Jay Bruce: On the Verge of 30, Again
After taking Clayton Kershaw deep not once, but twice (!) on Sunday Night Baseball, Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce finds himself one moon shot away from registering his third consecutive 30-home run season. Unfortunately for me, that means my preseason prediction of 40 long balls is all but a certainty not to happen with 17 team games to go.
Oh well. You win some and you lose some.
On the happy side of the coin, three straight seasons of 30 home runs is nothing to sneeze at; only Miguel Cabrera has hit 30 or more in each of the last three seasons (from 2011-2013). In fact, Cabrera has done it in seven straight dating back to 2007. But who’s counting? A week and change into September, Bruce and Adrian Beltre are the only two players with an overwhelming chance of joining the Triple Crown winner by season’s end. (Prince Fielder would have to hit eight in Detroit’s final 18 games to make the cut.)
Since 2011, Bruce’s 95 home runs trail only Cabrera (117), Jose Bautista (97) and Beltre (96), while his 289 RBIs rank seventh and 253 runs rank 18th. Interestingly, Bruce leads teammate Joey Votto, who has collected 65 home runs, 225 RBIs and 252 runs, in all three categories. But, as you well know, Votto has a commanding lead in batting average, hitting .314 compared to .258 for Bruce.
On the season, Bruce is slashing .266/.328/.492 with 29 home runs, 80 runs, 93 RBIs and three steals in 622 plate appearances. Overall, he’s the No. 50 player on the ESPN Player Rater (No. 32 batter; No. 19 outfielder), and he’s one of six players—along with Chris Davis, Cabrera, Edwin Encarnacion, Paul Goldschmidt and Adam Jones—with 80 runs and 90 RBIs.
The Reds slugger hit 32 home runs in 2011 and followed it up with 34 more in 2012, posting a .217 ISO and .263 ISO, respectively. This season, Bruce’s ISO is down to .226, which is still good for the 18th highest mark in baseball behind some surprise inclusions like Will Venable (.230) and Nate Schierholtz (.228). Bruce’s HR/FB rate is 18.7 percent for the second straight season despite a plummeting fly ball rate (44.4 percent in 2012; 39.2 percent in 2013). He’s made up for it with a career-best 25.1 percent line drive rate, up from 20.2 percent in 2012. And, looking at the batted ball distance leaderboards on Baseball Heat Maps, we can see that Bruce’s 295.27 feet ranks 35th in baseball, compared to 292.42 feet and a rank of 53 in 2012. This all reaffirms Bruce’s consistent track record for above-average power. But you already knew that.
The problem with owning Bruce, especially in head-to-head formats, is extreme periods of streakiness. Take, for example, his monthly splits in 2013:
April: .252/.312/.339 with one home run
May: .290/.330/.607 with seven home runs
June: .294/.331/.624 with 10 home runs
July: .280/.339/.470 with four home runs
August: .229/.321/.406 with four home runs
September: .222/.349/.528 with three home runs
After hitting just one home run in the opening month, Bruce blasted 17 home runs in May and June combined, collecting 45 RBIs in 53 games. But over the last two months, Bruce has a .227 BA to go along with seven home runs and 19 RBIs in 35 games. Meanwhile, Bruce’s strikeout climbed over 30 percent in August, just like it did in April when he struggled out of the gate.
And that brings us to the biggest problem of Bruce’s 2013 season: a career-worst 27.7 percent strikeout rate, up from 24.5 percent in 2012 and 23.8 percent in 2011. This has coincided with a drop in his walk rate for a third straight season, which certainly makes you question his .266 BA—which represents his best mark since 2010, when he slashed .281/.353/.493.
While Bruce’s .266 BA is certainly a nice surprise (he hit .256 in 2011 and .252 in 2012), it’s worth noting that his BA is aided heavily by a .330 BABIP, which is more than 30 points higher than his career BABIP of .297. It’s no surprise that in 2010, when Bruce hit .281, he had a career high BABIP of .334. Looking at Bruce’s plate discipline numbers, there’s more trouble to be found, as he’s swinging at more pitches outside of the strike zone and making contact on far fewer pitches inside the strike zone (84.7 percent in 2012; 78.6 percent in 2013). His swinging strike rate is also out of whack (11.9 percent in 2012; 14.8 percent in 2013).
Although I desperately wanted to find some positive trends that could project a better BA in future seasons, it appears Bruce is basically the same player he’s always been. With Bruce, we’re looking at a top 25-outfielder destined to hit between .250 and .260 with 30-35 home runs all while approaching 100 RBIs. With Votto taking a safer approach at the plate, Bruce is the No. 1 run producer for the Reds in a very hitter-friendly environment. I’m slightly concerned about Cincinnati losing Shin-Soo Choo to free agency, but they also have Billy Hamilton waiting in the wings.
Bruce is what he is. If he ever approaches 10 steals again then his value would get a slight boost, but he’ll always be held back by a league-average BA. With a lot of power options dropping the ball in 2013—such as Ryan Braun, Giancarlo Stanton, Matt Kemp and Josh Hamilton—there is a sense of reliability that comes with owning Bruce.
And that may be his biggest asset. That and 30 home runs.