Few young sluggers entered the 2009 season with more fanfare than Cincinnati’s Jay Bruce. The sweet-swinging lefty terrorized minor league pitchers, batting .308/.366/.551 on the farm and reaching the big leagues by age 21.
While understandably rough around the edges, Bruce displayed enormous potential in 2008. He popped 21 homers in 413 AB, with a .199 ISO. While most players his age were trying to crack AA, The Boss was nearly a league-average hitter at the highest level (.328 wOBA).
A quick glance at Bruce’s 2009 numbers leaves fantasy owners feeling a little underwhelmed. After all, Jay batted .223, with his wOBA basically unchanged (.329). He rolled his wrist attempting to make a diving catch in July, suffering a fracture that sidelined him until September.
In all, 2009 would appear to be a lost year for the highly-touted right fielder. However, Bruce actually made a good deal of progress at the plate. Here are several reasons to believe in The Boss heading into 2010:
Age and minor league track record
Bruce, who won’t turn 23 until April, has always been young relative to the levels at which he has played. While he wasn’t the most patient batter in the minors (he walked in 8.4% of his PA), Bruce bashed to the tune of a .243 ISO.
He showed no problems with pitchers of either hand, drubbing lefties for a .290/.352/.522 triple-slash and roping righties for a .318/.376/.574 line. Bruce hasn’t hit southpaws in the major leagues, but 230-some AB by a 21-22 year-old can’t exactly be considered conclusive.
Improved plate discipline
Bruce walked in 7.4% of his PA in 2008, but he improved that mark to 9.9% in 2009. His Outside-Swing Percentage dropped from 30.4% in ’08 to 26% this past season (right around the MLB average). That’s a happy development, considering that opposing pitchers gave Jay fewer offerings over the plate. They tossed him a pitch within the strike zone just 45.7% of the time in 2009 (48.3% in 2008; the MLB average is 49-50%). Bruce saw four pitches per PA in ’09, up from 3.8 P/PA in 2008.
Improved contact rate
The Boss but the bat on the ball 81.3% of the time on pitches within the strike zone in 2008, but bumped that number up to 86.6% in 2009 (88% MLB average). That helped Bruce lower his strikeout rate from 26.6% in ’08 to 21.7% in ’09.
Increased power production
Bruce’s ISO climbed from the aforementioned .199 in 2008 to .246 this past year. He clubbed 22 big flies in 345 AB (15.7 AB/HR), topping 2008’s 19.7 AB/HR pace.
Cincy’s franchise player had a .373 BABIP in the minor leagues, and a .298 major league mark in 2008. In 2009, his BABIP dropped off a cliff (.222). That was the lowest BABIP among batters taking 350+ trips to the plate.
Bruce’s line drive rate was extremely low at 13%, but I’m inclined to believe some of that was due to official scorer’s bias. Line drives don’t “exist” the way that some other events on the diamond do. Someone has to make a subjective judgment, saying, “I think that ball was a liner” or “I think that was a fly ball.”
Bruce had a liner rate exceeding 21% in 2008. This year, he had the second-lowest LD% among hitters with 350+PA. Given the authority with which he hit the ball overall, the low liner rate doesn’t appear to be much of a concern. Expect that BABIP to climb significantly in 2010.
Jay Bruce has all the ingredients to be a superstar. In a “disappointing” year, he showed top-shelf power, improved strike-zone discipline and better contact ability. Fantasy owners aren’t going to get another chance to acquire The Boss with anything less than a premium draft pick. If at all possible, nab Bruce now, before he becomes a perennial first-rounder.