Jay Bruce is good

Jay Bruce has been knocking the cover off the ball lately. Predictably, there have been a bunch of articles that go basically like this: “Can he keep it up? Sample size! How good is he?” The problem with nearly all of them is that they don’t seem to have been written by people who follow the Reds—and Bruce—closely.

Enter, me.

Jay Bruce has certainly been a puzzle for much of his entire career, if viewed from a distance. But a closer look will tell a lot more about what we’re likely to expect from him. Let’s begin at the beginning, where it began.

Apparently, Bruce never really belonged in the minors. He more or less demolished pitching wherever he was sent—but you can see some differences. For instance, he showed the kind of power development you want to see from a young player, though mostly a doubles hitter in his first two stops. Once he moved to Double-A, more of those hard-hit balls started to clear the fence.

In the majors, Bruce became legitimately confusing. He came up hitting much like he’s been hitting this past month, only to see his debut season turn quickly in the other direction. He finished .254/.314/.453—not great, but not bad for a 21-year-old. He was young. It was easy to forgive. He would adjust next year.

He didn’t. Or, at least, it sure didn’t look like he did. The 2009 season was basically a disaster as far as traditional stats are concerned. He finished .223/.303/.470—and broke his wrist, causing him to miss most of the second half. This was the first time I remember people questioning Bruce. What I also remember—and what seems to have been forgotten—were a handful of articles pointing out that Bruce was really unlucky.

Indeed, in 2009, Bruce’s BABiP was just .221. That is insanely low; there was nothing in his background to suggest it was reasonable. In any normal season, that number would have been 70-80 points higher, and his final numbers would have looked a lot better.

Coming into the 2011 season,there were several articles wondering if we’d seen all we could expect from Bruce. Players who come up very young, so the writers argued, tend to have earlier—but longer—peaks. That is, you usually know what you’re getting after the second or third full season. Look at Bruce’s numbers after 2010 and what you see doesn’t look too bad. There’s superb fielding, above-average-hitting from a right fielder who looks like he’ll at least make a few All-Star teams. You could certainly do worse, except that it’s Jay Bruce. Reds’ fans (along with plenty of others) expected him to be the “Second Coming.”

This is where I think there begins to be a problem with analysis concerning Bruce. People forget he was still recovering from a broken wrist. Wrist injuries have been shown to sap power for about a year—and sure enough, Bruce wasn’t hitting many bombs to start the 2010 season. Once he passed the one-year mark, however, the ball (almost magically) started flying off his bat. He hit 15 home runs in August and September, and managed to look pretty much like the Bruce everyone was expecting. The injury had been so long in the past by that time, though, that people forgot he’d been recovering for most of the season. So, it was easy to dismiss those last few months as a “hot streak.”

That brings us to this year, and we see a Jay Bruce with an OPS over .900, and the league lead in homers. At the moment he looks like the player we’ve always hoped for, but—because of his history—people are skeptical. So what if we tweak the narrative a bit?

Let’s leave Bruce’s rookie year as is. He was 21 and he struggled. It happens.

2008: .254/.314/.453 with 21 home runs in 452 plate appearances.

Now, for 2009, I’m going to get a little “funky.” I’m going to pretend that, instead of having a BABIP of .221, he actually has one of .281. That’s 60 points better, but still below what he’s put up in every other professional season. I’m going to spread out the additional hits with the same proportion of singles, doubles and triples. This is what we get (assuming I did the math right):

2009: .267/.346/.530 with 22 homers in only 387 PA.

I am still going to assume he was injured in 2009, but—just for giggles—let’s say it wasn’t the wrist. Maybe his pinky toe was injured by a street-sweeper. As a result, I’m going to spot him five more fly balls that make it over the wall in 2010, because his power wasn’t stolen by the wrist injury. I think it could reasonably be more, but I’m trying to be conservative. Five homers (and, correspondingly, five extra hits) gives us this:

2010: .290/.361/.532 with 30 homers in 573 PA.

A Hardball Times Update
Goodbye for now.

Just to round it out, let’s stack all those numbers in a neat little chart along with his 2011 numbers up to the moment:

2008	.254	.314	.453	21	452
2009	.267	.346	.530	22	387
2010	.290	.361	.532	30	573
2011	.289	.353	.556	14	208

That, I think you’ll agree, looks a lot more like the player everyone expected. Is this chart highly speculative? Of course, but if we’re trying to predict what Bruce is going to do, we have to at least try to account for luck in that equation, and this chart does that. To this point in his career, Bruce has been decidedly unlucky. If that normalizes, as it should, there’s no reason to think he won’t put up some really excellent numbers.

