For Jon Jay, last season was about re-establishing his skill set, about proving once again that he belonged at the top of the St. Louis Cardinals’ depth chart in center field.
The Cardinals had traded for Peter Bourjos, a stellar defender who they believed had much to offer at the plate and on the basepaths, formerly of the Los Angeles Angels.
Bourjos, however, slumped, producing a .231 average and nine stolen bases in 109 games. Jay sizzled, batting .303 in 140 games and looking comfortable all along.
Fast-forward one year and Jay has a firm hold on the job, and the Cardinals anticipate another .300 season and above-average defense from the 30-year-old.
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“For me, just continue to contribute and get to October,” Jay said of his goals for 2015. “That’s what it’s all about. If we can do those things, we’ll be all right.”
Jay ranks near the top of the list of Cardinals players who disdain talking about themselves. Matt Holliday, Jason Heyward and Yadier Molina also fit in that category.
Jay won’t admit it, but there were hurt feelings after the 2013 season when he sensed the Cardinals, and their fans, had noticed a slip in his performance.
The discussions gained momentum and eventually reached Jay, who batted .276 with seven home runs and 67 RBIs in ’13. What stood out the most was a perceived slip in Jay’s defensive prowess. The magical catches of 2011 and 2012, well, seemed to live only in the past.
Fair or unfair? Cardinals manager Mike Matheny believes the latter.
“What was frustrating to us as a team was the lack of respect Jon was given defensively, knowing that the year before, in ’13, wasn’t his best defensive year,” Matheny said. “But how do you completely forget what this guy has been able to do offensively, defensively, just as a baseball player?”
Matheny refused to forget. Always a supporter of Jay, Matheny found himself plugging Jay into the lineup with more regularity. Bourjos’ opportunities were limited, and as much as he tried, he never could find a swing that worked.
Jay, a left-handed hitter, even made it impossible for the Cardinals to employ a platoon with the right-handed-hitting Bourjos. Jay batted a career-high .375 (33-for-88) with a .404 on-base percentage against left-handed pitchers. He had 33 multihit games.
Deep down, Matheny was saying: “I told you so.”
“Every once in a while, you come across those players that just seem to have to keep proving themselves,” Matheny said. “Fortunately, he’s a tough enough kid that he takes that as a challenge and he responds. But we believe him to be a good defender and we believe him to be the guy that’s throwing up the kind of average that he’s been throwing up, with the kind of tough at-bats and getting on base. Those are all very valuable assets to us.
“He’s been motivated a lot of times to prove people wrong, but more importantly, he’s motivated to win. He’s a winning style of player.”
Despite Jay being hurt by the talk that he was a diminished player, Matheny said the sixth-year major-leaguer turned it into positive energy.
“This guy’s a smart kid,” Matheny said. “He reads what’s going on and hears everything that’s being said. Jon’s done a nice job of handling it well and continuing to be a pro and going out and controlling what he can control. He’s shown up every day with a hunger to get better, regardless of whether he’s been given respect or not. He’s not going to be a guy who stands on a box and yells at people that they have to respect him. He’s just going to go do his job.”
Jay underwent offseason surgery on his left wrist and didn’t participate in his first Grapefruit League game until March 20. There are no lingering symptoms in the wrist, which prevented Jay from taking on-the-field batting practice last season. All his work was done the indoor cage.
This spring, he spent much of training camp working with hitting coach John Mabry. Conversations with Mabry had as much value for Jay as working on his craft.
“I’ve been getting my work done early,” Jay said. “By the time the game starts, I’m kind of done. But it’s been great. I’ve been able to hang with Mabes and talk hitting. I’ve just been keeping my mind working. I think that’s been good for me. Mabes is the best out there. He’s got a ton of experience and he’s helped out so many guys on this ballclub. He’s awesome to be around. His energy is contagious. That’s something that’s big for us.
“He knows so much about the game. He’s been in every situation as a player and now as a coach. It’s great to have him to lean on, and I take full advantage of that.”
Matheny said the benefits of off-the-field work never be minimized.
“There’s so much done in those cages when you have a Bill Mueller (the assistant hitting coach) and a John Mabry, and what these guys are talking to our players about, like the consistency of approach and the discipline of this game,” Matheny said. “Jay is a very disciplined worker. He’s wanting to hone his craft, and that’s what guys who have taken their game to another level do. They figure out what they’re missing a little bit of and keep pushing forward.”