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Projecting Jay Bruce

Jay Bruce so far, in two major league seasons, has a .328 career wOBA in 839 plate appearances. As such, one might be surprised to see the following Bill James projection on his player page:

.274 AVG, .340 OBP, .537 SLG, .373 wOBA

Given what we’ve seen of Bruce in the majors, this projection seems a little bit ridiculous. James projects Bruce to pick up 45 points of wOBA. His projections have been known to be a bit optimistic for some offensive players. Is this another one of those cases?

Let’s compare Jay Bruce’s 2009 to his projected mark for 2010.

2009: 9.9 BB%, 21.7 K%, .303 OBP, .470 SLG, .246 ISO, .222 BABIP, .329 wOBA
2010: 8.9 BB%, 22.0 K%, .340 OBP, .537 SLG, .263 ISO, .290 BABIP, .373 wOBA

There’s really only one major difference there, and that’s his BABIP. Bruce’s BABIP is one of the more interesting anomalies in the game, as I explored over at Beyond the Boxscore earlier in the season. As a quick summary, Bruce’s BABIP on line drives and fly balls in particular has been particularly low for his whole career, and he’s had more than 20 fewer hits on those two types of batted balls than we would expect. This has dealt a pretty substantial blow to his value, as these hits would add up to more than 11 runs in value.

BABIP luck and skill is one of the more interesting topics of conversation in the sabermetric world. The league average is around .300, and we don’t usually see much variation in the statistic, but that isn’t to say that batters don’t have an inherent skill as far as reaching base on balls in play. However, with a sample of 840 PAs with Bruce, we can’t really say for sure if there’s something about Bruce’s batted balls that lead to outs or if he’s just had poor luck. James’s projection system is operating on the assumption that there’s a large amount of luck at play with Bruce, and as such he projects a breakout year for the young outfielder.

Jay Bruce will be one of the most interesting players to watch in the majors in 2010. He has incredible power and is a very toolsy player. The question is if he shows the potential he flashed in the minor leagues (AAA slugging percentage over .600) or if he continues to hit like a league average player.