Even if you think this is all a bunch of hogwash, I want to leave you with a number that most certainly isn’t. In his last 361 plate appearances (going back to last August), Bruce has hit 29 home runs. Over a full season, that puts him near a 50-homer pace.

Oh, did I mention this? Home run rates become pretty reliable right around 300 plate appearances.

Jason teaches high school English, writes fiction, runs a small writing program and writes about education and literature. He also writes for Redleg Nation and both writes and edits for The Hardball Times. Follow him on Twitter @JasonLinden, visit his website or email him here.
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11 years ago

good stuff, I don’t think you’re added stats are out of line.

Bruce suffers from what many before him and after him have suffered from…being too good too early.  He was top prospect in baseball for two years at least I believe and when he had the rookie year stats as you mention above people jumped ship.  If you don’t have a rookie year like Braun or Pujols your not worth it.

11 years ago

As a Reds fan and Jay Bruce fan, I think it’s only fair to note that Jay Bruce is not currently and is unlikely to ever be the kind of hitter Pujols or Joey Votto is.  To put it bluntly, Jay Bruce is a classic slugger.  He’s not a great “hitter” – in scouting parlance, he’s something like a 50 hitter, with 70 power. 

His plate discipline is a work a progress.  His contact rates are mediocre.  He crushes mistakes, but his swing has a pronounced upper-cut and he doesn’t really use the whole field.  He is susceptible (as most lefties are) to low and away breaking stuff and high heat.  His LD% in 2009 was a mere 13%.  This year it’s 11.2% and yet his BABIP is still a very robust .310.  Obviously there’s a lot of variance in batted ball classifications, but one of those two things has to give.

He’s still so young that he could take another step, cutting his strikeouts and boosting his walks significantly a la Sammy Sosa or Jose Bautista.  And he may very well be doing that right now.  Don’t get me wrong, with is defense, the next step makes him an MVP candidate if not favorite.  But we shouldn’t necessarily presume he’s breaking out this year.  As you point out, this is pretty much right in line with what he’s done “skills-wise” the last two years.

11 years ago

<quote>Even if you think this is all a bunch of hogwash, I want to leave you with a number that most certainly isn’t. In his last 361 plate appearances (going back to last August), Bruce has hit 29 home runs. Over a full season, that puts him near a 50-homer pace.

Oh, did I mention this? Home run rates become pretty reliable right around 300 plate appearances. </quote>

Actually, this is more hogwash than the rest.

You cannot simply select your endpoints on the basis of some “reliability” threshold and ignore all of the data that came before. That isn’t what that kind of research means at all.

And, in this case, you seem to have cherry-picked your endpoints to exclude July 2010, when Bruce hit ZERO HR. In fact, you’re ignoring the entire first four months of 2010, when he hit 10.

And that is absolutely a relevant data point when determining how good Bruce is right now, even if it is (somewhat) less relevant than his more recent performance.

Maybe Bruce actually is a “50 HR guy” right now—no one knows for certain. But suggesting that he is on the basis of misusing a 300 PA “relevance” threshold is indeed hogwash…

Jason Linden
11 years ago

Brief Disclaimer: I wrote this on Friday before Bruce had a rather productive weekend, so his most recent numbers will be just a touch off.

Jason Linden
11 years ago

Chris, I think you missed a paragraph in there. I started in August of 2010 not because I was “cherry picking,” but because that was when it had been a year since his wrist injury (technically, he did break his wrist on July 11, so I suppose you could quibble with me there) and it is statistically documented that while a player can play after about six weeks or so, it takes a year for power to fully come back after a broken wrist.

Perhaps I should have stated why I chose my start date more explicitly at the end, but that information is earlier in the article.

That means, that the first 4 months of 2010 really aren’t that reliable because he wasn’t fully healthy.

11 years ago

While Bruce’s overall numbers look good, I measure Bruce not in terms of how good he will be when he is hot, but how awful he will be when he is cold.

When Bruce is on fire, he is one of the best power hitters in the game, as is evident by this past May (.342/.402/.739 with 12 HRs) and last August (.333/.409/.667 with 8 HRs).

When Bruce is cold, he has been dreadful, looking totally lost at the dish, as evidenced by his .228/.301/.380 line this April and .200/.245/.263 line last July.

The peaks and valleys are far too drastic for a superstar type player.  To me, in order for Bruce to become the star most expected him to be, he has to avoid these long extended slumps.