Jay Bruce Tries to Improve Q-Rating in Queens

Jay Bruce is not going to win any popularity contests in New York’s largest borough when the season opens next month.

Through no fault of his own, the Mets exercised his $13 million option this winter, ostensibly as insurance in case Yoenis Cespedes fled elsewhere. With the return of Cespedes, though, Bruce is now regarded primarily as an impediment to promising young outfielder Michael Conforto’s ability to receive more playing time. This is not a post arguing that Confroto shouldn’t be the recipient of more playing time. I would like to see a full season from Conforto, too. This is a post about Bruce independent of playing-time issues in New York.

This is a post, in part, about a player using batted-ball data to rethink his ideas about lifting the ball, a subject we’ve detailed exhaustively at FanGraphs this offseason and spring. This is also a post about a player who’s running out of time to live up to his lofty prospect pedigree. While Bruce’s 111 wRC+ last season and 107 mark for his career continues to render him employable, his declining defense has him pushed him near replacement-level the last two seasons, when he has combined for one unit of WAR. This is a player who must get more out of his bat to secure another lucrative contract, and to secure steady playing time.

But what’s a little different about this story is that Bruce already hits more fly balls than ground balls. This is a fly-ball hitter who wants to become an extreme fly-ball hitter, as James Wagner details in a recent, excellent New York Times feature.

Wagner reports that Bruce is one of the more open-minded Mets when it comes to embracing and exploring data. And Bruce has used the data to arrive at some conclusions: he really would benefit from never hitting a ground ball again, and while he was never taught to try and pull balls with power — like most every hitter — that’s where and when he is most efficient. Working in his favor is that the Mets appear to be one of the more effective teams in getting hitters to produce more fly balls.

Some Bruce quotes from the NYT piece:

“If I didn’t hit a ground ball all year, I’d be in good shape. … Why wouldn’t I work on pulling the ball in the air with efficiency?”

“There’s absolutely nothing for you on the ground to the pull side. That’s just death to the baseball. So what balls am I hitting there?” …

The following graph depicts those balls — the location of pitches, in 2016, that he rolled over and pounded into the ground:

Last season, Bruce produced the 24th-lowest batting average on ground balls (.208) and the 23rd-lowest wRC+ on ground balls posting an 8. Eight!

Since 2013, Bruce has the 19th-worst batting average on ground balls in the game (.213), and a wRC+ of 14, tied for 19th lowest.

Part of this is because he’s faced more shifts than almost every other hitter in the game, inducing the sixth-highest total of them last season. Like every major-league hitter — every single one — Bruce hits most of his ground balls to the pull side, recorded 62.6% of his ground balls to the right part of the infield last season (which ranked 53rd in the game) and just 9.1% of his grounders to the opposite side. For instance, last season Adam Eaton hit the highest percentage of ground balls to the opposite field (29.5%) among hitters who produced at least 100 ground balls. And only 15 players hit 20% or more of their ground balls to the opposite field.

Of course, Bruce’s strength is also on the pull side — when he gets the ball in the air, that is. Since 2010, Bruce has homered on 40.9% of fly balls hit to his pull side, which is tied for the 24th in the sport.

So Bruce knows he needs to pull the ball. There’s no sense in trying to beat shifts to the opposite field, as most ground balls are pulled by every type of hitter. It’s the nature of swing planes and batted balls.

So Bruce, in 2017, will try and put more batted balls in the air and into he right-field seats and bullpen at Citi Field.

Bruce produced above-average launch angles of 14.2% in 2015 and 14.5% in 2016. But in 2017, it seems as if the goal will to be increase that mark. His goal will be to improve his 29th-ranking GB/FB ratio (0.91 last season); he’ll look to join Kris Bryant, Brandon Belt, Ian Kinsler and Matt Carpenter, who were among the seven qualified hitters to post ratios of 0.71 or better last season.

Bruce told Wagner his goal is to produce a fly-ball rate of 50% in 2017. No qualified hitter reached that mark last season. Nine hitters produced fly-ball percentages of 46% or better. Bruce’s career rate is 42%.

As Bruce explained this goal, he cited advice he received from a former Cincinnati teammate, Joey Votto, who was the 2010 National League most valuable player and who remains one of baseball’s best and most cerebral hitters.

“He told me: ‘Everyone goes into the season and they want to make all these crazy changes and they want to improve so drastically. But to get 2 or 3 percent better at something is really, really great,’” Bruce said. “So just keep chipping away.”

It’s an aggressive goal. If he can achieve it, though, Bruce can greatly improve his Q-Rating in Queens.

We hoped you liked reading Jay Bruce Tries to Improve Q-Rating in Queens by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Mario Mendoza
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Mario Mendoza

Oh dang… this flies right in the face of what Perpetua observed (hoped) http://www.fangraphs.com/fantasy/94590-2/

Mario Mendoza
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Mario Mendoza

Actually Perpetua addressed this in the comments of that article!
2 good articles and even a great comment from another reader about this very subject yesterday. What a cool site.