back on, so the crash will be ugly.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I don’t profess to know about BABIP trends, but after I read your post, I looked up Jay’s numbers. His BABIP was pretty high in the minor leagues, too. Maybe there is another category.

      • crdswmn says:

        He had some years where it was high and a few years where it was not. He may turn out to be the exception to the rule, it’s entirely possible. I just know that there is some worry in some quarters that he is a ticking time bomb where his BABIP is concerned. My worry is that if his BABIP does crash, that we will have Allen Craig, the sequel, on our hands. If it happens, Matheny will run him out there every day just like he did with Craig to “get him right”. That is why I am praying that it doesn’t happen, and that he just has the normal decline of an aging player.

        BTW, his 2014 BABIP was exceptionally high, even for him. I don’t see how we can not see some BABIP regression in 2015.

  3. JumboShrimp says:

    Jay had a super 2014, given he needed an operation after its conclusion. He played thru some pain.
    Jay got hit 20 times, making him a modern day Ron Hunt. Mo, Mike, and I really respect a guy who hangs in there and takes them for the team. Provided no bone breaks, we love such tenacity.
    Jay has been able to hit for a .300 average since he arrived in the majors. One reason is he just tries to make contact and seldom tries to drive the ball. His one time 10 HR year power has ebbed. He is an on base guy more than a high OPS guy.
    To our knowledge, the Cards have not offered him a post free agency contract extension, so 2015 could become the final year for Jay in St Louis. Many things are unsettled for 2016 and beyond.

    • Brian Walton says:

      I think you are mistaken about Jay’s service time. I believe he cannot become a free agent until after the 2016 season.

      Especially since I mentioned Bourjos’ surgery, I should have done the same for Jay and his wrist. Thanks for the reminder.

      • JumboShrimp says:

        Right, he has 4.134 years of service time, so will not earn his manumission until during the 2016 season.
        Rasmus started the 2009 season as our 4th OF and has now reached free agency. Jay came up during the 2010 season, so we still control him for two years.

        • JumboShrimp says:

          We also have control over Bourjos thru 2016. It will be interesting to see what the Cards do regarding Bourjos. Will another team, say the Twins, offer attractive prospects for Bourjos?
          Behind Jay and Bourjos, there is Pham. We could part with Bourjos and backfill him with Pham, while Tilson and McElroy work their way up.

          It easy to see why the Cards traded Ramsey for Masterson. The organization had a lot of centerfielders and Ramsey was blocked. Masterson ended up obtaining more than $9MM from the Red Sox for 2015, the team that selected him from amateur ranks in the 2006 draft. The Sox know he is a good one, though an injury held him back during 2014.

          • Brian Walton says:

            Here’s one for you to ponder, Jumbo, If Masterson is in good shape physically, then why did the Cards make zero effort to try to keep him?

            • JumboShrimp says:

              Please do not ask me such easy questions! Its a matter of PR. Masterson did not excel for the Cards. It would be reputationally risky for Mo to shell out $10MM to re-sign the guy, but another team can easily take this risk, because their fans have not soured on the guy.
              Consider the example of Lance Bergman. He did not hit well for the Yankees during 2010. Mo realized Lance is a great talent who could rebound and indeed Lance contributed greatly to a WS win in 2011. Masterson is similar. He was mediocre in 2014, but has the demonstrated ability to pitch well. The Red Sox appreciate this and have the budget to take some risks on upside guys, just like Mo did with Bergman in 2011.

              • crdswmn says:

                I don’t think Lance BERKMAN can be compared to Justin Masterson. Two different levels of players.

              • Brian Walton says:

                The fact that Mo signed Jhonny Peralta is proof that he does not do his job based on what is “reputationally risky”. The real answer, I believe, is that the Cards suspect Masterson may not rebound and do not want to risk the money. Since they had the player for several months, they were able to learn more about his current health than the quick physical the Red Sox likely gave him. I do agree that the Red Sox with a bigger budget is more likely to take such risks.

                In my opinion, it would be more “reputationally risky” to see a player that cost you a first-round pick and you let walk for nothing return to stardom.

