In the spring of 2008, a top-rated, hot-shot minor league prospect was called up and set the baseball world on fire. In his first eight games of his big league career, he sported a slash line (batting average/on-base/slugging percentages) of .552/.649/.966. That prodigious player in question was none other than Jay Bruce.
Way back in 2008, I was writing for a short-lived project called The Ultimate Fantasy Site. As the name would suggest, it was supposed to be an ambitious enterprise, but it fizzled out by the end of July of that year. But not before I chronicled the hysteria that Bruce brought to the fantasy baseball world that season.
Basically, he was heralded as the next Ryan Braun and I witnessed the off-the-wall trade offers that were proposed and made by owners, regardless of league type and size, just so they can possess the next big thing in baseball. It was simply maddening.
So far in his career, Jay Bruce, for obvious reasons, failed to keep pace with his torrid start in his rookie season. And one can even argue that he never lived up to his lofty expectations. But one thing that owners in fantasy baseball circles have learned about Bruce is that he has been a highly dependable source of power. He’s hit more than 20 home runs, in every season since his rookie year of 2008. In the past three seasons, Bruce was a guy people could automatically mark down for 30+ home runs and 90+ RBI. That was the profile on Bruce entering the 2014 campaign.
SEASON IN THE ABYSS
After his 2014 season came to a merciful end, Bruce failed to hit more than 20 home runs for the first time in his career, had a career low slash line of .217/.281/.373, Weighted On Base Average (wOBA–basically, not all hits are created equal), and Isolated Power (ISO–a stat that measures power).
In summation, the stock of candles went up because Bruce failed to generate power this past season.
Now that we have dropped the mandatory, energy joke on this piece, we are left asking one question: what the heck happened? For starters, let’s look at his walk and strikeout figures.
WALKS AND STRIKEOUTS
Among hitters with a minimum of 450 plate appearances (a total of 171 hitters), Bruce finished tied for 68th in Walk Percentage (BB%) at 8.1 percent, matching guys like Nelson Cruz, Yunel Escobar, and Evan Longoria. That’s not a bad list to be mentioned with.
Disastrously, Bruce posted a Strikeout Percentage (K%) of 27.3 percent, finishing 11th overall last year and posting a career high in that category. The closest player that matched those percentages last season was Matt Kemp, but even Kemp was able to “cut down” on his strikeouts last season, finishing with a K% of 24.2 percent (down from 26.2 percent in 2013). A better comparison to Bruce’s 2014 BB% and K% would be the 2013 version of Mark Trumbo.
So there you have it. Bruce has a problem with strikeouts–duh! But in this case, it’s too easy to solely blame it on strikeouts in this matter. Let’s face it; everybody is striking out at a high rate in this new era of baseball. There has to be something more to Bruce’s struggles in 2014.
Bruce has been a fly ball hitter throughout most of his career. Playing in a hitter’s paradise in Cincinnati, it would almost be a crime for Bruce not to be this type of hitter. So it’s no surprise that Bruce has a Batting Average on Balls in Play (or BABIP, a stat that measures how often a ball in play goes for a hit) of .293. We understand that Bruce’s job is to not hit for average, but for power.
Interestingly enough, Bruce finished his 2013 campaign sporting a Fly Ball Rate (FB%) of less than 40 percent for the first time since his 2008, rookie season. Matter of fact, Bruce also posted a career high, Line Drive Rate (LD%) of 23.9 percent. Basically, Bruce was causing plenty of variance, helping him post a BABIP of .322.
As we saw in our profile of J.D. Martinez, variance can be a wonderful thing. For Bruce, his high degree of variance in 2013 helped him hit 30 home runs, set a career high in doubles with 43, and eclipse the 100 RBI mark for the first time in his career.
