Young players in baseball are always expected to improve. If a player falters from year one to year two, then the phenomenon is labeled a “sophomore slump” rather than what it likely is; a regression towards the player’s true talent level. For an example of what people think of as the textbook definition of a young player improving, take a certain member of the Reds. This is Jay Bruce’s third big league season. He improved from year one to year two and has since improved even more from year two to year three. At age 23, he seems to be on the right track towards projected stardom.
The most glaring improvement for Bruce is his offense. His wOBA in 2008 was .328 and in 2009 he raised that by a single point. In 2010, though, he’s up to .338. In large part because of a BABIP that sits .102 points higher than last season. Think about that for a moment: 10.2% more of Bruce’s balls in play are turning into hits. What a silly thought and reality.
Bruce appears to be a good fielder too. Perhaps the most surprising aspect of his game is on the basepaths. No, he’s not much of a basestealer. In 2006 he stole 19 bases in 117 games. Since then, he’s stolen 30 in nearly 500 games spanning multiple levels. That’s not the surprising part. Instead it’s Bruce’s ability to take the extra base. Baseball-Reference tracks this measure and the definition of what constitutes and extra base is pretty simple: it’s any advancement where the lead runner isn’t forced by the player behind him. Say Bruce is on first base when a single is hit into right field, if Bruce takes second and third during the run of play, he’s credited with an extra base taken.
Take the speediest runners; guys like Carl Crawford (47%), B.J. Upton (53%), and Ichiro Suzuki (42%) and they don’t compare to Bruce’s season. Take the most heads-up baserunners; like Scott Rolen (51%), J.D. Drew (46%), and even Pete Rose (49%) and they don’t compare. That’s because Bruce is taking the extra base 70% of the time this season. Incredulously Bruce only ranks fourth in the majors of players with at least 150 plate appearances to date behind Cameron Maybin, Seth Smith, and Alexis Rios (and just ahead of Chase Utley).
Baseball Prospectus keeps track of similar numbers and offers a run value of 2.1 (eighth best in the bigs) on Bruce’s hit advancement plays. All told, Bruce’s baserunning is valued at a little under a run because of a huge penalty in other areas of advancing; such as running after a ball is caught by an outfielder or scoring from third on a sac fly attempt. Given his ability advance otherwise I checked the rest of the Reds’ numbers to see if this might be a team-wide philosophy (i.e. don’t risk getting doubled up on one play) but that doesn’t seem to be the case.
So Bruce is good when it comes to taking an extra base on hits, but awful when it comes to taking a base on outs. Unless he has no confidence in his ability to accelerate (which makes no sense given his other numbers) or he’s getting a heavier than expected distribution of easy-to-advance on hits I really can’t think of an explanation.
What have the Reds fans in the crowd noticed?