Jay Bruce has become a bit of conundrum for the Mets and their almost ludicrously deep corner outfield depth. They have Curtis Granderson, Michael Conforto, and Jay Bruce as their starting right fielders, plus Cespedes patrolling left field. Juan Lagares is their lone center fielder, although he’s going to have to wait in line for playing time. Oh, and Brandon Nimmo is waiting on the wings down in AAA. Of these, Granderson, Conforto, Bruce, and Nimmo are left handed batters, so we’re talking about four left handed corner outfielders. Whether you wish to consider Lagares a starting center fielder or not is a bit irrelevant here, because one of the corner outfielders will, probably, move to center. Granderson, most likely, perhaps Conforto on occasion.
The Mets took on Bruce’s 13 million dollar option early in the offseason with the clear intent to trade him. Some may claim the Mets held onto him as insurance in case the Mets lost Cespedes to free agency, but that doesn’t appear to hold much water. Without Cespedes, their starting outfield would be Conforto in left, Granderson in center, and Bruce in right. Three left handed corner outfielders patrolling the outfield. Granted, the Mets have some flexibility in the infield, since both Walker and Cabrera are switch hitters, but David Wright would be the only dedicated right handed batter in the lineup, an untenable position. It appears trading Bruce was a focus this off season, which has not gone well and the team has now settled on tentatively naming him the starting right fielder.
Much has been written about the various factors limiting Bruce’s value on the market, ranging from his weak defensive skill to the host of alternatives on the market. I’m not going to get into either of those topics, instead I want to delve into the offensive merit of Jay Bruce, and the various changes to his batted ball profiles over the span of his career.
A Brief History Lesson
Jay Bruce has always had very good pull side power, even when playing through injury and slumps. His extra base hit rate to right field is remarkably consistent over the years, especially since 2013 where it has hovered between 31.8% and 33.6% of Line Drives and Fly Balls. That means, in his past four seasons, during which he had one of his greatest offensive seasons and his worst offensive season, the difference in his extra base hit rate has varied by just about one extra base hit per 100 BIP. I don’t know about you, but when you tell me a guy is having the worst season of his career, “oh, he must have had one fewer extra base hit to right field” definitely is not the thing that pops into my mind!
If you disregard his partial rookie season in 2008, Bruce has only had one season with a significant change in his pull power: 2012, when he had 42.2% extra base hits on line drives and fly balls. That’s a crazy number, and 2012 turned out to be his second best season to date. His hit rate on pulled balls has bounced around a lot, peaking in 2010 at 65%, which went a very long way in carrying his .282 batting average that season, but in recent years it seems to have stabilized around 51 percent-ish. All in all, his pull power isn’t particularly interesting beyond it’s consistency, on to the opposite field.
Looking at this chart, I bet you immediately notice the lack of consistency. All of these numbers are jumping around like crazy from year to year. Click the sort buttons and filter it by extra base hit rate. You’ll see 2014 and 2011 pop up as the two worst opposite field seasons for Bruce, 2010 and 2015 aren’t far behind. Well, 2014 was his worst season to date, but 2011 was actually one of his better seasons, and 2010 was certainly his best, at least in terms of wRC+ and WAR. We’ll get more into that in a moment. Check out the best performing years, though. At the top you have 2013, then 2016. Huh.
Home Run Distributions
During the course of his career, the locations of his home runs appear to fall into two separate groups. In the first, there are seasons in which Bruce has hit nearly all of his home runs to right and center field, these seasons happened to be 2010, 2011, and 2014. The home runs are clustered mostly in right center field, with a handful in center. In the second group, Bruce hit home runs more evenly around the park. Of course the largest and highest density cluster is in right field, as you would expect from a left handed hitter, but he had a good showing of home runs all throughout the left field and left center areas, wrapping all the way around the field from foul pole to foul pole. These seasons happen to be 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2013. These landing locations are supplied by Baseball Savant.
(For those wondering, the oddly short ball in the left field corner was an inside the park home run against the Mets, Jason Bay suffered a head injury on the play.)
The home run locations speak for themselves, and they match up very closely with the numbers from the opposite field extra base hit chart. It would be pretty weird if they didn’t, although 2008 and 2010 may have ended up in different groups than you may have initially guessed. Anyhow, these two sets appear to be categorically dissimilar home run distributions, but why? You probably noticed I have left out the past two seasons, the years in which I have Statcast data to evaluate. Before I get too deep into that, I need to clear up a few things.
