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Wednesday, November 04, 2009
Jay Bruce has been both brilliant and frustrating—teasing owners with his potential while falling short of those expectations.
The saga of Jay Bruce begins all the way back in 2005, when he was drafted 15th overall by the Cincinnati Reds. Premiering in rookie ball that year, Bruce showed good power for an 18-year-old, hitting nine long balls in 192 at-bats. A good-but-not-great debut saw the young outfielder hit .270/.331/.500 and .257/.358/.457 between the Gulf Coast League and the Pioneer League that year. His 22 walks were a good showing for the youngster, but 53 strikeouts were somewhat troubling. Still, his projectability and positive overall line earned him a promotion to A-ball in 2006.
The next season saw Bruce premier for Dayton in the Midwest League. Bruce again produced, with a .291/.355/.516 line in 492 plate appearances, with 16 home runs. Bruce flashed a bit of speed, as well, posting 19 steals. His plate discipline was a bit underwhelming, however, as he managed just 44 walks against 106 Ks.
2007 was quite the season for Bruce, as he slugged his way through three levels, reaching Triple-A in time to post 203 plate appearances. His power numbers made some dramatic leaps, as he was able to hit 26 home runs in 521 at-bats. Still, his plate discipline lagged behind his tools, as the 20-year-old walked just 47 times against 135 strikeouts.
The 2008 season finally saw the arrival of the Reds' prized prospect, as his .364/.393/.630 showing at Triple-A Louisville finally forced the Reds to call up their outfielder. Bruce continued to hit well, raking upon promotion, though tailing off by the end of the season. Still, he performed right along with his minor league indicators: plenty of power but little plate discipline. His 21 home runs in 413 at-bats were a great sign, but 33 walks against 110 strikeouts were troubling. Still, Bruce was young, so strike zone judgment problems were acceptable.
2009 was quite the downer for Bruce. His overall line of .223/.303/.470 was very poor, and he missed 57 games between July and September with a hand fracture. Still, there was a lot to like about Bruce's year—and the poor overall line sets him up to be quite the value pick for the 2010 draft.
First off, don't take his overall line at face value. Sure, he had an awful 13.0 percent line drive rate, but a .222 BABIP is just too low for a hitter of Bruce's caliber to sustain. This, alone, is the primary factor in Bruce's poor line. We'll assume, for argument's sake, that Bruce posted a .300 BABIP. With this improvement, his batting average would rise to the high .270s. With Bruce's hitting ability, his .298 BABIP in 2008, and post-injury conclusion to the season, we have reason to believe that Bruce can turn his woes around in this department. Still, when assessing his prospects for 2010, err on the side of caution when assessing his 2010 BABIP.
There is more to like besides just his BABIP, however. Bruce made some big strides with his plate discipline this past season. He became a more patient hitter, dropping both his O-Swing percentage (30.4 percent O-Swing in 2008, versus 26.0 percent in 2009) and his swing percentage (51.2 percent in 2008, versus 48.0 percent in 2009). This means that Bruce was becoming more selective at the plate, a great indicator for any hitter, especially one with as much power potential as Bruce. In addition, his contact percentage made a nice improvement, rising from very poor in 2008 (71.6 percent) to adequate in 2009 (75.9 percent). Further, pitchers gave even more respect to Bruce's power in 2009, dropping the percent of pitches thrown to Bruce in the zone to a lowly 45.7 percent.
All told, these were very encouraging developments for Bruce. With improved selectivity, he should be able to translate the better offerings into more power, while adding walks. Even though he showed good improvements in his walk rate in 2009, at 9.9 percent, his plate discipline statistics are more indicative of a walk rate around 12 percent. However, his K-rate may take a rise as well, as his rates suggest a strikeout rate around 23 percent. The plate discipline hurdle is a major one for any hitter with a middling sense of the strike zone, so these improvements are very important to Bruce's development.
Bruce's 2009 was very much a tale of two seasons—his putrid pre-injury and excellent post-injury performances. While an injury is never a good thing for an athlete, especially a wrist fracture to a power hitter, the mishap could have actually saved Bruce's season. Hitting a paltry .207/.283/.441 line before the all-star break, he finished the season on a very positive note, hitting .326/.426/.652 in 54 plate appearances, including four homers, eight walks, and 12 strikeouts. In addition, his BABIP recovered, sitting at a cool .366 through the end of the year. Sure, the small sample size is unfortunate, but the success is a great sign for Bruce next season.
Overall, the young Bruce is quite the prospect, both for real life and fantasy. He has great power, demonstrated by his 22 home runs in 345 at-bats and career 18.3 percent HR/FB rate. He hit more fly balls in 2009, 48.5 percent, which, for a power hitter, is a huge positive. And, he is improving in almost every phase of his game. However, his lefty-righty splits still bear watching, as he hit 20 homers in 245 at-bats against righties, with just two shots in 100 at-bats against lefties. His 2010 performance will be interesting in his future outlook, though he is still young enough to find success against southpaws.
While at first glance, Jay Bruce's 2009 season seems like a step back in his development, he actually made a number of significant improvements that will progress his career. He improved quite significantly in his strike zone judgment and selectivity, while also improving his fly ball tendencies. While wrist issues are always problematic for a hitter, he seems to have put these concerns to rest with a strong September. For 2010, expect a very different Jay Bruce, one who finally lives up to his No. 1 prospect billing. A .275-.285 average with 30 home runs doesn't seem out of the question. If he is able to maintain his plate discipline gains, he could post an OPS in the .900s as well, with the high .900s a possibility and 1.000—while a reach—not out of the question. After such a poor 2009, he should go significantly lower than where his true value lies, so don't be afraid to draft him earlier than his big board listing. For next year, watch his contact rate and O-swing percentage, as well as his line drive rate—as they go, so do Bruce. In the end, he looks to be a very good outfielder in 12-team mixed leagues, with an outside chance at stardom. Especially if you're in a keeper league, don't miss out on his 2010 season.
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Posted by Mike Silver at 5:34am
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