Disclaimer: All stats current as of Saturday, May 13th. I will be out of town and won’t be able to update the stats. If Bruce has two really good or really bad games, the numbers may change substantially this early in the season.
Jay Bruce struggled through his worst season as a healthy baseball player in 2015. While he clubbed 26 homeruns, his OBP fell short of .300 for the second consecutive hear and his OPS of .729 was far below his career norm. He finished with a 91 wRC+, the lowest runs created score of his career besides his injury-plagued 2014 campaign.
But, on July 31, 2015, the Reds almost struck a deal with the New York Mets to send Jay Bruce to New York in exchange for Zack Wheeler, a highly touted pitching prospect. Wheeler had just undergone Tommy John surgery in the spring but had averaged almost 95 MPH on his fastball and struck out 23.6% of batters during the 2014 season. That’s a top 20 strikeout rate in all of baseball from a 23 year old.
So, why did the Mets almost trade away a potential stud starting pitcher for the 2015 version of Jay Bruce? Because for two and a half months before and up to the trade deadline, he had the best stretch of his career.
From May 16 until July 31st, Bruce hit .305/.376/.562 with 12 homeruns and a 150 wRC+. He was essentially a top five hitter in the National League for that period of time, striking out well below his career mark and walking over 10% of the time.
It appeared Bruce had turned a corner. He had never sustained that kind of success for so long, and the Mets clearly took notice. When the deal didn’t go through, I breathed a sigh of relief, hoping that Bruce would continue his strong play.
And then it happened. He went into a terrible slump from August 1st onward. His 45 wRC+ was worse than Billy Hamilton’s over the final two months, and his slash line of .178/.219/.357 is on par with some pitchers.
Thus, Bruce’s trade value plummeted. The Reds tried to deal him in the offseason and even had a three-way trade with the Toronto Blue Jays and Los Angeles Angels fall through at the last moment. Much to the surprise of many, Bruce began the year with the Reds.
The Reds likely still want to trade their former All Star as they’ve stated their plan is to trade veterans for younger, cheaper talent. They undoubtedly hope that Bruce can play like the guy who averaged 3.7 WAR and 119 wRC+ from 2010-2013 in order to increase his trade value. Now that we are about six weeks into the season, we can begin to evaluate whether Bruce has moved the needle or not.
So far, he is hitting .237 with a .285 OBP. His power numbers, though, are actually pretty good. Not only is he slugging 20 points higher than his career mark, his isolated power of .246 is off the charts good. If you are unfamiliar with ISO, you simply subtract a player’s batting average from their slugging percentage to isolate how often they get extra-base hits. Check out Patrick’s post from last week for more fun numbers.
All of this means that Bruce has been woefully inept at getting on base, but when he does make contact, he does some serious damage. In fact, he currently has more extra-base hits (14) than singles (13). Let’s start with the on base problems and move to the power. Here’s a table that compares Bruce from his best years to his performance this season.
What’s interesting is that he is swinging and missing less than he has in the past. He also swings slightly less at pitches out of the zone. That should translate to more walks and fewer strikeouts, but it isn’t. Bruce has always struck out a lot, but when he was at his best, he also walked quite a bit. During his best years, he walked almost 10% of the time while striking out close to 25%. Currently, his K% is elevated a little (26%) in spite of an improved contact rate. Unfortunately his BB% has taken a massive drop to 4.9%. That’s poor by any measure. Players need a high batting average to overcome a poor walk rate like that, and Bruce is not a high average guy.
The other problem with Bruce getting on base is his batting average on balls in play (BABIP). At his best, he was slightly above average. The last few years, his BABIP has dropped significantly. That could have something to do with teams shifting, but as we will see below, Bruce has hit a much higher percentage of line drives this year than years past. We would expect that to lead to more hits.
Maybe these numbers stabilize over the next few weeks. It only takes a few walks and a few extra hits to change things, but until now, Bruce has struggled mightily to get on base.
The power numbers are more encouraging.
When Bruce puts the ball in play, he tends to hit it hard. His line drive percentage has shot up to 28%, much better than his best years. His OPS is down almost entirely because his on-base skills have seemingly declined. The power is the same, and Bruce rarely hits the ball softly. That 11.5% Soft% is the 17 best rate out of 189 qualified players.
What does all of this mean for his trade value? Probably not much yet. His power remains attractive, but he makes too many outs for a team to give up quality prospects to get him in return. If I were another team, I would want to wait to see if Bruce’s improving swing and miss and contact rates eventually lead to him getting on base more.
From these numbers, I would expect Bruce to catch fire soon. He can’t continue to hit the ball that hard and make that many outs. The walks will likely increase as well. Will that lead to a contender pulling the trigger on a 29 year old former All Star? Time will tell.
Update: After I wrote that Bruce was having trouble getting on base, he played two games and reached base seven times, vastly improving his numbers. Of course he did because I didn’t have time to update the numbers. Teams will still likely need time to see if the underlying numbers translate to solid production, but his overall numbers are now around his career norms.