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July 25, 2007
From relative unknown to National League star to disappointment, Jason Bay has been all over the value spectrum during his short career. A late-blooming Canadian-born player, he has shown signs of an early decline, which does not bode well for the Pirates' already difficult outlook. Today we will look at potential sources of Bay's 2007 slump, as well as his long-term prospects.
Jason Raymond Bay hails from British Columbia, and his sister Lauren Bay is a Canadian softball player. He attended Gonzaga University, where he was impressive in 2000 before the Montreal Expos made him their 22nd-round pick and sent him to Vermont in the New York-Penn League:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2000 Gonzaga(NCAA) 206 .388/.480/.670 35% .282 13 14.3% 13.1% 2000 Vermont(A-) 135 .304/.358/.385 17% .081 5 7.4% 16.9%
Whereas Bay was hitting for power and drawing walks during his last year in college, he struggled to generate extra-base hits and saw his walk rate cut almost in half during his professional debut. Bay was a threat on the basepaths, swiping 17 bases in 21 attempts following a 16/19 showing at school. Given that he was 21 years old during his first pro campaign, the Expos moved him up to Single-A Clinton in the Midwest League for his first full season in the minors:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2001 Clinton(A) 318 .362/.449/.572 32% .210 24 12.9% 16.6% 2001 Jupiter(A+) 123 .195/.306/.268 25% .073 5 12.4% 17.9%
At Clinton, Bay sported a lofty batting average as well as some solid power production, but the average was the product of an unsustainable .420 BABIP. Bay had the opposite occur at Jupiter, where his .240 BABIP dragged down his stats considerably. Given that he also finished with a paltry .073 Isolated Power, BABIP was not his only issue. The Expos decided to send Bay packing to the Mets in a deal for Lou Collier. Bay was dealt again just months later, this time to the Padres:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2002 St. Lucie(A+) 268 .272/.363/.437 32% .165 14 10.9% 17.3% 2002 Binghamton(AA) 107 .290/.383/.477 32% .187 6 11.7% 18.0% 2002 Mobile(AA) 81 .309/.411/.568 44% .259 7 13.7% 23.2%
Bay's performance recovered somewhat during his second stint at High-A, but it was his Mobile breakout that was especially impressive. He came over to the Pads as part of a package with Bobby Jones and Josh Reynolds in exchange for Jason Middlebrook and Steve Reed. His 2002 season earned him the #12 spot within the Padres organization in the 2003 edition of the Baseball America Prospect Handbook:
He's not as powerful as Xavier Nady nor as athletic as several of the outfielders who rank behind him, but Bay has a nice combination of tools and instincts. He obviously hits well for average, has gap power and draws walks. He has surprising speed for his size and has succeeded on 84 percent of his basestealing attempts as a pro. Bay is capable of playing all three outfield spots and fits best in right field with his strong arm.
Given where he was drafted and the lack of attention paid to him previously, this was something of a surprising development. The Expos had certainly made a mistake by just giving him away during Omar Minaya's learning phase. Baseball Prospectus 2003 took a liking to Bay:
Bay has a chance to be a very good outfielder. He does a little bit of everything: he can hit for some power and average, plays pretty good defense, and has some speed. If he can take a step forward in one part of his game, he could end up with an outside shot at a job as a major league regular. He could jump out very quickly, and is young enough to have a career like a healthy Rusty Greer or so. A good sleeper, and a nice guy for the Pads to have in the organization.
Bay would not disappoing those expectations during his Triple-A debut for Portland in the Pacific Coast League:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2003 Portland(AAA) 307 .303/.410/.541 34% .238 12 14.7% 19.0% 2003 Pittsburgh(MLB) 79 .291/.423/.506 44% .215 7 18.6% 28.9%
His batting average saw a boost because of his high .338 BABIP, but you have to love the power output and the plate discipline. Although Bay stopped stealing bases almost immediately upon entering the major leagues, he was 23-for-27 on stolen base attempts during his last minor league stint. What got him promoted, though, was his being dealt to the Pirates along with Oliver Perez and Corey Stewart for 32-year old Brian Giles, who was in the midst of a .299/.430/.521 season.
Heading into the 2004 season, Baseball America ranked Bay top prospect #3 in the Pittsburgh organization:
Bay doesn't have an overpowering tool but does most everything well…He's a little older than most prospects, meaning he probably won't get much better. While he continued to walk in the major leagues, he expanded his strike zone and struck out far more often than he did in the minors. Bay had surgery to repair a torn labrum in December…The Pirates hope he fills comparisons to Jeff Conine.
Baseball Prospectus 2004 hedged its bets, but liked Bay's chances:
Comparisons to Brian Giles and other players who are much better than Bay are silly, but he's going to be a good one, comparable to Rusty Greer, or Bobby Higginson's median years. Like those players, Bay can play center field but is an actual asset on a corner. He showed virtually no platoon split at Triple-A or in the majors, just another reason to like him.
