Chicago Cubs: Jon Jay’s quiet rise to Cubs platoon stardom
By Robert Davis
Jon Jay has quietly become the most important player on the Chicago Cubs’ depth chart. On Monday night, he showed a national audience why.
Chicago Cubs manager Joe Maddon sent Jon Jay to the plate to face Sergio Romo after he sat and watched the game and all its pageantry for nearly five hours. In-game analysts figured Maddon wanted to neutralize Romo’s slider with the opposite-handed batter. The cameras panned the crowd, many of whom were nervously chewing the tips of their fingers.
There was too much familiarity about the Cubs’ home opener on Monday night. From the rain delay, to the cold Chicago night and Kenley Jensen pitching the ninth inning of a tie game at Wrigley – it all seemed like a remake of last year’s NLCS.
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Jay worked a single off Romo. So far, Maddon’s a genius. Tommy La Stella followed his at-bat by grounding out to second, advancing Jay on the play.
Then, Jansen comes in to face the reigning NL MVP Kris Bryant with the winning run in scoring position. On an 0-2 count, Jay steals third, though Bryant swings and misses for the second out of the inning. Anthony Rizzo then drove Jay in on a slap single to win the game.
The veteran outfielder’s decision to run with Bryant batting is very debatable. On one hand, you have a future batting champion (and reigning MVP) at the plate. On the other, he’s facing a pitcher who he’s never recorded a hit off. I doubt there were any people in either dugout that didn’t know that statistic. Not to mention Bryant is slashing .182/.289/.497 in his career when in an 0-2 count. Jay stealing third is evidence that he has the situational awareness to make the best team move, though it seemed to irk Bryant afterwards.
Had Jay not taken third, Jansen would have attacked Rizzo in a much different way. Jansen is known for his devastating sinker/splitter which often winds up in the dirt. With a runner on second, the right-hander has more leniency to throw pitches out of the strike zone, knowing the runner needs to travel 180 feet to score.
With Jay on third, it minimized Jansen’s ability to throw that pitch whenever he needed in order to keep the run from scoring. Instead, Jansen attacked the strikezone with fastballs, a pitch Rizzo hits 13.5 runs above average replacement.
The result: Rizzo knocked a hit down the left field line for the walk-off win, handing Jansen his first loss of 2017.
When Jay landed in Chicago this past offseason, fans were left scratching their heads, especially after watching Dexter Fowler take the ride down I-55 to St. Louis. During spring training, Maddon seemed indecisive about playing the up-and-comer Albert Almora Jr. or Jay in center field.
Now, it’s abundantly clear that Jay is on the team to help Almora become an everyday center fielder. Jay raved about Almora’s game to Theo & Co. during their meeting last winter, saying that he’d like to mentor the young outfielder in the same way Carlos Beltran did for him while in St. Louis.
The most notable improvement to Almora’s game has been his plate discipline, something Jay is known for. In 2016, Almora was swinging at pitches out of the strikezone nearly 41 percent of the time. This year, he’s cut that number in half. Almora has also upped his foul-strike numbers, suggesting that he’s having an easier time recognizing pitches out of the pitcher’s hand.
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With the depth of talent the Cubs have, it’s unlikely Jay will see significant playing time like he had in San Diego and St. Louis without injury. That doesn’t diminish his contributions to the team.
If Almora turns into the top-rate player the Cubs organization hopes he can be because of Jay’s influence, that one-year $8 million is money well spent.