Jay Bruce is off to a great start at the plate this season. Is it just another of Jay’s patented hot streaks to be followed by the inevitable cold streak? Or has Bruce truly made some adjustments that will enable him to finally have that consistent, MVP-caliber season we have been hoping for (or expecting) ever since he was the consensus #1 overall prospect in all of baseball in 2008? Let’s take a look under the hood for clues…

Jay has had only 36 plate appearances so far this year. That is a ridiculously small sample size from which to draw any meaningful conclusions but who cares? We are doing this for fun not for science. We can track these metrics throughout the season to see how he is doing.

AVG OBP SLG OPS wRC+
2016 0.333 0.361 0.606 0.967 145
Career 0.248 0.319 0.463 0.782 107

Jay’s numbers look great after the first 9 games. All of his rate stats are well above his career norms. This much is obvious. We will have to dig a little deeper to see what is causing his success and find out if it is sustainable.

Soft% Med% Hard%
2016 12.5 54.2 33.3
Career 14.1 51.6 33.3

Bruce has always hit the ball hard. This year is no exception. This good Hard Hit rate is perfectly normal for him. His Soft Hit rate is slightly better. This chart doesn’t really help us determine why his numbers have been better than usual though.

Pull% Center% Oppo%
2016 29.2 45.8 25.0
Career 45.1 32.0 22.8

This chart is interesting. We can see that Jay’s pull rate has dropped significantly. He is hitting the ball to the opposite (left field) side a little bit more than normal. He has been hitting the ball up the middle almost half the time he makes contact. That is a major change from his normal spray chart. It is still very early in the season to be certain, but it appears that Jay has made some changes to his stroke that have manifested themselves in his results. If this continues we should see opposing teams discontinue the extreme defensive shifting they have employed against Bruce in recent seasons.

Line
Drive %
Ground
Ball %
Fly
Ball %
2016 30.4 34.8 34.8
Career 19.6 38.4 42.0

This chart is nice to see. Bruce’s line drive rate is spectacular this year, nearly doubling his career average. He is squaring the ball up and drilling it up the middle for base hits. Two years ago in 2014 when Jay was playing with a knee injury his ground ball rate was 45% because he had no leverage in his swing. Last year his ground ball rate returned to normal and his fly ball rate spiked to 44.2%. He has cut that down by 10 percentage points so far this year. The combined effect is a massive increase in line drives. That is a good thing, because throughout baseball in recent seasons hitters have put up a batting average of  .724 on line drives. This is great news for Bruce this year if he can maintain a similar batted ball profile throughout the season.

BABIP
2015 0.251
2016 0.360
Career 0.287

This could provide a word of caution at first glance, but it really shouldn’t. Batting Average on Balls In Play can give us a clue about whether a hitter has gotten lucky with fluke hits on poorly struck balls dropping between fielders. Jay’s career BABIP of .287 is a bit below the league average of .295 but part of that is because he has always been a fly ball hitter. Fly balls only fall in for hits about 13.8% of the time (.138 batting average). Ground balls become base hits 23.7% of the time. So a player like Bruce who hits more fly balls than ground balls is likely to have a BABIP slightly below average, as Bruce does for his career.

You will notice that Bruce’s .251 BABIP last year was extremely low. It turns out he was very unlucky last year. His xBABIP, or Expected BABIP as calculated by multiplying his batted ball profile by their normal batting averages ((GB% * .237)+(FB% * .138)+(LD% * .724)) shows his BABIP last year should have been .284 given normal luck. This means Bruce actually hit better than his .226/.294/.434 slash line and 91 wRC+ indicated. It does not mean he hit like a star, but more like a league average hitter than the 9% below average hitter his 91 wRC+ indicates.

This year his xBABIP is .351, which closely matches the .360 we see in the chart. So we should not say Bruce’s hot start is the result of mere good luck caused by fluke hits on weakly-hit balls in play. His BABIP is high this year because it should be high due to his excellent line drive rate. His career xBABIP is .291, which again is very close to the .287 career BABIP in the chart.

Bruce is not likely to continue to hit line drives 30% of the time. League average is 20%. Joey Votto’s career LD% is 25.3%. It would be unrealistic to think that Jay Bruce is going to keep hitting more line drives than Joey Votto does. Brandon Belt of the Giants led the majors last year with a 28.7% line drive rate. So we can safely say that Jay Bruce is not going to maintain his current 30.4% line drive rate over the course of the full season. But there is a good chance that Bruce will be able to maintain a good chunk of his improvement. This transformation might be real.

Conclusion

Jay Bruce is off to a legitimately hot start at the plate. It is not a fluke. He has been hitting the ball squarely in the middle, resulting in a high rate of line drives to center field. He isn’t hitting the ball hard any more often than he always has, but he is hitting it squarely rather than pounding it into the ground or hitting it high in the air. This bodes well for his stat line this season. It is still a small sample size of plate appearances, but we are rapidly approaching the time when a hitter’s batted ball profile begins to stabilize. If Bruce continues to hit the ball in similar fashion we can comfortably say that the change in profile is due to some adjustments he has made to his swing or his approach that have manifested themselves rather than random variation (luck). I think this is a positive sign that this might not be just another brief hot streak, but rather a sustainable performance improvement.

If it is a real improvement it will not only help the Reds win more games this year, it will also make Jay Bruce into a much more valuable trade commodity than we thought over the winter.

