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.
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.
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:
Year AVG OBP SLG HR PA 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.