09 March 2018

Jon Jay is not your Huckleberry

The off season has been a peculiar place for some and not for others.  If we use BORAS as an expectation of market value, then the top tier players have generally found the contract we thought would be offered.  However, role players discovered their market drastically undercut.

This included a player like Jon Jay.  BORAS version one saw Jay as a 1/9.2 contract player while BORAS 2.0 envisioned him more as a 2/17.6.  Instead, he signed a 1/3 deal with another 1.5 MM in potential add-ons.  That is a significant underperformance from BORAS's perspective.  However, the way this off season has gone it is not surprising to see a player who is neither loved by scouts or analytics to have a hard time finding a home.  However, you might have gotten a different impression in the press.

MASN's Roch Kubatko gently wrote about Jay as the one who got away.  He noted how the Orioles tried to sign Jay before they agreed to terms with Colby Rasmus, but at that point Jay was asking for numbers similar to BORAS's suggestion.  Roch laments:
Jay is a better contact hitter than Rasmus, offers plus speed and defense and is a popular teammate. He always made sense to me as an ideal fit. But certainly not at his initial price.
Taking it much further than Roch, Baltimore Baseball's Dan Connolly decided that Jon Jay was the hill to die on.  He noted that Jay was "a perfect fit" (though somehow not a "difference maker") and that "...the Orioles fumbled this one."

He concludes that Jay was a player the Orioles "desperately needed".

So these are Jon Jay's last three seasons:

Standard Batting
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/8/2018.

From those numbers, you get a good idea of what Jay is, a role player.  He is not a star.  At some level, it seems peculiar how much teeth gnashing there has been for him.  It reminds me of the Arrested Development joke about how mesmerizing George Michael makes his girlfriend out to be, but how everyone else is a bit confused.

I truly am confused why a fringe roster candidate like Jay is generating such adoration.  Let us go through the pieces a bit.

Plus Speed

Jay does not have plus speed.  Statcast can measure sprint speeds of players.  Generally, an average baserunner, regardless of position, can attain a speed of 27 ft/s.  Statcast has kept data for three years with MLB presenting the average data.  During that time, Jay has put up max sprint speeds of 26.9 ft/s (2015), 26.6 ft/s (2016), and 26.6 ft/s (2015).  His 2016 26.6 ft/s mark was the second slowest speed for a centerfielder out of 58 players.  A tenth faster than the slowest, Mark Canha, and three tenths slower than the next centerfielder, Joc Pederson.  At left field, he would be tied as 46th fastest with Ryan Braun.  In right field, he would be tied for 45th with Carlos Gonzalez.  Whether we are talking about all players in baseball or the considerably faster subset of outfielders, Jay does not appear to possess plus speed.

Plus Outfield Defense

Defense is a tricky thing to measure, but it basically comes with a pretty steady conclusion for Jay.  Over his career, UZR has found Jay to be a below average corner outfielder (13.4 runs/150), but an average center fielder (1.5 runs/150).  However, his last two seasons have suggested that his play in centerfeld may be a minus or at best below average (-6.9 runs/150).  DRS sees him as a poor centerfielder and an average corner outfielder.  Statcast derived metrics had him as 2% worse than average in 2016 and again in 2017, that comes out to about a -7 runs/150 (they report does not break down differences at other positions).  To balance that out, I asked a scout and his response was that Jay earned that reputation early in his career, but that he is not the same guy he was then.

Great OBP

When Dan Duquette arrived in Baltimore, he noted how important on base percentage was and used that as a rationale behind signing Matt Antonelli to a MLB deal.  Since then, the Orioles have paid no attention to on base percentage and created one of the best teams in baseball from 2012-2016 on the back of prodigious power.  Still, this is a familiar drum that is beat whenever someone wishes to try to make a point.

In this case, that context is paired with Jay's .374 on base percentage, which was accomplished with reasonable batting average and walk rates.  That performance is not paired with what he did before or his age.  When you have more sophisticated approaches looking at what all that means with respect to future performance, the optimism should fade.  ZiPS sees Jay as a .338 OBP, which is .002 higher than what Steamer projects.  PECOTA pegs him as a .335 OBP mark.

So, is a mid to high .330s OBP a great performance? Last year's league average was .329 OBP.  That is on par with the performance by the Mets' Ruben Tejada or the Phillies' Cesar Hernandez last year.  It would have been 61st out of 141.  If Jay would have qualified with enough plate appearances, he would have been 14th in the league.  That would have placed him a point behind Yunel Escobar, who is still a free agent.  For some reason, I do not hear a lot about him.  Anyway, I think you cannot simply ignore his 2015 and 2016 seasons, so I think it would be a stretch to expect him to be able to perform similar to his 2017 season.  A lot of teams probably think this given how difficult it was for him to find a deal and how many would kill to have a .370 OBP player.