In the charts above, I used Baseball Savant as a source of landing locations. For 2015 and 2016 I’ll be using the batted ball distance measured by Statcast along with the estimated horizontal angle (unfortunately, I don’t access to a horizontal angle measured by Statcast). The landing locations derived by this method will not necessarily line up exactly with other sources, such as Baseball Savant’s home run charts or HitTracker. In fact, you’ll probably never see sources of information like this agree on the true landing location of each ball, and you should take any automated system with a grain of salt (which is why I created Citi Field HR, but that is another topic entirely). Anyhow, I just want to make it clear that this data is not the data you would see on Baseball Savant or HitTracker, so if you try to look up the results and cross check this, you’ll see a lot of differences, some profound. Indeed, if you compared HitTracker to Baseball Savant you would see very large differences. Also, these landing spots do not take the height of the wall into consideration, so a dot beyond the wall does not necessarily equate to a home run. A line drive, for instance, may bounce off the top of the wall.
Well Struck Balls
A Well Struck Ball is one that is hit between 21 and 36 degrees of vertical launch angle with an exit velocity of at least 80 mph. Roughly 14% of batted balls fall into this category, almost all which fall for extra bases. Only 1.7% of Well Struck balls settle for singles, while 24% are home runs and 10% are doubles. In fact, 82% of all home runs hit between 2015 and 2016 were Well Struck.
|Percent of Total||16.3%||1.1%||23.2%||38.8%||81.9%||44.3%|
ie, 81.9% of all home runs are Well Struck.
These batted balls are tremendously valuable and have a batting average hovering around .400, a slugging of 1.3, and a wOBA of .675. These criterion may seem like a low bar, but these are among the most valuable batted balls in the game and they only gain in value with increased velocity.
|All Balls in Play||.331||.534||.365||.325|
*BACON is batting average on contact. It is similar to BABIP, but includes home runs. Well Struck balls have a paltry .199 BABIP due to the incredible home run rate.
All of the data in the following charts has been calculated using Well Struck Balls exclusively, unless stated otherwise. The mean fly ball distance, the standard deviations, the average exit velocities, all of them are from Well Struck balls.
Delving Into the 2015 and 2016 Data
When you look at the following charts you’ll see multiple bands of color across the field, these represent the standard deviation of landing locations within each angle sector. This isn’t a spatial or 2D standard deviation for general landing locations. The standard deviations are only by sector, which you can see defined in a table below.
|Sector 1||Sector 2||Sector 3||Sector 4||Sector 5||Sector 6|
|-50° to -30°||-30° to -15°||-15° to 0°||0° to 15°||15° to 30°||30° to 50°|
Some home runs go around the foul poles and land in foul territory, which is why the end sectors cover an extra few degrees. Each sector is treated as its own entity, and I found average exit velocity, travel distance, frequency, and home run rate for each independently. The standard deviations for each sector only apply to balls within that sector, within it’s 15 (or 20) degree arc. The red line running through the center of these areas is the mean travel distance, and around home plate I have embedded a chart depicting the frequency of Well Struck batted balls into each sector.
Admire the mean distance in right field, that is a thing of beauty. Compared to Citi Field, his mean distance on Well Struck fly balls is well past the wall, and the first standard deviation extends very deep into the bullpen. That is impressive power. You may also notice how extraordinarily wide those standard deviations are, they are 63 feet down the line. In contrast, through left field, the mean distance is well short of the warning track, and the second standard deviation begins, on average, 9 feet short of the wall. Given these data points, you would assume less than 10% of the fly balls he hit to left field in 2015 would leave the park. In practice 3 out of 42, 7%, were home runs. On the flip side, in right field the mean distance is an average of 20 feet beyond the wall down the line, 4 feet past the wall in right center, and about 40 feet short of the wall in center field. Take a look at the break down of the Well Struck balls around the park, though. Notice they peak in left center, with fewer down the right field line. Even so, he only hit three home runs to left center. All in all, this home run distribution looks very similar to the ones we saw in 2010, 2011, and 2014, but this time we know why it looks like this. It isn’t a lack of good contact, but from a lack of distance. This could be due to either a slightly reduced exit velocity, or slightly lower launch angle.
Now this is a more even home run distribution. Eight home runs to left field, up from three in 2015. Just from that alone, you should know which group this home run distribution falls under. However, the why is of interest here. Take a look at the mean fly ball distances to left field, it has moved from about 10 feet short of the warning track to landing just about on top of it, and the edge of the first standard deviation has pushed past beyond the wall. This suggests at least 17% of his fly balls to left field ought to be home runs, and sure enough he hit 8 on 43 tries, 22%. In right field, the mean distance down the line dropped a bit, but in center field it pushed ever deeper. You’ll also notice that his fly balls to left field have become more concentrated around the left field gap, while those in right field are focused around the corner.
|Angles||BIP||Well Struck||HR||BIP||Well Struck||HR|
|-50° to -30°||30||7||0||25||8||2|
|-30° to -15°||59||15||1||58||6||1|
|-15° to 0°||63||20||3||60||21||5|
|0° to 15°||50||17||3||59||16||3|
|15° to 30°||108||16||9||92||15||9|
|30° to 50°||115||13||10||114||19||13|
In 2016, Jay Bruce didn’t hit more Well Struck balls to center and left field, he actually hit fewer as a percent of his balls in play, but they were of substantially higher quality. The home run per Well Struck ball went jumped from 6.7% to 16.7% in left field, and from 10% to 23.8% in left center. This was partially on the back of increased exit velocity, which climbed just about 2mph.
|Total||Right Field||Left Field||RF/LF|
Left Field: -30 to 0 degrees
Bruce’s pulled balls had roughly the same exit velocity in 2015 and 2016, but their mean fly ball distance dropped by about 10 feet and did not convert to home runs at the same rate as they had in 2015. Their increased frequency made up for it, though, and Bruce hit 13 home runs down the line in 2016, 3 more than 2015. Ten of these were Well Struck.
