St. Louis Cardinals: 5 Signs Jon Jay Is the Leadoff Hitter of the Future
As the 2012 Major League Baseball regular season nears the final month of play, the St. Louis Cardinals are poised to reach the playoffs for an impressive 10th time in the past 17 seasons.
Since 1996, the Cardinals have a .544 winning percentage, yet even during this extended run of quality baseball, the team has had some traditional "soft spots" in the roster—namely second base, the bullpen and leadoff batter.
Not that the Cards have received poor production in these areas; in most cases, far from it.
But the organization has tended to have turnover at these positions for various reasons—be it salary-saving measures, a series of stop-gap veterans or draftees who simply never panned out.
Oh, you say leadoff hitter is not a position?
Tell that to Pete Rose, Lou Brock or Rickey Henderson. Actually, Rickey probably already told Rickey how important the leadoff batter is.
In the case of the leadoff spot, the Cards have had some nice production over the past decade from guys such as Fernando Vina, David Eckstein, Skip Schumaker and, most recently, an aging Rafael Furcal.
All tended to provide an on-base percentage between .350 and .360. Most were tough to strike out and offered some speed at the top of the order, but none ever gave the impression that they were long-term solutions.
As Colby Rasmus failed in center field, Jon Jay began filling the void defensively, and as Furcal has declined sharply midseason, Jay has began to settle in as the Cards' new leadoff hitter.
Here are five reasons why Jay could be the Cards' long-term solution at leadoff.
5. Elite Defense
What does a player's glove work have to do with batting?
Everything, if they want to be in the lineup on a regular basis, and Jay has become a tremendous center fielder, defensively.
Not to pile on the star-crossed Colby Rasmus, but Jay has always been more fearless than the timid slugger, which led him to collide with the outfield wall in St. Louis and subsequently onto the disabled list May 15.
Upon his return, Jay seemed tentative in the field. Cardinal Nation waited and hoped he would return to form.
Needless to say, Jay is back to his jaw-dropping ways in the field.
He's still bouncing off walls to make stunning plays, but he clearly is more seasoned now, showing the ability to catch and cradle the ball while simultaneously absorbing impact.
Baseball-Reference.com has Jay ranked 13th in the National League with plus-six defense runs, but he was rated as high as 10th just a week ago before the Cardinals' unfortunate series against the Pirates.
Top-10 defense is one-half of the equation, and in just his third year, Jay already is a stalwart on defense.
While the Cardinals historically have been known for their base-stealing ways, they've not had a top base-stealing threat for many years.
And they still don't.
But what good are steals if you get thrown out half the time? Exhibit A: Jon Jay.
Jay is not, nor has ever been a burner on the basepaths. He reached his career-high of 20 steals with Triple-A Memphis in 2009, and with 15 swipes at the three-quarter mark, Jay is on pace to reach 20 again.
Yet he's been caught just three times in 2012.
As the game has changed over the decades, pure speed has been replaced by smart speed. Yadier Molina, another brilliant example, has 11 steals and has been caught twice. Not bad for a guy who would leisurely jog even if his pants were on fire.
Smart speed is a major asset at the top of the lineup, and gives the opposing pitcher and catcher one more factor to account for.
3. Left-Handed Bat
We will see the next two reasons go hand-in-hand.
As has been the case in baseball for probably a hundred years or so, it has always been preferable to have a left-handed batter in the leadoff spot of the lineup.
Lefties will face right-handed pitchers the vast majority of the time, against whom they have a traditional advantage. They also have a quicker line to the first-base bag, which puts additional pressure on the infield defense.
And, as Ichiro has shown over the years, lefties can be deadly when they employ the drag bunt to the left side of the infield.
Jay, of course, has displayed the ability to excel in all these scenarios this year. His home/road splits always have slightly favored his home turf, as is the case with most players who will be in their comfort zone at home.
But this year, Jay's splits are rather extreme. He has batted just .231 on the road in 2012, though he has a .287 road average for his career.
At home, however, Jay is raking in a .373/.453./.488/.941 slash line. One must remember that he was batting .343/.395/.438/.833 overall when he was placed on the DL in May.
Jay had a late start to his major league career and will be 28 on Opening Day 2013, but no one should be shocked if he earns an All-Star appearance next season.
2. No Platoon Needed
The second question one faces when talking about a talented left-handed batter is, how well do lefty pitchers handle him and, more specifically, LOOGYs (which are a staple of virtually every modern bullpen)?
In Jon Jay's case, no platoon is needed. Every year in the majors Jay has demonstrated the ability to hit both lefties (.300) and righties (.302) equally well.
Jay was criticized early in his career for his "active" batting stance, but after compiling a .300 batting mark over the equivalent of two full seasons, his wagging bat is now merely "unique."
And when Jay is collecting base hits, they aren't just weak singles. He popped 10 home runs last year, and he always is a threat to drill a triple in the gap.
True, his extra-base rate is slightly down from his career averages. Considering, though, that Jay is still batting a career-high .310 while missing several games with a shoulder injury and other dings, he's been very productive this year and should continue to be so.
1. On-Base Machine
The term "machine" has been thrown around too much recently and especially in St. Louis, of course.
However, Jon Jay always has demonstrated a strong feel for the strike zone.
In the minors, Jay had a career .367 on-base percentage prior to reaching the bigs. That trend has continued, as his OBP was strong in his rookie year (.359), dipped slightly in 2011 (.344) and has surged to .388 this year.
Not surprisingly, Jay has cut down his strike-out rate from 17.8 percent last season to 15.2 percent in 2012. His walk rate has jumped even more from 6.2 percent in 2011 to 9.8 percent this year.
At age 27, Jay is completing just his third major league season, and it's entirely possible we've not seen all he has to offer. His rise allows the Cardinals to address other glaring needs such as second base and shortstop—the other positions that seem to constantly turn over.