Can Jay Bruce return to star status?

Cincinnati Reds LogoThrough his amateur and professional career, the looming question around Jay Bruce was whether he was going to be able to make enough contact to tap into his mammoth power consistently. His power potential has always been elite, and when he’s connecting enough he truly is one of the most dangerous hitters in the sport. In the four year stretch from 2010 to 2013 he averaged over a 120 wRC+, knocking 30+ homers three times and 25 once. While doing so he  kept his cumulative average over .260, showing the insane power ability despite very average contact. He was taken in many drafts as a “safe” 30 homer guy with around 90 runs and 100 RBIs per season, and if things go well for him he could launch 40 and see boosts in the other areas as well.

The past couple seasons he has gone the opposite direction, losing his contact to go under .220, and along with it his power production has suffered as well. Instead of a consistent 30 homer masher, Bruce hit just 18 and 26 in 2014 and 2015. Yet despite the raw numbers not looking as pretty as we have come to expect, his power indicators show his potential has not changed. His isolated slugging stayed over .200 in 2015 even though he didn’t produce as well as he can. These marks came in his age 27 and 28 seasons, not trending in the best direction for a rebound, but certainly close enough to his prime to still make adjustments and rekindle his flame.

Reading closer into the numbers, his batted ball splits paint an image of a different swing plane. When he’s at his best, his fly ball rates go upwards of 45%, yet in his poor seasons he is hitting the air closer towards the mid-30s. It’s obviously easier to hit home runs off flies than grounders, but with extra flies, the chance for power doubles is greater too, making them a necessary ingredient to a successful power hitter. What cements the idea that the cause of trouble is more physical than mental is that his discipline numbers stay virtually the same, his strikeout and walk percentages, as well as his whiff rates.

To get a deeper understanding, let’s look at his heatmaps from two periods of time, 2010-2013 and 2014-2015. We’re going to compare batting average since this has been the biggest factor behind him struggling or thriving:

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Although the differences are slight, that is expected since his difference in average isn’t from superstar to scrub, closer to average to replacement level. And what shows up is his declined effectiveness on the outer third. Although now he is hitting the ball better inside, he has lost a lot of his contact skills on outside pitches.

While this might seem like a problem for a power hitter if you assume he pulls most pitches, on the inside part, Bruce doesn’t play like that. He prefers the outer third for his homers. Look at the plot of last year’s homers, even when he’s still hitting outside poorly:

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While the distribution is fairly even, there’s still a large clump right along the outer third as well as another clump almost entirely out of the zone.

This gives off the impression of him opening his hips too early, and perhaps a recent injury can help partially explain it. He’s on the record as saying his injury didn’t allow him to use his proper mechanics which definitely could be a factor. His most telling quote is below, as told to Eno Sarris of FanGraphs:

“The legs are really what deliver your hands to the zone in the correct path,” he said. When your legs are no good, your hands find a way to get to the ball, and usually cut corners that shouldn’t be cut.

And now a picture is forming. Cutting corners to cheat his mechanics to stay in on the ball, a perfect explanation for not being able to stay outside like he does at his best. Even though the injury will go, the mechanical changes will need to be fixed, something only reps with a tee or in the cage can take care of.

But an injury and an adjustment aren’t the only parts of Bruce’s struggles. He, like almost every hitter alive, feasts on fastballs. From his four-year stretch of domination he often put up double digits in runs above average on the four seamer, showing himself as one of the deadlier hitters on it. But pitchers have adjusted and started mixing in more sinkers, a pitch where he grades out as neutral.  While it’s a small change (just around 5%) it’s still one large enough for significant impact over a couple of seasons.

Although Jay Bruce’s power potential seems to be strong as always, a tough time making contact has placed limitations on what he can produce. Looking for bright spots, Bruce needs to fully recover from injury, adjust his swing back to where he’s comfortable, and adapt to a new approach pitchers are taking with him. It’s a tough task with tons of intricacies, and if he doesn’t start showing more improvement in 2016 it might be time to get rid of Bruce in dynasty leagues and bump down his ranking in redraft leagues.

 

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James Krueger
James lives in Tampa, Florida and is often one of the 10,000 people you can see at Rays' home games. He's a huge fan of prospects, loves analyzing swing mechanics, and will eat a "Top 100" list for breakfast. Dynasty leagues are his forte, especially rebuilding teams; building a farm system is the best part.