As a 23-year-old with a wide array of skills, Cincinnati Reds right fielder Jay Bruce is one of the most valuable long-term talents in the game. The twelfth overall pick in the 2005 draft reached the majors by the age of 21, raking to the tune of .308/.366/.551 on the farm and ranking as the best prospect in the game by Baseball America prior to 2008.
Bruce has done a number of things well at the big league level. His swift outfield defense (+8.6 career UZR/150 in RF) belies his 6-foot-3, 225 pound frame. Also, his plate discipline has improved since his rookie season. And at times, Bruce’s feats of strength give credence to the 70 power grade that Baseball America gave him in its 2008 Prospect Handbook. But at the plate, Bruce has yet to put it all together and bust out as a true offensive force.
In 2008, the lefty batter produced a 96 wRC+ in 452 plate appearances. Bruce’s plate approach was understandably raw, as his outside swing percentage was about 20 percent higher than the MLB average (Bruce’s 30.4 percent O-Swing, divided by the 25.4% average). The lack of plate discipline led to a tepid 7.3% walk rate. Still, a .199 Isolated Power from a guy who would be age-appropriate for High-A ball was extremely impressive.
Last year, Bruce refined his strike zone discipline. His O-Swing was four percent above the big league average (26.1% O-Swing, 25.1% average), and his rate of free passes taken climbed to 9.8%. The Boss hit for even greater power, posting a .246 ISO. But Bruce’s BABIP nosedived from .296 during his rookie year to .221. Even if you were to take his 13% line drive rate at face value, his expected BABIP (xBABIP) was .294. Bruce’s wRC+ (97 in 387 PA) barely budged, but it was hard to view his ’09 season as anything other than a big step forward.
Given Bruce’s age, elite minor league track record and promising secondary skills in the majors, he entered 2010 as a good candidate to start thrashing opposing pitchers. ZiPS was more reserved, predicting modest improvement (105 wRC+). CHONE, however, was firmly on the bandwagon with a 135 wRC+ projection. Bruce’s BABIP has bounced back and then some this year (.323), to the point where it actually exceeds his .301 xBABIP. Even so, his bat is once again three percent below average (97 wRC+ in 461 PA). What’s going on here?
He’s still working the count decently, with an O-Swing just once percent higher than the MLB average (29.5 O-Swing, 29% average) and a 9.3% walk rate. But while Bruce is getting more hits on balls put in play, he’s not doing as much damage on those hits:
Jay’s ISO is down to .155, just a bit higher than the .146 major league average this season.
Bruce’s performance to the pull field hasn’t suffered, with a spike in BABIP compensating for fewer extra-base hits:
But he remains below-average on balls hit to the middle field…
…and his excellent opposite-field hitting in ’08 and ’09 is absent in 2010:
Bruce’s spray numbers haven’t shifted much — he has hit to the opposite field about a quarter of the time, center about 30 percent and the pull side 45 percent. According to our pitch type values, fastballs and sliders have given him an especially hard time.
While this post might seem to take on a negative tone, I still think there’s plenty of reason to expect Jay Bruce to emerge as a star-level player in the near future. He saves runs with his glove, doesn’t hack and has a history of hitting with authority. ZiPS projects a .199 ISO for the rest of the year.
Bruce hasn’t become an offensive beast — yet. But if he continues to lay off junk pitches and taps into his power potential, watch out.
Edit: As Jason461 pointed out, Bruce fractured his right wrist last July. I was reluctant to ascribe the decrease in power to the injury, but I suppose it’s possible that it’s a factor. What do you guys think?