Commentary

Jason Bay eyeing far better times in '11

After signing a big-money contract last winter, Mets' LF experienced a rough season

Originally Published: January 31, 2011
By Jerry Crasnick | ESPN.com

Jason Bay has a busy agenda in front of him as he awaits the start of the New York Mets' spring training camp. In a perfect world, he will show the team it made a worthy investment by signing him to a four-year, $66 million contract last winter. It would be nice to put an end to all the questions about the "Citi Field factor." And while the doctors say Bay has been concussion-free for a while now, some vigorous activity in the Florida sun before a dozen reporters will finally make it official.

[+] EnlargeJason Bay
G Fiume/Getty ImagesJason Bay's first season with the Mets last year was cut short when he suffered a concussion after slamming into the left-field wall at Dodger Stadium on July 23.

Before those questions play out in Port St. Lucie, Fla., in February, Bay is taking his family on a trip to Disney World. The barrage of inquiries he'll receive from the New York media is nothing compared to the grilling he's getting from his daughter Addison, age 4, who is eagerly awaiting a rendezvous with Mickey, Donald and Goofy in Orlando.

"She's been counting that down for three months now," Bay said.

Dad is anxious to get started too, because he realizes that the sooner the 2011 season begins, the quicker he'll be able to put 2010 in the past tense.

You remember Jason Bay, right? From 2004 through 2009, he made three All-Star teams, slugged .519 and ranked sixth among major league outfielders in home runs (181) and RBIs (596). Last winter, Matt Holliday and Bay were target No. 1 and 1(a) for teams in search of impact outfield bats. When the Mets signed Bay, they billed him as the middle-of-the-order producer the team was lacking, and then-manager Jerry Manuel predicted, "I think he's going to have a big year here."

Instead, Bay's New York debut was filled with more glitches and false starts than "Spider-Man" on Broadway. Bay lived up to his reputation as a hard worker, standup guy and excellent teammate, and played a better defensive left field than advertised. But the intangibles got lost in the shuffle because of his shortcomings at the plate.

After hitting 36 homers for Boston in 2009, Bay went deep six times in 348 at-bats last season. He hit two homers against CC Sabathia at Citi Field on May 23 and two more against Florida's Ricky Nolasco on June 28 in Puerto Rico, and dropped one long ball each on Kevin Millwood and Hiroki Kuroda.

The season ended prematurely when Bay slammed into the left-field wall while making a catch at Dodger Stadium on July 23. He suffered a whiplash-related concussion on the play, and was bothered by a "constant headache" for most of August. Bay's discomfort gradually diminished, but by the time he was ready to go full-bore, the Mets were playing out the string on a disappointing 79-83 season and there wasn't time to get back on the field.

Bay, 32, is one of the most thoughtful, grounded, forthright athletes you'll find, but he would rather not rehash the events of 2010 in agonizing detail. The experience was difficult enough the first time.

"A lot of people ask me a lot of things: Was your swing different? Was it the contract? Was it the ballpark?" Bay said. "I wish I could pinpoint one thing, but there was nothing that was consciously weighing on me. I was just another guy who was struggling and trying to get out of it.

I just had a bad year. I was the first to admit it as I was living it, and I'll be the first to admit it looking back on it. For whatever reason, I never got in a rhythm at the plate, and I felt like I was swimming upstream all year trying to catch up.

-- Jason Bay

"I just had a bad year. I was the first to admit it as I was living it, and I'll be the first to admit it looking back on it. For whatever reason, I never got in a rhythm at the plate, and I felt like I was swimming upstream all year trying to catch up. The next thing you know it's July and you're like, 'Wow, I haven't been able to piece anything together.' The question is, what did you learn from it? I feel like I learned a lot."

If Bay regrets one thing about 2010, it's that he spent too much time being pulled in umpteen different directions by people who kept peppering him with well-intentioned advice. This year he's intent on tuning out the static and getting back to basics.

"I'm back to doing what I've always done," Bay said. "But I'm focusing on doing it better."

Bay and his family live in Seattle during the offseason. He spent Christmas back home in British Columbia, attended a Seahawks-Saints NFL game with his good buddy, Cleveland outfielder Grady Sizemore, and worked out regularly at a facility run by trainer Kirk Bradshaw. Bay's main workout partner, pitcher Andy Sisco, recently signed a minor league deal with the Yankees. Sisco stands 6-foot-10, 270 pounds and is big enough to blot out the sun, if it ever actually made an appearance in Seattle during the winter.

