Jason Bay: Are His Best Years behind Him?

A lot has been made, unsurprisingly, of Jason Bay’s struggles as a New York Met. To recap, Bay was a stud before coming to New York: In his six full seasons prior, Bay hit .280 and averaged 30 home runs and 99 RBI for the Pittsburgh Pirates and Boston Red Sox. In his 565 plate appearances with the Mets, Bay is hitting .244 with eight home runs.

The three-time All Star left fielder has hit rock bottom this season, batting .207 and slugging just .279 with two homers and 10 RBI in his 164 plate appearances. He is doing this while collecting $16 million this year (and is due that much each of the next two seasons as well).

It has gotten so bad that Mets manager Terry Collins has benched Bay recently. All hitters go through slumps, but the duration of Bay’s struggles suggests something worse. It appears he may become the latest example of a high-level player who forgot how to play baseball once donning a Mets uniform (see: Alomar, Roberto; Baerga, Carlos; Foster, George; Vaughn, Mo).

While this seems baffling, is there an explanation? How about the inescapable age decline? Bay is only 32, but that doesn’t necessarily mean he’s still in his prime. Last month the folks at FantasyBallyard.com looked at the OPS (on-base percentage plus slugging percentage) for, at the time, the top 50 hitters in history in that category.

While Bay is not included on this list (he is 113 and falling fast), it is not unreasonable to think he wouldn’t succumb to the same decline as these hitters. The research showed that their OPS peaked at age 28 and started dropping from there. The steepest decline occurred between 36 and 37, but it was still significant in the few years prior.

(image: Bay just standing around in left field)
This is Bay’s very appropriate Wikipedia photo. (Credit: UCinternational)

BaseballReference.com provides us with “similar batters through age 31,” where we find players like Geoff Jenkins, David Justice, J.D. Drew, and Kirk Gibson, among others. From the beginning of their careers through age 31 (Bay’s age at the end of last season), these players had remarkably similar statistics to Bay. Once they hit 32, the numbers are, for the most part, not pretty:

  • Jenkins’ average fell 25 points in 2007, and he played 115 games for the Phillies the following year—hitting just .246 with only nine home runs—before retiring.
  • Drew had two strong years after turning 32 but his average fell to .255 last season and he is off to a bad start (.229) this year.
  • Gibson was the National League MVP in 1988 and never the same after, averaging 11 home runs to go with a .255 batting average in the next seven years.
  • Justice continued to perform into his mid-30’s, including a monster 2000 in which he hit 41 home runs. Yet, two years later, he was out of baseball. Keep in mind that Justice was mentioned in the Mitchell Report as a steroid user.

In the 90’s and early 2000’s, performance-enhancing drugs made us forget that players typically start to decline in their 30’s, not suddenly club 50 home runs. Even the batters similar to Bay didn’t regress as fast as Bay has, but the decline did occur at this stage of their careers. I can’t say if those hitters looked as clueless at the plate as Bay does—he routinely waves at pitches outside of the strike zone and makes weak contact with pitches he should be driving—so we’ll just have to go by the numbers.

What is even more perplexing is that it’s hard to say if it is simply age when Bay still hustles down the line and has displayed an above-average glove in left field. In other words, his other skills don’t seem to be deteriorating. His bat certainly has though, so when the Mets return to Pittsburgh this weekend—assuming Bay sees the field—Pirates fans will look at Bay’s stats on the scoreboard and ask the question Mets fans have been wondering for a year: “What happened to him?”

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