They Aren’t Saying Bruce
From an end-game roto-scoring perspective, no player in the game has been more statistically consistent than Jay Bruce. Over the past three seasons here are Bruce’s 5×5 stat lines:
Heading into this season, the 27-year old Reds outfielder felt like a safe pick because ‘we know his floor’. It’s not gravitational law of course, but it’s not uncommon for hitters to elevate their game in their late 20’s. The magical age-27 season is a myth, and perhaps has more to do with experience, and more specifically plate appearances, instead of the players’ actual age. Remember, Bruce burst onto the season in 2008 as a 21-year old rookie, so he’s in his seventh season. In hindsight, he’s past the typical major adjustment periods, and though an All-Star like Bruce will continue to work to improve himself, the stats above show that he really is who he is. So then what do we make of this season?
Without question, Jay Bruce has been a major disappointment this season. Here’s his 5×5 stat line:
That’s difficult to stomach in your lineup on a daily basis, but I assume the 91% owned Bruce is in most owners’ lineup. So this is the what, but we need to find out the why. Why is the Reds slugger not producing? Before I pop the hood on Bruce statistically, I want to bring up a couple of points that aren’t quite as easy for me to quantify. Soon, someone that is much smarter than I am will bring us detailed statistical breakdowns of how the more-aggressive-than-ever defensive shift philosophy, that’s being employed around the league now, is impacting the hitter. We know that scoring is down, but in time we’ll have a better measurement of its true impact. For now we know that it’s mentally taxing, and Bruce has spoken about that. Teams aren’t only shifting on him more frequently, they’re also shifting smarter too. Add to it the burden of trying to carry an offense without its best player, Joey Votto, and I believe Bruce is pressing.
For now I’ll step outside of his head, and in to the batter’s box to unpack his issues at the dish. He’s still seeing a lot of pitches, his walk rate and strikeout rate remain above league average, so there isn’t a major shift in his approach. Simply, this slugger isn’t slugging. With a career SLG% of .473, Bruce is down to just .384 this season which is barely above the league average of .370. That’ll happen when you’re pounding the ball into the ground repeatedly. Bruce’s ground ball rate is up nearly 8.5% over last season. He’s being pitched down in the zone more and more, and it’s resulting in less power, and more 4-3 put-outs. Let’s look the two pitches that he’s seeing the most, and find out what he’s doing with each. Both are fastballs, the four-seam and two-seam/sinkers. Over the course of Bruce’s career, those pitches would result in a ground ball 29.5% and 45.5% of the time, respectfully. This season those numbers are at 43.7% and 54.6%, that’s quite a jump. He’d need a super-human HR/FB% to approach 30 home runs with ground ball rates like that, but oh hey look, that’s down too.
The drop in HR/FB% is minimal, just 3%, but it leads to a bigger overall issue. The big left-hander isn’t slugging like he’s done in the past. We know he’s seeing fewer pitches up in the zone and thanks to Eno Sarris’s in-depth interview with Bruce, we know that’s his favorite location to attack. When he does get a pitch up in the zone, the results aren’t what we’ve grown accustom to seeing.
The heatmaps above look very different from one another. The 2007-2013 map above shows us what we’ve known to be true, and that’s elite slugging production from Bruce. Not only has he slugged the pitch at his letters, but all throughout the strike zone. The 2014 map tells a very different story. It’s mostly blue, showing Bruce as a very average hitter when it comes to extra-base hits. Over the course of his career yes, it’s a relatively small sample size, but it’s hard to make a case that he’ll turn it around over the next 10 weeks to close 2014.
So what do we do now? I’m not sure what you can do. Bruce gave us a glimmer of hope with a solid June, but he’s been miserable in July. His wRC+ of -6 for the month is hard to comprehend. It’s hard to imagine that he’d bring much back by way of trade, but perhaps someone in need of power is willing to roll the dice on his career history and take a chance on him but I wouldn’t hold my breath. He needs to be benched but not dropped, in hopes that he has one more hot week in him. He’s been a streaky hitter throughout his career, but this streak needs to end. It may sound like they’re saying ‘BRUUUCE’, but they’re actually saying ‘BOOOOOO’.