Jon Jay Is a Whole Thing

This post begins with a very crude and also lame test of the reader’s observational powers. What’s necessary to know before beginning the test is that FanGraphs’ player linker features an option that allows one to link players just once. If a player’s full name appears on multiple occasions in a document, only the first of those appearances will feature a link to the relevant player’s profile. Subsequent instances of the player’s full name are presented just in plain text.

These finer points of the player linker’s functionality having been reviewed, I will now move on and present a set of three tables. Each table features the top-10 hitters by BABIP over the last three seasons — in the first two cases, among the batters with 350 or more plate appearances and, in the third case, among this year’s qualified hitters (because a relatively small population has hit the 350 mark).

Here they follow with little comment. First, for 2016:

Top-10 Hitters by BABIP, 2016
Name Team PA BABIP
1 Tyler Naquin Indians 365 .411
2 DJ LeMahieu Rockies 635 .388
3 Cameron Maybin Tigers 391 .383
4 Starling Marte Pirates 529 .380
5 Paulo Orlando Royals 484 .380
6 J.D. Martinez Tigers 517 .378
7 Tim Anderson White Sox 431 .375
8 Jonathan Villar Brewers 679 .373
9 David Freese Pirates 492 .372
10 Mike Trout Angels 681 .371
11 Jon Jay Padres 373 .371
Min. 350 PA

And for 2017:

Top-10 Hitters by BABIP, 2017
Name Team PA BABIP
1 Avisail Garcia White Sox 561 .392
2 Alex Avila – – – 376 .382
3 Miguel Sano Twins 483 .375
4 Charlie Blackmon Rockies 725 .371
5 Jose Altuve Astros 662 .370
6 Tommy Pham Cardinals 530 .368
7 Jon Jay Cubs 433 .368
8 Tim Beckham – – – 575 .365
9 Domingo Santana Brewers 607 .363
10 Michael A. Taylor Nationals 432 .363
Min. 350 PA

And then for this season so far:

Top-10 Hitters by BABIP, 2018
Name Team PA BABIP
1 Jose Altuve Astros 352 .383
2 Scooter Gennett Reds 308 .380
3 Matt Duffy Rays 265 .379
4 Nicholas Castellanos Tigers 330 .373
5 Albert Almora Jr. Cubs 243 .372
6 J.D. Martinez Red Sox 321 .370
7 Jean Segura Mariners 323 .368
8 Jon Jay – – – 343 .367
9 Derek Dietrich Marlins 289 .367
10 Brian Anderson Marlins 341 .366

It’s probably important to note before proceeding that there’s no sort of recognition for completing this test correctly. The best one can expect is a fleeting moment of self-satisfaction — and even that likely isn’t merited owing to how crude and also lame this particular test is.

What one finds after examining the tables above, though, is that four of the roughly 30 names feature no links. One of those names is Jose Altuve’s name. Jose Altuve has, twice, appeared among the league leaders in BABIP over the last three years (including the present one). The same is true for J.D. Martinez, as well. The other two names, however, belong to the same person — specifically, Jon Jay. In 2016 and -17, Jon Jay recorded one of the top BABIPs in the majors among hitters who played more than half the time. This season, Jon Jay has also recorded one of the league’s top BABIPs among hitters who’ve played more than half the time. Jon Jay is, in other words, thoroughly represented here.

Unsurprisingly, he owns the top BABIP figure over the last three seasons combined, as well:

Top 10 Hitters by BABIP, 2016-18
Name Team PA BABIP
1 Jon Jay – – – 1149 .369
2 Jose Altuve Astros 1731 .363
3 Domingo Santana Brewers 1099 .362
4 J.D. Martinez – – – 1327 .359
5 DJ LeMahieu Rockies 1566 .358
6 Freddie Freeman Braves 1554 .357
7 Jonathan Villar Brewers 1346 .356
8 Charlie Blackmon Rockies 1696 .353
9 Aaron Judge Yankees 1111 .352
10 Cesar Hernandez Phillies 1543 .352
11 Avisail Garcia White Sox 1103 .352
Min. 1000 PA

Jay’s presence on three successive BABIP leaderboards is, at some level, the province of trivia. BABIP success isn’t synonymous with baseball success. Jon Jay isn’t one of the majors’ best players nor most productive hitters overall, and it’s unlikely anyone is prepared to make such an argument.

