Everything You Need To Know About Jay Bruce

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!

Bruce’s LD/FB to the Right Side
Year LD/FB 1B 2B 3B HR XBH H% XBH%
2008 66 15 12 0 16 28 65.2% 42.4%
2009 75 9 7 0 17 24 44.0% 32.0%
2010 108 35 10 4 21 35 64.8% 32.4%
2011 129 31 15 1 29 45 58.9% 34.9%
2012 128 24 24 3 27 54 60.9% 42.2%
2013 129 33 18 0 23 41 57.4% 31.8%
2014 91 18 10 1 18 29 51.6% 31.9%
2015 131 23 19 3 22 44 51.1% 33.6%
2016 135 23 15 5 25 45 50.4% 33.3%

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.

Bruce’s LD/FB to the Left Side
Year LD/FB 1B 2B 3B HR XBH H% XBH%
2008 71 22 3 1 5 9 43.7% 12.7%
2009 62 6 6 1 5 12 29.0% 19.4%
2010 93 13 10 1 4 15 30.1% 16.1%
2011 112 19 6 0 3 9 25.0% 8.0%
2012 98 10 8 2 6 16 26.5% 16.3%
2013 118 25 21 0 7 28 44.9% 23.7%
2014 73 7 4 0 0 4 15.1% 5.5%
2015 119 14 14 1 4 19 27.7% 16.0%
2016 93 12 10 1 8 19 33.3% 20.4%

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.

Well Struck Outcomes
H 1B 2B 3B HR SF
Well Struck 38.7% 1.7% 10.7% 2.0% 24.3% 3.1%
How often a Well Struck Ball is converted to a Hit, Single, etc
H 1B 2B 3B HR SF
Percent of Total 16.3% 1.1% 23.2% 38.8% 81.9% 44.3%
Well Struck balls account for this fraction of the total outcomes.
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.

Well Struck Outcomes
AVG SLG wOBA BACON*
Well Struck .399 1.301 .675 .387
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.

Sector Definitions
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°
-45° = Left Field Line| 0° = Center Field| 45° = Right Field Line

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.

Bruce’s BIP, Well Struck, and Home Runs By Sector
2015 2016
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
Totals 425 88 26 408 85 33
-45° = Left Field Line| 0° = Center Field| 45° = Right Field Line
Bruce’s Well Struck Balls to Right and Left Field
Total Right Field Left Field RF/LF
2015 88 29 35 .829
2016 85 34 27 1.259
Right Field: 15 to 50 degrees
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.

Swing Mechanics

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.

We hoped you liked reading Everything You Need To Know About Jay Bruce by Andrew Perpetua!

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Andrew Perpetua is the creator of CitiFieldHR.com and xStats.org, and plays around with Statcast data for fun. Follow him on Twitter @AndrewPerpetua.

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This is a great, in depth piece on Bruce. This isn’t a complaint but it feels out of place in the RotoGraphs section.

Mario Mendoza
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Mario Mendoza

ALL of Andrew’s articles belong in the main FanGraphs section!!

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Agreed it’s definitely main section worthy.