Of course, there is no way to know exactly how many Well Struck balls Jay Bruce had prior to 2015, as the information either doesn’t exist or isn’t publicly available. Trying to figure out the most likely distribution of these mean distance lines and their standard deviations for seasons prior to 2015 is beyond the scope of this piece. I demonstrated above that the distributions of home runs in 2008, 2009, 2012, and 2013 were more similar to that observed in 2016. As you may deduce from these charts, 2010, 2011, 2014, and 2015 appear to be quite similar as well, with 2014 by far the most extreme.
Jay Bruce entered 2016 with an improved swing, which he described as
“’The chains of habit are too light to be felt until they are too strong to be broken,’” the 28-year-old said, quoting Johnson by the way of Buffett. “That’s what I felt like. You didn’t notice it, and then you’re like, ‘S–t, man, there it is.’”
“The guys who have seen my swing, they’ve asked, ‘Did you lower your hands?’” Bruce said. “The affirmation that it looks different is good.”
“It’s back to where I want it to be,” Bruce said. “I want it to be a little lower, but that’s just working it.”(From Cincinatti.com)
Bruce spent the 2015 off season working on lowering his hands when loaded. That’s jargon, so I have found a few pictures to show you what this means. Unfortunately, I cannot find a good angle from 2016, but I found pretty good examples from 2011 and 2013 that should highlight the point pretty well. Note that 2011 was one of the seasons that lacked opposite field power, and 2013 is one of his best seasons regarding opposite field power.
I’ve done my best to scale these two images, and if you overlap them, the back legs line up almost perfectly, including that little ruffle in his pants. I drew a purple line at the top of his knuckles in 2011, it is higher than his ear by a significant margin, and above his left elbow. In contrast, in 2013, his hands are below his left elbow, and probably 1-2 inches below the purple line. This is a significant change, and, from the sounds of it, Bruce worked to put his hands back into this same spot for the 2016 season. I can’t find a good picture of him in 2016, all of the shots I’ve found are from a center field camera. You can tell his hands are roughly ear level in those shots, but with parallax problems and whatnot I think it is better to stick with this 2013 image.
Also note his front foot in these pictures, in 2011 he is much more open, with his front foot pointing more towards the pitcher, and in 2013 it is more closed with the foot pointing towards third base. He has a bit more load on his back leg in this 2013 image as well, and in 2011 he seems a bit less balanced. Judging from these two pictures, the 2013 swing looks superior, and the results certainly back that up.
Now, I don’t fancy myself a batting expert by any stretch of the imagination, but as I understand it, keeping your hands higher than your elbow creates an extra bit of loop in your swing. The bat has to travel just a little bit extra distance as your hands and elbows adjust into the correct slots. Everything is just a bit out of whack, and it puts pressure on your timing. In general, you would see more balls hit the opposite way, but of lesser quality, and many of them going foul. Looking back at that chart of balls hit to the left side, he didn’t seem to hit more balls that way in 2011, but they were certainly of much lesser quality. The same goes for 2015.
Did Injury Play A Role?
Perhaps it is coincidence, but Bruce has slipped into these bad habits twice, each time lasting two seasons, and each time immediately after a significant injury. He broke his wrist in 2009, then slipped into this poor batted ball distribution funk in 2010 and 2011. He tore his meniscus in 2014, and slipped into a funk for the 2014 and 2015 seasons. Granted, 2010 is considered his greatest season to date, but it appears to have been buoyed by bad habits which caught up to him in 2011. In 2012, and especially 2013, he broke these habits and his performance seemed more sustainable, only to suffer injury again in 2014.
I am not suggesting Bruce played through injury in his down years, although you could make the case in 2014. Rather, I wonder, did the missed time cultivate bad habits? Or, perhaps, are good habits fragile and easily thrown off? Either way, Jay Bruce appears to be in peak form. He entered 2016 with a corrected swing which brought him back to the success we witnessed in his very good 2013 season. In 2017, I hope to see his hands continuing to drop towards his chin as he drives balls the other way with even more authority without sacrificing his high quality of contact to right field. Increased utilization of left field could bring his batting average up into the .260-.270 range, while maintaining, or even improving upon, his 30 home run power.