Three or four days a week, Bay heads for the Athletic Training Institute and subjects himself to a 90-minute, gut-busting grind that provides all the proof he needs that his concussion issues are history.

"It's a heck of a lot more intense than three hours of baseball," Bay said. "Put it this way: By the time I get home, it's time for a nap."

This isn't the first time Bay is extra motivated to dig his way out from a disappointing year. After making two straight All-Star teams in Pittsburgh in 2005 and 2006, he slumped to .247 with a .746 OPS. The difference, of course, is that he was making a relatively modest $3.5 million in 2007, and playing for a team that went 68-94 and finished last in the National League Central.

The numbers suggest that Bay was an overanxious hitter in his first season with the Mets. According to FanGraphs, Bay swung at 27.1 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, easily a career high. During his low points, he seemed particularly vulnerable against breaking balls off the outside corner.

An American League scout said Bay was too pull-oriented in the early going, and that his plate coverage suffered as a result. Bay got into a funk that he could never completely escape.

"His balance wasn't great, and without a stable base he struggled to get his lower half in a ready hitting position on time. That caused his upper half to pull off the ball pretty regularly as he overcompensated," the scout said. "Who knows if it was just a matter of him having some difficulty finding his timing or whether he was attempting to live up to his contract? My best guess is that it was some kind of combination of the two."

Some observers cited the pressure of playing in New York, but Bay faced a huge adjustment in going from Pittsburgh to Boston and never missed a beat, so it's hard to buy that argument. After collecting a whopping 42 extra-base hits on balls hit to left field in 2009, Bay was probably due to level off a bit. Analyst Jack Moore, writing for the FanGraphs website in June, called Bay's 2010 dip "one of the nastiest combinations of park effects, regression to the mean, aging and simple poor luck that I can recall a power hitter encountering."

Bay has a handy crutch in Citi Field, which is one of the stingiest home run parks in baseball. But he posted a respectable .830 OPS at home compared to .680 on the road. It's also not in his makeup to do the whole Ryan Klesko-Phil Nevin Petco Park thing and torch his home venue. The Mets were 47-34 at home and 32-49 on the road last season, so the pitchers were benefiting even if the hitters were suffering.

"Everybody can't wait for me or every other hitter to take their shot at Citi Field," Bay said. "It's a big ballpark. That's pretty obvious. But I'm not good enough to start changing my game for external factors. I'm not the type of guy who's going to say, 'We're in Boston, so I'm going to try to hook the ball,' or, 'Now we're in another place, so I'm going to work on going the other way.'

"People say, 'How many times can you butt your head against the wall and hit balls 400 feet and watch them get caught?' My answer is, 'How else do you adjust?' You keep doing what you do and hope good things will happen."

For inspiration, Bay can look to the example set by Mets third baseman David Wright, who slipped from 33 homers to 10 with the move from Shea Stadium to Citi Field in 2009. Last year, Wright hit 29 homers and posted a higher OPS at home (.880) than on the road (.834).

If this comes as any consolation, the Mets will have more pressing concerns than Bay in Port St. Lucie. Johan Santana is coming off shoulder surgery. Carlos Beltran's knee is an issue. Jose Reyes is in the final year of his contract, and the Mets are counting on Mike Pelfrey and R.A. Dickey to lead the rotation. That doesn't even include the Wilpons, whose efforts to run a winning team have been hamstrung by the Bernie Madoff mess.

This year Bay gets a chance to work with a new hitting coach, Dave Hudgens, who replaces Howard Johnson in New York. Mets special assistant J.P. Ricciardi, who was running Toronto's front office when Bay was a force in Boston, expects the same old Bay to re-emerge.

"We're not sitting there saying, 'He has to rebound,'" Ricciardi said. "What we're saying is, between Bay, Beltran and Reyes, this team has lost a lot of at-bats from guys who are going to put up numbers if they're healthy. In Jason's case, we're just anxious to have him back healthy. We know what he's capable of doing. He's got a pedigree."

Combine a clean slate and a fresh outlook, and Bay might be a nice sleeper pick in someone's rotisserie league draft. But he can live without the fantasy. After a lost season, a return to a more comfortable reality would be just fine.

Jerry Crasnick is a senior writer for ESPN.com. Click here to purchase a copy of his book, "License to Deal," published by Rodale. Crasnick can be reached via e-mail.

Jerry Crasnick | email

ESPN.com MLB Sr. Writer