Cardinals fans quickly became anxious about both players in April as Jay struggled to a .213 batting average, and Freese was even worse at .163 as he returned from an oblique injury he suffered in spring training.
But Jay is now hitting .273, including four homeruns while playing very solid defense, and Freese has bumped his average up to .211 heading into play Saturday, including a grand slam for his first homerun of the season in the first inning Friday against the Milwaukee Brewers.
Plus, each is likely to improve from here.
Jay is a career .298 hitter, and Freese has a career average of .289 and averages 16 homeruns per season.
Sometimes players simply get off to bad starts. That’s no reason to wish for centerfield prospect Oscar Taveras to take Jay’s job or for the Cardinals to trade Freese.
Sure, neither Jay nor Freese are likely going to be All-Stars this season and neither figures to have the much potential to be a Most Valuable Player candidate in their careers, but they are vital pieces of the Cardinals’ team.
For example, the Cardinals had a 15-11 record in April while Jay and Freese struggled. That’s good, and bullpen problems played a large role in at least four of those losses, but the Cardinals also got minimal production from their centerfield and third base positions, which are traditionally two of the most important offensive positions on the team.
Once the calendar turned to May, the Cardinals went on an 11-3 surge as Jay and Freese started to hit the ball better.
Jay’s improvement came from adjustments in his swing. He has always been a singles hitter, but his approach at the plate included a lot of movement in his hands. That allows ample opportunity for his timing to get messed up and creates a lot of unnecessary movement.
But Jay made the required adjustments. He now holds the bat up straighter in his stance and has a more direct approach to the ball. And now he looks like a hitter who could bat .300, which is the type of batter Cardinals fans remember from Jay’s first three seasons with the team.
Freese’s development has been a little slower. He did have a five-game hitting streak last week but had only one hit in each of those games. However, he’s been recovering from the oblique injury, and those types of injuries tend to linger, not to mention the twisting motion required to hit puts stress directly on the injury part of his body.
In any case, the signs of progress from both players are welcome for the Cardinals, and they could help power the team through an extended stretch of winning baseball.
The Cardinals entered play Saturday with a 27-14 record, the best in Major League Baseball, and that could get even better because of the team’s upcoming schedule.
The Cardinals beat up on non-divisional opponents in the current home stand by winning five of seven games against the Colorado Rockies and New York Mets. Now they’ll head to the West Coast to play the San Diego Padres and Los Angeles Dodgers, who had a combined record of 35-46 heading into play Saturday and were the bottom two teams in the National League West Division.
The Cardinals already had a strong team with consistently great performances by their starting rotation and sections of their lineup hitting well, but they could continue to contend for the best team in baseball title throughout the summer if players such as Jay and Freese join the run-production party as the weather warms up.
All it took was smart, steady work, and a little bit of patience.