At the end of the 2009 baseball season, Jason Bay was 31 years old. He was coming off a season in which he hit 36 home runs, drove in 119 runs, and had an OPS of .921. In fact, over his last five seasons he had smacked 155 home runs including four years with 30+ long balls. And as he entered free agency, he had racked up 19.6 WAR over 7 years in the League.
So what happened to the once-formidable bat that had found success in both the National and American League? After the 2009 season Bay could only muster 37 more home runs through four partial seasons with the New York Mets and Seattle Mariners. In 2010, he only played 95 games, hitting a mere 6 home runs with a .259 batting average and a putrid .144 isolated power. From there he only managed one more season with more than 100 games played, and his power – once a strong point of his game – never re-appeared.
On the surface, some rather obvious excuses can be found that would point to Bay’s rapid decline. After playing the entire 2009 season in one of the best parks for right handed batters, Bay played in two pitcher-friendly parks (Citi Field and Safeco Field). Perhaps his health is also to blame. From 2004 to 2009, Bay averaged 149 games; afterword, he only averaged 89. However, although these excuses probably contributed to Bay’s struggles, there are some other reasons to explain why he stopped playing like he once did.
One of the most notable changes in Bay’s game starting in 2010 was his plate discipline. Although his strikeout rate actually fell slightly, from 25.4% in 2009 to 22.7% in 2010, his swing rate on pitches outside the zone increased dramatically from 20.1% to 27.1%. Despite the fact that his strikeout percentage did not immediately increase due to his decreasing discipline, the rest of his hitting statistics immediately felt the negative effects. He followed up the 2010 season with two of three years with a swing percentage on pitches outside the zone of at least 26.9% (he returned to a 20.2% swing percentage on pitches outside the zone in 2012).
Furthermore, Bay’s batted ball ratios began changing in 2010 as well. In his first two years with the Mets, Bay’s HR/FB ratio dropped from 19.1% all the way to a ridiculous 5.1% in his first year with the team, and 8.8% in his second season in New York. Although HR/FB rates will change from year to year, he had consistently carried a HR/FB rate above 15% for his career, so this drop can be attributed to his change of scenery from Fenway Park to Citi Field.
In 2011, a year after the most disappointing season of his career, Bay’s groundball to fly ball ratio began to shoot upwards. Through 2010 Bay had never had a GB/FB above 1, but in 2011 Bay had a ratio of 1.07 (it was 0.79 the year before). After 2010, Bay most likely began to change his swing to account for the fact that he no longer had the Green Monster in left field. The changes in his swing compounded the problems he was already facing while playing in New York. When the Mets moved the fences in, in 2012, Bay’s home run rate increased back up to 14.3%, but at that point Bay was not going to return to being the player he once was.
From what I can tell, the best explanation for Jason Bay’s sudden dip in production is both due to his home park and the resulting adjustments he tried to make to his offense. Bay’s power numbers immediately felt the effects of playing in New York, and he was never able to tweak his game such that he could be successful in a run-depressed environment. As he tried to change his game, his skill set declined because was getting older, and eventually he wasn’t able to succeed against major league pitching.
Bay will probably not play in the Major Leagues again, which means that his legacy will be punctuated by four straight years of futility. In spite of his last four years, Bay shouldn’t be remembered for the disappointment that he was to the Mets and the Mariners. Bay was the Rookie of the Year for the Pirates in 2004, and he was good enough to make three All-Star games during his prime (2005, 2006, and 2009). His glory days were largely lost as he played for a Pittsburg team that was not exactly a perennial power, but he played a memorable role for the Red Sox when they made the playoffs in ’09. That year he also picked up a silver slugger award and came in 7th in MVP voting.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what led to Jason Bay’s rapid fall, but it likely started when he moved to the Big Apple. It is easy to imagine a much different– and probably much longer—career had Bay decided to re-sign with Boston in 2010, or at least signed with a team that didn’t call Citi Field their home. One point of certainty, however, it is time for Jason Bay to retire. I simply hope that we remember him for being the player that he was in his prime, and not the player who might have signed the worst contract in the history of the New York Mets.
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