When the Chicago Cubs signed Jon Jay early in the offseason, the idea of him grabbing anything more than a role as a fourth outfielder was…unappealing. A few months later, it’s still a rather sobering thought, albeit under entirely different circumstances. With the Cubs getting so little production from so many essential parts of their lineup, we probably shouldn’t expect Jon Jay to succumb to a true reserve role anytime soon. If anything, his role on the team probably should be enhanced until a handful of guys start to play closer to the expectations that were set forth prior to the season getting underway.
With the way things have gone throughout the first two months of the season, not only riding out Jon Jay’s strong offensive start, but doing so in the leadoff spot, might just be the best option at present time for Joe Maddon. With Kyle Schwarber struggling so mightily, Albert Almora failing to seize consistent playing time, and a multitude of other issues that have plagued the Cubs on offense, Jon Jay is forcing Maddon’s hand at this point.
The initial expectation for Jon Jay upon his signing was as a fourth outfielder and a potential platoon partner with Almora in center. The starts somewhat reflect that, with Almora grabbing 26 starts in center, compared to 12 for Jay. However, Jay has 17 overall appearances at the position, with 16 appearances in left field and another eight in right. The purpose here isn’t to debate the positional element. There are a lot of factors that have contributed to Jon Jay appearing in 51 games at this point in the season. The purpose here is to examine Jay’s value to the Cubs’ stagnant lineup, regardless of his spot in the field.
Offensively, Jay has done much of what was expected of him, with exceeded expectations in certain respects as well. He’s brought a far better approach than was expected, with 4.18 pitches per plate appearance that represent a career high to this point. His contact rate has risen since last year, up to 88.3. Those elements have helped to result in an on-base percentage of .383, which easily represents a career high and trails only Kris Bryant and Anthony Rizzo among position players. When you’re talking about a guy as a potential leadoff hitter, those two elements alone help to support that very idea.
The initial platoon expectation isn’t indicative of a left-handed hitter who can’t hit lefty pitching. It was more about Almora getting the starts against southpaws. Jay’s splits seem to lend themselves to full-time play, at least while he’s providing that consistent on-base percentage that many of his counterparts in the lineup are not. The following represents his splits over the course of these first two months of the season:
Obviously the sample is far smaller against left-handed pitching, but that’s part of why Jon Jay has been so successful this year, as Joe Maddon has found the spots in which to deploy Jay that would allow him to realize the most production. But these stats are largely indicative of the splits that Jay has turned in over the course of his career. As such, it’s not entirely difficult to make a case for Jon Jay seizing an everyday role, and one that features him in the leadoff spot, for the foreseeable future.
The fielding element here isn’t necessarily withstanding, either. Jay is an unimpressive fielder with a below average arm. At the same time, his combination of approach and contact provide a great deal of value to the Cubs at this point, especially with Schwarber being ousted from the leadoff spot and no clear option behind him. According to FanGraphs, Jay is a .280 hitter, with a .342 OBP, across 751 PAs in the no. 1 spot in the batting order throughout his career.
It remains to be seen how long we should expect Jon Jay to perform at the level at which we’re currently seeing him. He’s not hitting the ball particularly hard, with a Hard% of 25.6 that comes in four percentage points below last year’s mark. What he does have working in his favor is a high LD% (30.0), a high GB% (48.8), and an ability to take the ball to the opposite field (31.7% oppo rate). Even with a decided lack of hard contact, avoiding flyballs has helped contribute to Jay’s current .383 batting average on balls in play. Even so, it’s tough to see that figure remaining so high over the course of an entire year of only mildly hard contact.
Even with the relatively unexciting skill set, which takes a back seat to the vast majority of position players currently on the roster, it’s hard to make an argument against not only playing Jon Jay everyday, but keeping him entrenched in that leadoff spot. Joe Maddon has done a terrific job of setting him up for success, but with the team’s recent struggles on the offensive side, riding out a player’s success like that of Jay’s might make the most sense at this point. He’s maintained a good approach and made contact at a high rate throughout the season, finding spots in the field to aid him in the BABIP game.
Jon Jay isn’t a permanent solution, by any stretch, and his luck will run out eventually. He’s not a true impact bat. But with the Kyle Schwarber leadoff experiment all but a memory, with his .185 average in that spot, it’s certainly an avenue worth exploring, both against lefties and righties. It’s not an exciting option, given the lack of true impact in his bat, but given the way in which the Cubs have struggled on offense, his on-base skills are certainly desired in that space at this point in time.