                • JumboShrimp says:

                  Signing Peralta may be more evidence the Cards care little about PEDs.
                  However, there is some risk for GMs to bring back any guy who did not have a great season like Masterson in 2014. Cards fans got a poor impression, so its good to let such a guy endeavor to rebound in another uniform.
                  If the Birds were to have re-signed Masterson and if he were to stink it up again during 2015, then the GM would look like a dope. Mo seems unlikely to get in a lot of trouble with his constituencies if Masterson pitches well for the Sox.

                  • Brian Walton says:

                    If he really makes his job decisions based on worry of whether it will cause “trouble with his constituencies” (which I do not believe for a second), he should be fired.

                    • JumboShrimp says:

                      I suspect Mo knows what I am talking about. Image matters and there are risks imprudent for any GM. Its better to take on rebound candidates from other teams than to stick with your own. Consider Kip Wells, who let us down badly in 2007. Mo let Wells leave town after one year, because it would be nuts to keep riding a loser in St Lou. However, Lance Berkman was a loser for the Yankees in 2010. We took a gamble on him in 2011 and Lance was a comeback success, socking 30 dingers. Smarter image-keeping to gamble on somebody else’s reject (Berkman) than on your own, like Wells and Masterson. Berkman then flopped in 2012. Mo could have thought, Lance is a great hitter, he could rebound in 2013 and resigned him. But the smarter move was to let try to keep playing for another team (Rangers). The rule for a prudent GM is once a guy flops in your city, let him sign elsewhere. Fans want to boo new losers, not the same losers, year after year.

                    • Brian Walton says:

                      Image matters, but it is insignificant in personnel moves in 99 percent of the cases. That certainly includes Masterson.

                      Rare exceptions include the Peraltas of the world and as we saw, if there is a business need, the expected negative public reaction takes a back seat.

                      Even in the case of an iconic franchise player in Pujols, they ultimately did not cave, despite what they knew would be a major backlash. They were unexpectedly bailed out by the big mouth of wife Gree-Dee Pujols, as she is called.

                      If you see anything else, especially in a run of the mill situation like Masterson, you are just seeing what you want to see.

                    • JumboShrimp says:

                      Masterson is an interesting case, in several ways. He was a custom made amateur for the Cards in the Dave Duncan years, a big kid from rural Ohio throwing a great sinker. In the 2006 draft, we went for Ottavino, Perez, and Furnish, up high, as I recall. This left Masterson to be grabbed by the Sox. The Cards had Furnish pegged as the second best collegiate southpaw in the draft, but he could not hold up under the pro workload during the era when the Cards did not ease up on high picks the summer after they sign to preserve their futures.
                      After being traded to the Indians for Victor Martinez, Masterson adjusted to the majors and became a fine starting pitcher. He and the Indians had a strange negotiation last spring, where Masterson seemed willing to accept a sub-market price, which implies he conceded he had a physical problem. The Indians must have been uncomfortable signing him to a multi year deal, nonetheless, and his performance sagged as the season got underway. The Cards would have known this public information and traded for him, with eyes wide open. They would have looked at his medicals and made a calculated gamble that a stint on the DL and some therapy and a change of scenery might get Masterson back on the beam. He did throw one strong start, but overall did not thrive and Mike is probably not a good fit for Masterson. Left to his druthers, Mike loves velocity like Rosenthal or our little Martinez, and does not have patience for nor confidence in guys who are struggling. After being benched and having a non-fun experience in St Louis during 2014, would Masterson really want to re-sign with the Cards? When other teams are lining up to offer him millions? Once a man is a free agent, he is truly free to choose his next employer. Masterson reasonably chose to return to the Red Sox, who know him well and have a strong medical and rehab program from which Masterson might benefit. The Sox have been successful within the past decade, besting us in 2004 and 2013.
                      The Indians gained James Ramsey, by giving us Masterson, and he should help out Cleveland in future. The Cards chose to take calculated gamble to boost themselves in 2014, but Fate had other plans. Now Masterson reasonably has taken a generous offer from the high spending Sox to be a comeback candidate.

  4. blingboy says:

    For some reason I think the Cards org wishes somebody would come along and out play Jay so they will not have to give him a contract. I am interested to see what kind of lineup Mike comes up with to start the season and what Jay’s place in it will be.

    He has such a reputation for streakiness, I have no idea what kind of season he might have. I guess maybe the problem is the Cards don’t either.

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