Jason Bay has become the subject of considerable criticism among Pirates fans, many of whom see him as underachieving and overpaid. Worse, he's often portrayed as someone who doesn't care and as a result of that and low productivity should be benched, traded or demoted.
Let's try to set the record straight because this perception is incorrect and most unfair.
Until last season, Bay had not just been a very good player; he had been an excellent one -- by any standard. He was a player to build a team around.
Let's look at his accomplishments, and to do so we will use the baseball statistic OPS, which is on-base percentage plus slugging percentage. It is widely considered to be the best statistic in evaluating a player's offensive ability.
Bay joined the Pirates in August 2003, coming from the San Diego Padres, along with Oliver Perez, in exchange for Brian Giles. Since he was 24 at the time of the trade and the Pirates were his fourth organization, there was some suspicion about Bay. He almost immediately erased them.
In 2004, he was the National League Rookie of the Year, the first Pirates player to win the award. He hit 26 home runs, drove in 82 runs, had a .282 batting average and a .550 slugging percentage (anything over .500 is good).
In 2005, he built on that to the extent he could have been called the best offensive outfielder in the National League. His OPS was .961, second in Major League Baseball to Manny Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox. For those who prefer more conventional statistics, his 32 home runs and 101 RBIs tied for fourth and fifth among National League outfielders.
In 2006, his OPS was .928, third best in the National League, behind Carlos Beltran and Matt Holliday. Among outfielders, he was fourth in RBIs with 109, fifth in home runs with 35. He did this despite playing half of his games in a stadium not friendly to right-handed hitters.
In additional to those offensive accomplishments, he also showed himself to be an above-average outfielder, albeit with a below-average arm, and an excellent base runner.
Understandably, the Pirates signed him to a long-term contract before the 2007 season.
He regressed quite a bit in '07. His home run total fell to 21, his RBIs to 84 and his OPS dropped to .745. His once-keen batting eye, which had helped him accumulate 95 and 102 walks the previous two seasons, vanished. He walked only 59 times. Worse, his defense declined at an alarming rate.
It was one bad season after three exceptional ones, yet Bay has become a public whipping boy. A common criticism, heard much too often, is that Bay doesn't hit in the clutch.
His lifetime batting average is .281. His lifetime batting average with runners in scoring position is .288. His lifetime slugging percentage is .515. His lifetime slugging percentage with runners in scoring position is .536.
The statistics speak for themselves.
Part of the animosity toward Bay relates to his laid-back style. For some reason, fans think players need to show a degree of anger when they fail. If they don't, it's taken to mean they don't care. Bay cares, although his expression rarely changes, whether he strikes out or homers.
Such a style would not figure to be a problem in Pittsburgh since it worked rather well for Willie Stargell, Franco Harris and Mario Lemieux.
The criticism of Bay has not abated this season, although it is much too early to make a judgment on whether he will return to his 2004-06 form or continue to disappoint. After 13 games, Bay had three home runs, which is good, and five RBIs, which is not good.
The player many fans would love to see in Bay's place is Steve Pearce, who had an amazing romp through the minors last year -- excelling at Lynchburg, Altoona and Indianapolis. There's nothing that whets the appetite of fans more than a hot prospect. Hope springs eternal, and prospects represent hope.
Let's take a look at what Pearce has done. After hitting 31 homers and driving in 113 runs in only 487 minor league at-bats, he was promoted to the Pirates in September. In 68 at-bats, he did not homer. There was mild outrage when Pearce was cut from the Pirates in spring training, where he had hit four home runs, despite the fact the had to learn to play the outfield after being almost solely a first baseman in his pro career.
Going into last night's game at Indianapolis, Pearce was batting .245 with no homers in 49 at-bats. That was 117 at-bats (spring training doesn't count) in which Pearce had not homered.
This is not to suggest Pearce is not a prime prospect. He is. In fact, there's a good chance, if he continues to mature as a hitter, that some day he might have the kind of productive major-league seasons that Jason Bay has had.
Bob Smizik can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org .