Unfortunately for Bruce, the new approach to his game went missing in 2014 as the variance disappeared, resulting in a BABIP of .269. His LD% decreased to 20.7 percent, but more alarming, his Ground Ball Rate (GB%) increased to 45.2 percent, setting a career high in that category. While his GB% increased, his FB% rate decreased down to new levels; Bruce set a career low in this category with a 34.0 percent FB%.
Bruce hit 18 home runs last season, a career low. The drop in FB% could be the reason for the lack of power. Nevertheless, the drop in fly balls does not tell the whole story. Matching Bruce’s batted ball tendencies is Hanley Ramirez.
Ramirez posted a BABIP of .323 and that’s despite the fact that Ramirez popped up more than Bruce did. Ramirez went on to post a slash line of .283/.369/.448. Then again, Ramirez had a much better Walk:Strikeout (BB:K) than Bruce (0.67 vs 0.30).
So the strikeouts are a problem along with a shift in batted ball distribution, from fly balls to more grounders. But another thing that should still bother you about Bruce is this extreme shift in his game. As you would have noticed, we talked a lot about Bruce setting career lows and highs in certain stats so far.
For most of his career, Bruce has been a pretty aggressive hitter, explaining the high K% he has posted, heretofore. However, to Bruce’s credit, he made great strides in not swinging at so many pitches last season. His Swing Percentage inside the Strike Zone was a career low for him, while his overall Swing Percentage fell below his career mark.
But the one figure that pops out is his Swing Percentage Outside the Strike Zone, where he set a career high in that number. So we saw an aggressive hitter chase outside pitches at a higher rate. Here’s a list of players with similar Swing Tendencies in 2014:
Why is Bruce swinging at more pitches outside the strike zone?
Of 171 hitters that qualified in this exercise, only one hitter finished ahead of Bruce in this glaring category: Percent of Pitches Seen Inside the Strike Zone (or Zone% for short). Bruce saw a career low of pitches inside the strike zone last season. Just for giggles, let’s take a quick look at other hitters, of the past five seasons, that have finished with the second lowest Zone%:
|Low Zone% Runners Up
For the record, the hitter who has posted the lowest Zone% in four of the last five seasons has been Pablo Sandoval. Whether pitchers are afraid to pitch to him or take advantage at his overly aggressive approach at the plate, Sandoval has the ability to adjust and can hit with a high contact rate. On the other hand, Jay Bruce simply does not possess that ability.
Bruce finished with an overall Contact Rate of 71.6 percent, matching his rate as a rookie in 2008 and seeing a consistent dip in this stat since 2011. Since we now know that Bruce will more than likely not be seeing a lot of pitches in the strike zone, we need to know if Bruce can adjust to this strategy employed by opposing teams. The answer is not very promising. In 2014, Bruce posted the 19th lowest Contact Rate Outside the Strike Zone (56.3 percent). Matter of fact, his career high in this category is 57 percent.
Not all is lost, however, as it is possible to still be a very productive, power hitter with low Contact Rates. Giancarlo Stanton posted worse Contact Rates than Bruce and was able to have a monstrous season. The difference between the two is that Stanton showed a lot more patience at the plate last season. Asking an aggressive hitter like Bruce to cut back even more on his swings might be asking too much of him.
For the record, Bruce’s Contact Rates closely matches up with outfielders Brandon Moss, J.D. Martinez, and Marlon Byrd. Those guys are good sources of power, but they don’t have the pedigree that Bruce posseses. He’s supposed to be up there with the Kemps, Cruzes, and Longorias. No offense to Moss and Martinez, but more is expected from Jay Bruce.
The good news is that Bruce cannot post more depressing numbers than he has posted in 2014. Steamer projections at fangraphs.com have Bruce’s power returning to elite levels, making him a solid, bounce-back candidate, though batting average and on-base percentage will suffer again.
How well he will do in 2015 will depend on how he adjusts to opposing pitchers who will continue to refuse to pitch within the strike zone. Based on what we know about Bruce as a hitter, though he certainly has the ability to do so, depending on Bruce to provide consistent power to your lineup might be a risky proposition.