The 29-year-old Jay has seemingly been around forever, but he has in fact only been playing baseball at the major-league level since 2010. Honestly (but there is no way you can really know), heading into the 2014 season, a playoff spotlight on the former second-round pick out of the University of Miami was the last thing I thought I would be writing in October. Why? Because after an unexciting 2013, Jay seemed destined to be replaced by the newer and apparently shinier Peter Bourjos. Additionally, super-prospect Oscar Taveras and notable prospect Randall Grichuk were waiting in the wings.
While players like Jay have almost no use in shallow leagues, finding affordable (cheaply acquirable) players to fill out your roster is a key to success in deeper leagues. Prospect theory tells us that when our expectations are lowered, such as at the end of drafts or auctions, we tend to be more risk-seeking (think buying lottery tickets). Consequentially, boring, lower-ceiling players like Jay tend to be passed up in favor of boom or bust type players (in the fantasy sense) such as Borjous, Cameron Maybin, or Chris Young. Sometimes these lottery tickets workout, but in knowing our behavioral biases, we know that the odds are not in our favor. Conversely, steady players like Jay with no ceiling to dream on can often come at a discount. Given all of this, let us see what happened in 2014.
What Went Wrong in 2014?
In short, Jay saw a decrease in playing time, which led to a decrease in counting stats. While Jay only appeared in 14 fewer games in 2014 than in 2013, he had 160 fewer plate appearances. Jay was used far more as a pinch-hitter and defensive replacement in 2014; he was also substituted out of games more frequently than in the past. Other than that, when he did play, the 2014 version of Jon Jay played pretty much exactly like all other known versions of Jon Jay, even perhaps toward the higher end of his potential outcome spectrum.
The important point to note here is that while Jay’s production declined, it did not decline as much as many fantasy baseball players expected it to. The decline in production was a steady slope, not a cliff; therefore, many a Jon Jay owner was able to turn a tidy profit given his acquisition cost.
What Went Right in 2014?
I already spoiled the surprise: Jay was a profitable play in most deep leagues. How he was able to be productive also fits under the “what went right” category; thus, I will elaborate. Jay was able to improve his batting average and on-base percentage by (i) posting a low infield fly ball rate, (ii) facing fewer lefties, (iii) succeeding against lefties, and (iv) increasing his ability to get hit by pitches (which, I know, only helps his OBP, not his batting average).
Throughout his career, Jay has posted his highest batting averages by avoiding fly balls and pop ups. In 2014, he posted near career lows for both of the previously mentioned outcomes while posting a career-high 28.3 percent line-drive rate. As a result, Jay posted near career highs in batting average (.303) and on-base percentage (.372), which he had only bested in 2012 with .305 and .373 marks, respectively.
Like most lefties, Jay has always hit righties better than lefties. The advantage of his diminished role in 2014 was thus facing fewer lefties. The reasonable objection to this point is that Jay mashed lefties in 2014. He did so by hitting a lot more line drives on fastballs, sinkers, and cutters, but the samples are small enough to not trust this as a sustainable trend.
Lastly, Jay was hit by pitch a career high 20 times in 2014. Year over year, Jay saw a 42 percent increase in hit by pitches to go along with a 25 percent decrease in at-bats. Put differently, Jay went from being hit once every 44.4 at bats over the first 1,733 at-bats of his career to being hit once every 23.4 over his 468 at-bats in 2014. Is this sustainable? I am not sure, but we know that getting hit by pitches has less luck involved that we initially thought; thus, I am comfortable betting that this is an improvement that Jay will maintain to some extent.
What to Expect in 2015?
More than anything, Jay’s 2015 production will depend on his playing time, and my guess is that he returns to a similar if not slightly diminished role. While I do think the line-drive rate drops and the infield-fly-ball rate ticks up in 2015, I do not see Jay’s 2015 BABIP dropping drastically (he can realistically end up anywhere in the .320 to .360 range). As a result, Jay’s fantasy baseball value in 2015 will purely be a function of the expectations of your competitors’ valuation of Jay. If they expect a huge drop off again, Jay will most likely be able to provide you with profits similar to the ones he provided in 2014. If your competitors try to overcorrect undervaluing Jay in 2014 by overvaluing him in 2015, then I would guess that he will not be worth his acquisition price. While this is certainly a boring prediction, it is important that we follow the process of a complete analysis and prediction because the boringness makes analyzing Jay very overlookable and thus makes us likely to fall victim to the previously discussed biases.
The Great Beyond
So this section was certainly not dreamt up with Jon Jay in mind. Given the Cardinals stable of young outfielders (Bourjos, Taveras, Grichuk, and Stephen Piscotty), Jay will probably need to change teams, probably to a more offensive environment, if he is going to be fantasy relevant as he ascends into his 30s. Given Mike Matheny’s love of playing veterans and management’s willingness to trade away those veterans to make room for younger players, we may very well see Jay shipped out in 2015 or 2016. Until then, Jay remains who he has always been. But remember, what matters is how we and our fellow owners over- or under-value Jay.