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2018 Arizona Diamondbacks Reviews: #18, Jon Jay

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A necessary trade, if not a particularly productive one.

MLB: Chicago Cubs at Arizona Diamondbacks Rick Scuteri-USA TODAY Sports
  • 2018 rating: 5.49
  • 2017 rating: N/A
  • 2018 salary: $3 million plus incentives (about $1.4 million)
  • 2018 performance: 84 games, 232 PA, .235/.304/.325 = .629 OPS
  • 2019 status: free-agent

The Diamondbacks traded for Jon Jay in the first week of June. The previous month had seen the team lose A.J. Pollock to a thumb fracture and Steven Souza to a pectoral strain, putting two-thirds of our everyday outfield on the shelf. The price for four months of Jay was two pitching prospects: left-hander Gabe Speier and right-hander Elvis Luciano. Jon had been having a very solid season for the Kansas City Royals, batting .307 with a 104 OPS+ which was on pace to be his best year since 2014. However, he wasn’t able to sustain that in Arizona, giving the D-backs a line of 235/.304/.325 for an OPS of just .629 (OPS+ 66). Jay was at replacement level by bWAR, and -0.3 by fWAR.

I think when the history books are written, the fact that Jay ended up playing in the majority of the 2018 Diamondbacks’ games will probably be largely forgotten. I was quite surprised to see him ranked so positively in the survey, but then, his arrival did probably save us from the experience of “Chris Owings, everyday outfielder”, which is pretty much what we were seeing before Jay showed up. He started at all three outfield positions, but mostly (40 of 62 starts) was in right-field as a Souza replacement. While he had been getting regular playing-time in Kansas City (starting 51 of 61 pre-trade games), that helped Jay gobble up the incentives based on PA, with Jay reaching his highest tally in that department since 2013.

The trade re-united Jay with long-time friend Daniel Descalso, going back to 2009 when they were both with the Cardinals’ Triple-A affiliate and roomed together: Daniel did the cooking and Jon the cleaning. They’ve gone on trips to Italy together with their families, but Descalso did report one bone of contention between the pair: “He can like chomp on some ice. Like make my teeth hurt listening to him do it. That was one of the things that would just bother me, so I’d have to like walk away when he was doing that.”

As we noted earlier, Jay’s main skill was the hit by pitch. In only 320 PA, he was hit fifteen times, more than the two next most-hit players (Pollock and Paul Goldschmidt) combined, over their 1,150 PA. Last year, our colleagues over at Beyond The Box Score discussed Jay and his butt - specifically, its apparent gravitational pull for baseballs. This is nothing new: Jay still holds the University of Miami record for career HBP, with 38 over this three years in the program, including 23 times in his junior year. It seems to have been partly behind his acquisition: according to first-base coach Dave McKay, “One thing I said when we talked about bringing him over here is, ‘What I like about this guy is he’ll stick his nose in there.’”

“I don’t think he’s very concerned about getting out of the way. That’s a pretty unique quality. A lot of times, people will see the ball coming at them and jump out of the way and not get hit by it, but he has an extra gear inside of his game that just tells him to stay put and stay grounded and let it hit you.”
Torey Lovullo

To be frank, however, Jay needed all the help getting on base he could find, since he only hit .235 with Arizona, and struck out four times for every walk he took. He saw a lot of time at the top of the order, starting in the #1 slot in all but one of his starts for the D-backs, his 295 PA the most for any Diamondback this season. But a .310 on-base percentage isn’t what we needed, and even when he found his way down to McKay, he wasn’t much of a threat, with just the one stolen-base in two attempts. This was certainly disappointing, considering that Jay had a .356 OBP for his career before coming to Arizona. “I’m looking for a quality at-bat every single time he walks up there,” Lovullo said. Not sure we got it.

He did seem an extremely streaky hitter. After going 0-for-12 to start his D-backs career, Jay got three hits in the June 12th game against the Pirates, driving in and scoring three runs. That started him off on a 20-for-48 run, but then Jay went back to being utterly cold. Indeed, his thermostat was turned down to absolute zero: over the next ten-game stretch from June 24 through July 3, Jay was 0-for-34 with one walk. By PA and complete games, that’s the longest hitless streak for a non-pitcher in franchise history, just edging out John Ryan Murphy’s 33-PA ohfer in July and August. Then Jay was fine for the next month, but failed to hit down the stretch, batting .159 (10-for-63) with a .415 OPS after August 27.

In Jon’s defense, with the return of Souza, his playing time became more intermittent. He started only a dozen of the team’s last thirty games, and his figures as a pinch-hitter were slightly better than the team average, with an OPS of .628 in that role, compared to the mean of .593. He also made some nice plays on defense, such as the one above. Overall, the metrics for defense were generally positive, except for UZR in left, which dragged his overall value down for fWAR. In hindsight, it’s easy to say the team shouldn’t have bothered trading for Jay; he certainly wasn’t a 2018 version of J.D. Martinez. But at the time, the move made sense, and the team had worse second-half problems than Jon Jay.