The question on my mind, your mind and most Reds fans’ minds is this: What the hell has happened to Jay Bruce this season?
It’s July 20, and Bruce is hitting .224 with only ten home runs (in 80 games). Not only is the former first round draft pick’s batting average lower than his career clip (.254), the slugging percentage is way, way down–it’s actually under .400 heading into play today vs. the New York Yankees.
To put that into perspective, the following hitters have a higher slugging percentage than Jay Bruce: Billy Hamilton, Dee Gordon, Trevor Plouffe, Erick Aybar, Jose Reyes and Nick Markakis.
It’s a real mind boggler how a guy can be entering his so-called prime (Stat Grandfather Bill James estimates Age 27 is the peak for most ballplayers, and Jay is 27 this year) and be going backwards at a miserable rate. Just last season, Bruce put up numbers worthy of MVP consideration: .262 AVG, 30 HR, 43 2B, 109 RBI and stellar defense in right field. Heading into 2014, there was no reason whatsoever to expect Bruce’s production to dip. He’s young, he stays in tip-top shape and he’s had well over 3,000 plate appearances at the major league level.
I expected Number 32 to be battling for that MVP award this season and the next number of seasons. But it hasn’t happened. Instead, Bruce has looked like a rookie at the plate in ’14.
So what’s the problem?
My theory is simply this: Jay Bruce is making hitting way too complicated while ignoring an easy way out of his season-long slump.
At the beginning of the season, Bruce mentioned to Reds beat writers how he had studied hitting, and how he wants to be more selective, only swinging at the strikes he wants while taking more pitches. Here’s what he told Cincinnati Enquirer columnist Paul Daugherty back in March:
“I’m homeruns and doubles. I’m not sitting here saying I’m going to go up there and walk. But if I swing at less pitchers’ pitchers, there are going to be better counts, and more times I’ll have the opportunity to get on base. I just need to take a level-headed approach every day.’’
In the early going, the new approach did result in more walks, as Bruce realized pitchers rarely throw him anything to hit. So he was content to get on base and patiently wait for the mistake pitches he routinely blasts over the outfield walls.
But then, as they tend to do, pitchers got wise. Hurlers started to realize that Bruce likes the ball middle-in, belt high to chest high. If it’s on the outer half, or if it’s anywhere in the zone at the knees, “The Beaumont Bomber” would be content to keep the bat on his shoulder. So those wise pitchers began peppering the outside part of the zone and the low part of the zone early in the count, which in turn left Bruce facing 0-1, 0-2, and 1-2 counts more often than not. And, if you take a look at batting averages in those types of counts for any major league hitter, well, as you can imagine, it ain’t pretty.
Here’s a table with some past data:
As you can see in the table, you have a much better chance of getting a good pitch to hit early in the count or when the count is in your favor. But if you go up there and take a first pitch strike, then foul one off or chase a curveball in the dirt, your chances of success drop exponentially.
And this pretty much sums up why Bruce has not produced in 2014. When we watch Bruce hit, what do we often see? He takes a belt high fastball on the outside corner for strike one. He then chases a breaking ball that starts out in the zone but finishes low and in. He’s down 0-and-2. So now, according to the numbers, he’s about a .160 hitter. He’s at the pitcher’s mercy. The pitcher has three or four chances to get Bruce to swing at a piece of shit outside of the strike zone. And when Bruce is struggling, and he’s trying to do too much, he’ll eventually chase one of those pieces of shit.
Fangraphs.com is a terrific site where we can take a look at very in-depth analysis of a hitter’s approach. Here is Bruce’s fangraphs page. That link will get you directly to his ‘Plate Discipline’ page, which breaks down the percentage of balls he swings at, the percentage of strikes he doesn’t swing at, etc. When you look at these stats, you can immediately see that his Swing Percentage is down from a 48.4% career mark to 45.7% this season; and Bruce did say he intended to be more patient this season, so that number checks out. Now, look at his O-Swing %, which stands for Swing Percentage on Pitches Outside the Strike Zone. He’s on par with career numbers in that category (30.9% career, 29.7% in 2014).
With me so far? Bruce is taking more pitches and he’s been a tad better at swinging at pitches outside the strike zone.
However, we need to look at his Z-Swing%, which is the Percentage of Pitches INSIDE the Strike Zone Jay Bruce Swings at. His career mark in this category is 73.9 percent. Bruce has never been below 72% in this category. But in 2014, he’s way down at 68.8 percent. That means he’s taking more strikes, and by the looks of his batting average, he’s taking more strikes early in the count…
Which brings us back to that first pitch fastball on the outside corner. In order for Bruce to turn his season around, he must begin to attack this pitch. Why?
1) He pretty much has to know it’s coming.
Pitchers routinely get ahead in the count with that pitch, as Jay is content to let it go by. And hitting a baseball is hard enough, especially when you have no clue what pitch is coming. But in this scenario, you DO know what pitch is coming. Be ready for it. Go after it. Be looking for that pitch and that pitch alone, on every first pitch AND every non-two-strike pitch from here on out. When you get it, blast it.
2) “The Jay Bruce Shift.”
For the past few seasons, nearly every opposing manager shifts his infield to take away any hard grounder or line drive Jay hits up the middle or through the right side by moving the second baseman into shallow right field and the shortstop and third baseman toward the middle of the diamond. That leaves nearly the entire left side of the infield WIDE OPEN. And guess which pitch is most likely to go in that direction if you time it and square it up? Yep, that outside heater.
3) If you want to get opposing teams out of that shift, you’ve got to start routinely smashing the ball against the grain.
If you start hitting it where the fielders aren’t, the managers will move their fielders, opening up the middle and your pull side. The result: You get lots of hits to get them out of the shift, then once the shift is lifted, more balls become hits that would have been swallowed up by the shift.
4) Bruce has opposite field power.
He can take a page out of former Red Shin-Soo Choo’s book and start to pile up the opposite field home runs.
Further, if you stay with the opposite field approach, keeping your hands back and allowing the ball to travel, you’ll have an extra tick to be able to identify good curveballs to crack and bad curveballs to lay off of.
This is an adjustment Jay Bruce must make in order to become more productive. He’s making it too complicated on himself right now. If you know a certain pitch is coming, take advantage of that knowledge. You can’t keep waiting around for a pitch in your wheelhouse when pitchers will never ever throw it there (unless it’s a mistake). What’s the saying? Don’t work harder, work smarter. That’s your answer, Jay Bruce.