 

Nick Doran writes for The Dynasty Guru, Fake Teams, Redleg Nation and Blazing Fastball and can be found on Twitter @BlazingFastba11.

Join the conversation! 15 Comments

  1. Hey Nick. Great article. I’d love to see a follow up in a few more weeks/months to see if some of these things change.

    One additional thing I noticed about Bruce was that his BB%, for this season at least, has dropped significantly compared to previous seasons and his career average. That could be a small sample size issue AND the fact that he’s just getting a lot more hits than normal. But it might be something to keep an eye on in conjunction with the kinds of pitches he’s seeing. With not much protection behind him in the order, he might get a lot more junk thrown at him as the season continues, which could increase both his BB% and OBP.

    He’s hot. That’s for sure. It’s a nice thing to see, though, even if he’s a Blue Jay or a Ranger or whatever by mid-season.

    Also…You said, “We are doing this for fun not for science.” You should put that on a t-shirt or something.

  2. Good stuff, Nick.

    Most interesting, I think, are his last two hits to left field. They came on swings which looked like a brand new weapon in Jay’s arsenal. He’s hit to the opposite field before, but never has his swing looked tailored to do so. Perhaps he’s adapted his 2-strike approach.

    Time will tell!

    Also, using a different xBABIP formula which takes into account speed (FG Spd), Opp%, Hard%, LD%, FB%, and IFFB%, Bruce’s xBABIP right now is .367. He’s got an ideal batted ball profile at the moment, basically.

  3. Bruce OPS is .967 while BPs is .721? Votto, Suarez, Bruce 2-3-4 vs righties and Votto, Suarez, Duvall vs lefties 2-3-4. BP might grumble but he’d live! Bruce is only 29….hope we keep him. I don’t know if this new approach will stick but by todays standards he’s a pretty good bargain even if he approaches warning tracks on the road like I approach my ex-wife’s house

    • And you could lead off BP… Yeah, I’ve been beating that drum a while now but it works. He’s not an awful option (not great either) and hitting him leadoff is not a step down as far as lineup prestige in comparison to say, a drop to the 6th or 7th spot.

      • My guess is they’re going back to Cozart for leadoff but I would use Schebler vs righties. He takes some walks and has some pop if someone is on from the bottom of the order. BP or Cozart leading off vs lefties would make the most sense or they could just roll w/Hamilton again? Getting picked off is unacceptable but he did have a HR and several walks in Chicago.

  4. My guess is that Bruce will either 1) continue hitting the other way and finish with low power but solid overall numbers OR 2) revert to pulling off the ball and hit 26 HR with a terrible average. Lets see!!

    • Watching some but not all of his ABs the difference I see is he does not try to pull the balls outside and low. he is perfectly willing to slash them to left. He doesn’t at all look like Jay Bruce, so I expect that pitchers will start pitching him inside. Then he will likely hit a few for HR. Does he revert to pulling everything or learn to modify his approach based on how he is pitched???

    • I don’t know? He hit a ball about 2/3 the way up in RF in that Phillies finale. Time will tell but its encouraging

      • Agree… To see him hitting the other way and the way he turned on that inside pitch was nice to see. Let’s hope he keeps it up. Obviously, he’ll come back to earth but hopefully the prolonged slumps can be avoided this year.

  5. Great article I love when one of these bright young men put the numbers out that agrees with my “eye test”. His entire approach at the plate looks better to me but I really like his adjustments when he is behind in the count. Him taking the ball back through the middle or as he has shown hitting the other way could make him a 285 hitter with 24 HR’s as opposed to a 226 hitter with 27 HR’s. He has pop and he plays at GABP he will get his HR, I want that consistent hitter that will hit line drive doubles the other way. I know this is a small sample and he may revert if he gets to where he isn’t having success but for me it looks like a better approach.

  6. I have noticed a slight adjustment in Bruce’s swing. Maybe this will sustain. Maybe he is trying Votto’s swing where he holds the bat from releasing. In golf this it is an anti-hook move.

  7. I am willing to bet just a brief hot streak for Bruce. If it is different, then we need to see more consistency this year from Bruce. And…that is not his habit to be consistent, so we will have to see….

  8. Just by the looks of it, and my memory without any stats, it seems like when Bruce was on previous hot streaks he was still pulling everything, he was just hitting more of them hard, long and often far. This streak, brief though it may be, looks very different. As others have said his swing looks more like Votto’s than Bruce’s.

    It really looks to me like a lot of the Reds’ players are going to the plate this season with more of a plan than in previous seasons, and a greater willingness to take pitches and walk if they don’t get one they can handle. Again just observation, not using any numbers. And there is at least one exception to this. . . Brandon Phillips.

    • BP drew a walk today though….and 2 doubles I believe? Bruce does look awesome though….game winning RBI although officially they got rid of that stat for some reason?

  9. I wouldn’t necessarily call it a break out season yet. To me, it does look like Hoover has tweeked his swing. It doesn’t look nearly as long. It looks like he’s holding his hands a bit lower. It looks he’s even trying to push the ball to left field some. It looks like he’s finally realized that he doesn’t have to have the big long swing to be able to hit the ball hard enough for a HR, either.

    I like what I see from him so far. But, I want to see it the entire season. Or, at least until we can trade him. For, that’s really the only value he has for us right now. For, if he does come up with a good season, we couldn’t afford to keep him, can we?

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