PECOTA forecasted a .258/.348/.449 campaign from Bay, something you can lay at the feet of his Double-A numbers. Bay instead went out and won himself the Jackie Robinson Award, edging out the Padres' Khalil Greene:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2004 Pittsburgh(MLB) 411 .282/.358/.550 47% .268 28 9.1% 31.4%
Despite his flyball tendencies, Bay posted a .352 BABIP and found himself with some tasty power numbers. Given that he struck out in 31.4 percent of his plate appearances, Bay was enjoying a very high success rate with the balls he did put in play; that's the sort of thing that could get you into trouble in the future when the hits stop falling but the strikeouts don't stop coming.
Baseball Prospectus 2005 was generally optimistic about Bay's near-term future:
As expected, last year's pre-season shoulder surgery meant a late start, but Bay was everything his proponents expected him to be, even hitting for more power than projected. Normally, getting traded to get Lou Collier (by Omar Minaya) and Steve Reed (by Steve Phillips) isn't supposed to be part of the resumé of an All-Star caliber player, but it's nice to see some latter-day Bob Sykes or Ricky Rincon deals, and Bay's plugged in for a starring role in left for the next five years.
PECOTA forecasted a .274/.370/.507 follow-up season, but Bay beat that projection by a few miles, accumulating 72.6 VORP along the way. His 2006 season was not nearly as impressive, with a 22.9-point drop in VORP, and was more along the lines of the best years from the Greer/Conine/Higginson camp. As you may already know, 2007 has been a disappointment for Bay:
Year Team AB AVG/ OBP/ SLG XBH% ISO 2B+3B BB% K% 2005 Pittsburgh(MLB) 599 .306/.402/.559 45% .254 50 13.7% 23.7% 2006 Pittsburgh(MLB) 570 .286/.396/.532 41% .246 32 15.2% 27.4% 2007 Pittsburgh(MLB) 361 .252/.327/.432 36% .180 18 10.0% 25.8%
Bay's BABIP has fallen with his other numbers the past two years, from .355 to .338 to .300 even this year. The drop in batting average is a result of this, but his power numbers have now dipped for a related reason. Looking at his batted-ball data, we can see why he has succeeded and failed to some degree:
Year P/PA FB% LINEDR% GB% IF/F% HR/F% BABIP eBABIP Diff. 2004 3.9 42.8% 17.5% 39.6% 7.4% 21.3% .352 .295 -.057 2005 3.9 40.6% 23.8% 35.6% 6.4% 17.0% .355 .358 +.003 2006 4.0 44.0% 15.6% 40.4% 3.8% 18.8% .338 .276 -.062 2007 3.8 42.4% 17.0% 40.6% 6.8% 12.8% .300 .290 -.010
His 2005 boost in production is easily explained by a fluke line-drive rate; Bay usually hits low quantities of liners, instead bashing grounders and flyballs all over the diamond. Looking at the difference column, we can see that Bay has been lucky for much of his career, thanks to his combination of power and speed. His power allowed him to get more extra-base hits than he should given his lofty flyball rates, but he also collected plenty of hits of the infield variety, ranging from 7 to 15 percent of his total hits during his major league career. He's had no such luck in 2007-despite 14 infield hits this season, Bay's power production has plummeted. Bay's slump may be a sign of actual decline and a loss of bat speed.
His walk rate peaked at 15.2 percent last year, but has dropped to 10 percent this season; a spike in walk rate is oftentimes a sign of a slowing bat, as players take pitches they can no longer catch up to. Once the league realizes this, you see the player's numbers suffer, but until then, they are able to drive up their value with free passes. By itself, I wouldn't chalk this up to a slowdown in pure bat speed; after all, his BB/PA was not that far from the previous season's total. A look at his Hit Charts from MLB.com back up this assertion:
Take a look at the spread of flyballs, doubles, and home runs in 2005-Bay is all over the outfield, but his pull power is the highlight of his hitting prowess. In 2006 we still see homers to left, but they travel a bit less while his doubles there decrease. For the 2007 season, his production to left has all but disappeared. However, note that this is just the data from his home park; his directional charts, which encompass all of his batted balls, tell the same story (via First Inning):
The largest portion of Bay's balls in play are grounders to the left side of the diamond, and although he is collecting a solid number of infield hits, Bay is around so that he can slam balls over the outfielders' heads. The issue of course is that Bay's pull power isn't as present as it has been in the past, with Bay often grounding out to the left instead. The fact that he's going the other way as often as he is without pulling the ball successfully makes me wonder if he can't get the bat around fast enough on inside pitches, and has to make outside pitches that go the other way a more significant part of his game.
Looking at his Inside Edge report from ESPN.com, we can see that Bay has indeed struggled against inside pitches:
Unless it's down the middle, Bay can't do much with it when it's inside. He's still hitting the ball in the center and outside parts of the plate though, which you can see reflected in the directional chart and hit charts above.
Bay's pull power is what made him such a great run producer; without that, he's just like those players he has been compared to throughout his career. The league needs its Rusty Greers, Jeff Conines, and Bobby Higginsons, but the Pirates need the 2005 of Jason Bay, and it's very likely that's something that has already been lost to history.