Unsinkable Jon Jay is Cards' unsung hero

Monday, I presented my “Top 10” reasons why the Cardinals won the NL Central.

My list didn't make prominent mention of one starting player, but that was done for a specific reason.

That's because, fittingly enough, the Cardinals had a true unsung hero during the regular season. And he warranted separate attention, so I saved him for today.

Of course, I'm talking about outfielder Jon Jay.

During a season in which many Cardinals' regulars suffered a decline in performance, Jay was an exception. He exceeded his 2013 level, and certainly exceeded 2014 preseason expectations. After the trade for center fielder Peter Bourjos, many assumed Jay would be phased out or at least used a lot less in 2014. Well, Jay never got that memo. He responded admirably to the challenge by improving offensively and defensively.

When others, including me, were ready to give up on Jay, he never gave up on himself. He never complained, never caused a fuss when Bourjos was given the first crack at the starting job. Jay just kept working and waited for his chance. When Bourjos started slowly, Jay reemerged in center, and at times was the team's most consistent hitter.

Jay batted .303, or 27 points better than in 2013.

His onbase percentage was up by 21 points, to .372.

His slugging percentage increased to .378, up from .370.

His OPS was .750 this season compared to .721 last year.

His OPS+ — which is adjusted based on industry-wide hitting performances — was 114, which means he was 14 percent above the league average. That was an improvement of 10 percent over Jay's 2013 season.

And his defensive turnaround was pretty dramatic. In 2013, Jay ranked 32nd among MLB center fielders with an abysmal minus 10 in Defensive Runs Saved. This season he finished 13th at the position with 5 Defensive Runs Saved — a positive swing of 15 defensive runs from last year.

Jay finished with 2.6 Wins Above Replacement (WAR) which was nearly a win better than his 2013 WAR.

After dealing with a bit of a slump in July, Jay had a tremendous August, batting .382 with a .474 OBP and .487 SLG. He batted .323 with a .406 OBP after the All-Star break.

Jay, who bats left, hit .375 against lefthanded pitching.

Jay's upturn gave manager Mike Matheny a chance to put together a more mobile defensive alignment by using Bourjos in center and Jay in right later in the season.

Kudos to Jay for plugging away, being a pro and avoiding the kind of downturn experienced by so many teammates.

“It was different for him this year,” Matheny said late in the season. “But to his credit there wasn't one day where he showed up — and when I make my rounds, I know there's days when guys aren't happy. I get it. I've been that guy. But I can't think of one day all season where no matter how many days it was where he wasn't getting the opportunities he'd just say 'Hey, whatever you need me to do, I'll be ready.' And it was sincere. So it's nice to see a guy like that all of a sudden take off and prove it to everybody.”

Moreover, Jay went out of his way to help the younger players like Randal Grichuk and Oscar Taveras. He offered support to Bourjos. Even though his generosity could have (in theory) cost Jay playing time, he took the high road. He unselfishly committed to being an exceptional teammate, lending a hand to guys that were competing with him for starts and at-bats.

“A guy like Jon will come in and spend time with a Peter Bourjos, and spend time with an Oscar Taveras and Randal Grichuk and this whole slew of outfielders we have,” Matheny said. “He's probably the one that's spending the most time trying to help other guys … It's always a great reward to see a guy who buys into that thought process, that culture that we have here where it's just 'let's make everybody better.' And somehow it comes back. And I think that's a great story for Jon Jay this year.”

In summing up Jay's bounce-back season, Matheny said: “It just proves toughness. And ability. He had a pretty good year last year. I think he was one of the first to say that he could have had a better year on both sides. Defensively he was always quick to point that out. But this year once again reinforced why we thought of him as we have. He's a good defender, and you look up there and see his average this late in the season – and that's with a guy that's been battling some things health wise.

"But just staying with his approach and getting big hits for us. And it's not a surprise. It's like we say with all of these guys — keep doing your thing and we believe it comes out in the wash over the long haul what kind of player you are.”

And that's why the Unsinkable Jon Jay is the Cards' Unsung Hero for 2014.

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