The Chicago Cubs have the best offense since the All-Star break in part due to the stellar play of several guys who struggled early in the year. I’m looking at you, Kyle Schwarber, Ben Zobrist, Willson Contreras, and Javy Baez. And with the return of Addison Russell, the offensive projections only get brighter. This, in turn, might signal the end of the “let’s play Jon Jay consistently and bat him leadoff” experiment.
Granted, Jay has filled in admirably for the defending World Series champs at a cost-effective price. Not many teams can say they are only paying $8 million for 1.4 fWAR and a 98 wRC+ in 390 plate appearances. Plus, prior to the break when the Cubs were really struggling, Jay sort of carried the torch by hitting to a 109 wRC+ and .343 wOBA.
But since the first half ended, the utility outfielder’s numbers look rather bleak, as Michael Cerami of Bleacher National described. A 90 wRC+ is nothing to be excited about, especially from a guy who has been getting the most possible chances during a game. And isolating Jay’s performance to just his last 100 plate appearances, his wOBA is a blunt .289 and wRC+ 72. Yuck.
What’s especially troublesome about Jay batting leadoff is that he has a below-average understanding of the strike zone. Whereas the average MLB outside-the-zone swing rate is 29.9 percent, the scrappy outfielder’s rate is a much worse 36.5 percent. For the sake of comparison, Dexter Fowler’s rate was 19.4 percent last year, essentially half that of his replacement.
Leadoff hitters naturally set the tone, too. Joe Maddon ideally wants one of his better hitters to not just get on base and get into scoring position, but to work deep plate appearances. Jay, unfortunately, doesn’t do either well, as just about 52 percent more batters (min. 350 PA) have seen more pitches per plate appearance.
The Cubs don’t have a clear-cut leadoff hitter at the moment, but Maddon has recently employed Ben Zobrist, who has looked more like his 2016 self lately. If Zobrist is fully healthy and continues to hit well, he seems to be the logical fit. Pitchers wouldn’t be getting away with throwing as many balls outside the zone because he only swings at roughly 25 percent of those pitches, much better than Jay’s aforementioned ~37 percent rate.
Jay is a solid, average MLB outfielder, one who has been integral to the Cubs’ success this year in light of several injuries. But now that the Cubs are clicking and healthy, perhaps Jay is best suited to a role as a bench bat. More importantly, he is not the ideal player to bat at the top of the order; Zobrist seems like the prototypical leadoff guy right now.