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August 3, 2010

Fantasy Beat

Jon Jay and Scorching Line Drives

by Craig Brown

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As expected, there has been plenty of fallout from last Saturday’s trade deadline.  One of the more intriguing developments is the emergence of Jon Jay as the Cardinals new right fielder/number two hitter.  

(Under terms of my contract, I’m now obligated to insert a clever remark about how the Cardinals outfielder shares a name with Founding Father and first Chief Justice of the Supreme Court John Jay.  Instead, I’ll just point out that this is clearly a strategy utilized by the Cardinals as they also, at various points in their history, have employed Benjamin Franklin and John Adams.  Moving on...)  

Jay was a second round draft pick by the Cardinals out of the University of Miami in 2006 and has found success at just about every stop along his minor league career.  After hitting .281/.338/.394 for Memphis in Triple-A last summer, Jay landed a spot on the Cardinals 40-man roster and found himself just outside Kevin Goldstein’s top 11 Cardinal prospects, coming in at number 12 this spring.  While he split time between the majors and the minors this year, his MLE in 170 Triple-A at bats comes out to a very respectable .300/.360/.447 with a .288 TAv.  

As mentioned, Jay has had a couple of turns on the major league roster this season.  In his first stop with the Cardinals, he saw extremely limited duty, appearing in 26 games but starting in only six.  He did alright, hitting .302 with a few extra base hits, but there wasn’t anything to make fantasy owners take notice.  However, since his recall Jay has made an adjustment at the plate and the results have certainly caught the eye.  From Texas Leaguers, here are the pitches Jay has offered at this year.  The first chart is from his first turn in the majors:

The next chart is from the time he was recalled on July 3 to last Monday.

Simply put, he’s showing a much better command of the strike zone since his return.  He has stopped chasing pitches off the outside of the plate and is now turning on the fastball on the inner half, roping line drives to center and to right.  His line drive rate for the month of July was 20% compared to a 12% line drive rate in April and May.  While he’s generally improved his discipline, he’s still offering at too many change-ups that drop out of the zone.  That’s his weak spot, right there.  In this time frame, Jay is swinging at the change-up 52% of the time and is completely missing 15% of all change-ups.  

Despite the weakness for change-ups, you can’t argue with the overall results. Here were Jay’s five most common at bat resolutions in his first go around with the Cardinals.

Strikeout - 20%
Single - 20%
Flyout - 18%
Groundout - 16%
Double - 7%

And now his results since returning from Triple-A:

Single - 21%
Groundout - 18%
Strikeout - 12%
Walk - 12%
Flyout - 12%

With 140 walks and 212 strikeouts in just under 1,800 career minor league plate appearances, Jay is a contact hitter who naturally possesses above average plate discipline.  It took him a while, but now that he’s playing every day, he’s rediscovered the approach that made him a .300 hitter in the minors.  He’s rolling since his return, hitting .400/.467/.613 in 93 plate appearances to push his overall TAv to .325.

The question now is, will it take?  Can he maintain the discipline he’s shown over the last month and keep rolling?  Naturally, his .441 BABIP since July 3 is going come down.  You would think the same about his 19% line drive rate, but I’m not so sure.  In his minor league career, his line drive rate was almost 20% and he owns a .330 BABIP.  The guy is just a natural, line drive hitter.  We should expect him to hit line drives 18% of the time and have a .330 BABIP.  That seems about right.

Jay is hitting second for the Cardinals and it certainly helps hitting ahead of the Great Pujols in that lineup.   His contact rate of 83% means he will do the “little things” that can drive fantasy owners crazy (like sacrifice or try to hit the ball on the ground to the right side to move the runner to third) but at least he will continue to get pitches to hit.  Plus, his spot in the lineup means he will have plenty of opportunities to score runs.  Currently, he’s scoring almost four out of every 10 times he reaches base.  Given his .415 OBP, that’s pretty darn useful.  Also, as a contact hitter, his approach means he’ll drive in his share of runs, although his share will be low because he’ll lack consistent RBI opportunities as the number two batter.  The average player with 134 plate appearances this season (like Jay) has come to the plate with 83 runners on base.  Jay has had 75 runners on base in his plate appearances.  

What Jay certainly won’t provide is power.  He hit a home run once every 47 at bats in the minors and owns a .129 ISO spread over parts of three Triple-A seasons.  He's been on a bit of a doubles tear since his return, which is nice, but that's about the limits to his power.  He’s also struggled against left-handed pitching in the minors, hitting .259/.336/.349 against southpaws versus .311/.373/.457 against right-handers.  The Cardinals have done a fine job limiting his exposure to lefties - only 25 of his 138 plate appearances in the majors have come against LHP.  

Long term, I think Jay will be the type of hitter who hovers around the .290 mark and makes the occasional run at .300.  His contact rates will remain high, he’ll score some runs and will swipe a few bags as well.  In other words, he’s exactly the kind of guy that can provide your fantasy outfield with some depth.

Craig Brown is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Craig's other articles. You can contact Craig by clicking here

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