What Drawbacks?

There is an idea that in order for a player to be serviceable in the majors, he must be able to adequately do everything.  The worst contact hitters still have a high skill for contact.  The least powerful can still rap a ball over the fence.  The slowest runner can still likely beat anyone in a sprint outside of Texas Roadhouse.  What this means though is that there is a likely floor for most skills.  Chris Davis exemplifies this.  His contact rate appears to be near a threshold that renders the rest of his profile useless.  It does not matter how powerful he is or how head smart on the basepaths he is, if he does not get enough contact then he does not justify the rest of the package.

Jay is sitting there as well.  His bat profiles as a bat that is about 20% worse than league average, which means his bat projects to be worse than any positional average.  His power challenges for the worst in baseball.  He hits maybe one or two home runs a year and he shows no gap power.  He does not make up for this with savvy baserunning with only eight stolen bases over the past three years.  His walk rate is below average.  His strikeout rate is above average.  He is slow for an outfielder.  His arm is below average.  As he ages, the chances that one or more of these skills erodes further makes one truly wonder if he could still play in the majors.  It says something with scouts and analytics both go, "eh".

This is not to say he is without worth.  He can play all three outfield positions, at least adequately.  He gets on base.  Jay simply just does not do much when he does those things.  He is a frozen pizza.  He is not really what you want, but is close enough on all accounts to be palatable enough.  So, setting Jay as a hill to die on certainly feels weird.

How about Colby Rasmus?

Of course, this goes back to Colby Rasmus because the Orioles signed him as opposed to Jay.  Now, much has been made of Rasmus leaving the Rays last year.  He has been fit into the boxes of being weird, deserting his team, not getting along with others, but those have largely been overblown.  Certainly, he is a peculiar fellow in a sport where community is defined by adherence as opposed to acceptance.  Still, he is a player that teams have wanted.  Since La Russa and Rasmus fell apart, the Jays wanted him.  The Astros wanted him.  The Orioles wanted him.  The Rays wanted him.  A lot of teams have wanted him.  Time and again, he shows weird flourishes and has repeatedly chosen a better personal fit than a better contract.

Standard Batting
Provided by Baseball-Reference.com: View Original Table
Generated 3/8/2018.

Assuming his hip is OK, what we see immediately above is that Rasmus has had both an uneven last three years, but generally a much better three years than Jay.  While, Rasmus' OBP would appear to be much lower than Jay's, the other aspects of his game cover for that, such as his fringe plus plus power where Jay's is minus minus.

Speed-wise, Rasmus is faster than Jay.  Rasmus recorded a 27.6 ft/s rate last year, but was above 28 the previous two seasons.  Defensive metrics have adored Rasmus over this period.  DRS has seen him as a plus plus defender over the past three seasons (~15 runs/150).  DRS has viewed him as a plus defender (~10 runs/150).  Statcast has pegged him as average (0 runs above average).

So, the great issue is one between Jay's above average OBP against Rasmus' power and defense.  It does not look like a difficult decision for me between the two.

So what does all this mean?

I have no idea.  I am unsure why anyone was so fixated on Jay.  Likewise, I am unsure why anyone would be fixated on Rasmus.  What I think is clear is that Rasmus is a better player and potentially can be a game-changing force. To a higher viewpoint, the major issue here is why did Jay become the last hurrah?  This team is situating itself as a mid-70s win team.  The addition of Jay does not shake that much.  Whether you give the team an allowance for low spending or not, Jay simply does not push the needle.  If there is a hill to die on, it might be Alex Cobb or maybe the GM position or maybe the Manny Machado extension.  Jon Jay?


Roger said...

I agree with the story but it's Dyson, C. Gomez, and C. Dickerson and J. Garcia. Even Chatwood. Those are the ones that got away. News reports had the O's offering more than what was accepted to at least Dyson and Garcia. I suspect the Rays chose anyone over the O's to trade Dickerson to. I guess the O's should just have been even more aggressive courting these guys. The Moustakas contract is a head-scratcher but I assume KC was the only club he would have made that agreement with. Same with C. Gonzalez. Either Jay or Rasmus are next tier down from these guys. Rasmus, however, has the potential to surprise if he can return to form. Maybe (ha ha) the O's can still get in on Lynn/Cobb. One can dream.

Roger said...

Any chance we could pick up Jake Cave off waivers from the Yankees? That sure would be a nice LH OF to have in your quiver.