After earning just four hits in the Pirates’ previous week-long homestand, Jason Bay broke out on Tuesday night against the Mets. At Shea Stadium Bay went deep twice, finishing the evening with three knocks in four at-bats. He’d had just one home run in his previous 24 games.
Yesterday Dejan Kovacevic wrote about how many of the Pirates are underachieving this season (at least as compared to their career numbers), but Bay’s struggles have been noticeable even in that crowd. On a Pirate ship that’s that’s sunken to the bottom of the NL Central, every player—especially a star—is open to criticism. Bay and teammate Adam LaRoche have been publicly scrutinized for falling far short of reasonable pre-season expectations.
I’m curious as to whether or not last night was Bay’s coming out party—his reemergence as a legitimate big-league, middle of the order presence. The broadcast booth thought it was, but I’m not so sure. (Even a blind squirrel can bump into a nut.)
With no scouting experience at all and seriously limited baseball abilities, I’m by no means an expert analyst. At the same time, I also believe the root of Bay’s slump is fairly obvious even to a casual observer. It lies in what he’s swinging at and what he’s not.
Insightful, I know.
Seriously, though, the problem isn’t that he’s hitting frozen ropes all over the yard and is being robbed four times each night. If you’ve tuned into a game recently, you’ve seen just how terrible he’s looked at the dish. His eye’s not as keen as in the past. Bay has always whiffed his fair share, but in previous seasons he’s made up for his high strikeout totals by drawing a ton of free passes.
Check out Bay’s walks per plate appearance graph (clickable, courtesy of First Inning) dating back to 2005.
It doesn’t take a statistician to see the difference: The amplitude of the first two years is considerably larger than that of 2007. (Even April of this season stands out from May, June and July.) Bay used to walk often, but now he doesn’t.
If you take a gander at the game logs, you’ll see that Jason is absolutely refusing to walk. He’s drawn six bases on balls so far in 62 July plate appearances. Furthermore, the times he is walking can likely be attributed to poor pitching rather than superior discipline. His last three passes have come in games started by Chuck James, Taylor Buchholz and Josh Fogg—none of whom is known for his particularly outstanding control.
I don’t know if Jason’s looking less because of his struggling teammates, or if he’s seeing more strikes because the Pirates are constantly trailing, or if he’s just not comfortable in the batter’s box. I would venture a guess, though, and say that Bay will only return to form as he walks more often. In April (when he hit .280 with four home runs), Bay walked nearly as many times as he struck out (12 BB to 16 K). Ever since, his strikeout to walk ratio has hovered near three to one, well over norm. (As an aside, he’s on pace for 146.8 strikeouts in 570 at-bats, or 10 fewer Ks than he had in the same number of ABs last year.)
While it’s refreshing to see Jason taking a couple solid hacks, I’m afraid that Tuesday night’s performance didn’t signal a complete return of our All-Star. His ability to draw a walk is an integral part of his game—he’s not altogether different from Adam Dunn in that respect, though to not quite as serious a degree.
Bay will be back as we remember him when he begins to be consistently selective at the plate—and not a moment before.