At another level, though, what these numbers suggest is that Jay has excelled in one of the most fundamentally important ways a ballplayer can — namely, by hitting the ball safely afield. Whatever Jay’s shortcomings — his lack of power, his declining defensive value — he has compensated for them by means of one towering strength: over the last three seasons, Jon Jay has been better than everyone else at avoiding fielders. Without this series of outcomes, Jay would likely not have a place on a major-league roster. He has benefited from an outlying performance and has also, perhaps surprisingly, sustained that outlying performance. Jon Jay’s ability to compile hits in this fashion is, essentially, the entire basis for his career at the moment.

While typing that last paragraph, I considered using the word skill to characterize Jay’s batted-ball success. I decided not to do so because one is typically safer attributing batted-ball success — at least, in part — to chance just as much talent. But hitters do typically possess signature BABIP numbers. Our Depth Chart projections, for example — which work as a proxy for talent — suggest that Jay is likely to retain his place among the league’s top hitters by this measure.

Top-10 Hitters by BABIP, Rest-of-Season
Name Team PA BABIP
1 Ronald Acuna Braves 309 .349
2 Tyler Naquin Indians 158 .345
3 Christian Yelich Brewers 331 .345
4 J.D. Martinez Red Sox 330 .345
5 Jon Jay D-backs 166 .343
6 DJ LeMahieu Rockies 319 .340
7 David Dahl Rockies 115 .340
8 Freddie Freeman Braves 342 .338
9 Jose Altuve Astros 330 .337
10 Adam Eaton Nationals 209 .335
11 Paul Goldschmidt D-backs 341 .335
Per Depth Chart projections. Min 100 PA.

Moreover, Jay’s approach as a batter is so distinct and extreme that it’s reasonable to regard his performance as a product of a real and repeatable process. Consider that:

  1. Jay hits to the opposite field more often than almost everyone. Among the 194 batters who’ve recorded 1,000 or more plate appearances over the last three seasons — that is, the same population represented in the table labeled “Top 10 Hitters by BABIP, 2016-18” — Jay has recorded the third-highest rate of batted balls to the opposite field.
  2. Jay hits grounders more often than almost everyone. Among that same sample, Jay has also recorded the 11th-highest ground-ball rate (53.5%).
  3. Jay hits the ball less hard than almost everyone. Among the 270 batters who’ve recorded 500 or more batted balls over the last three seasons, Jay has recorded the 17th-lowest average exit velocity (84.3 mph).

By these three measures — opposite-field rate, ground-ball rate, and exit velo (where lower velocity is somehow an asset, in this case) — Jay sits in the 98th, 94th, and 93rd percentiles, respectively. Effectively, in other words, this is the essence of Jon Jay:

That’s a 78 mph ground ball to the hole at short. That’s also Jay’s most recent hit. His record suggests that a number of his future hits will resemble it. That doesn’t seem like it should be the foundation on which a major leaguer’s offensive game is built — especially one who lacks plus footspeed or plus anything else. It is the one on which Jay’s is built, however, and he’s parlayed it into an average or better hitting line each of the past few seasons.

Carson Cistulli has published a book of aphorisms called Spirited Ejaculations of a New Enthusiast.

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5 years ago

Jon Jay is the modern day Wee Willie Keeler.

5 years ago
Reply to  pmart1995

Isn’t he also a little like Ichiro Lite as a hitter? Low power and walk rate but sustainable high BABIP and BA despite that.

5 years ago
Reply to  mattybobo

I’m talking purely batter’s box stuff here, Jay is obviously not a fantastic baserunner.