Jay Bruce Bottoms Out

Hindsight is 20/20, so the old saying goes, but in retrospect, it shouldn’t be that surprising that Jay Bruce had a season like he just did. Looking at his 2011-2013 seasons, he was already regressing in many ways. However, when you’re still hitting 30+ homers annually, it’s easy to overlook things like an uncharacteristically high .322 batting average on balls in play, that made his 2013 look better than it probably was.

Bruce had been one of the game’s most reliable power hitters over the past several seasons, but some crucial trends in his data pointed to the fact that — if he struggled in any unexpected ways — his value could drop off a cliff, which is exactly what happened in 2014. The reason I phrased that the way I did is that Bruce had already been steadily declining, in areas where he could expectedly continue to struggle. Throwing another negative variable into the equation did him in.

Let’s start with the areas in which Bruce was already trending in the wrong direction, and how they translated to 2014. For one, this year saw Bruce strike out more than ever before, but it wasn’t exactly a surprise, when taking into account his already-escalating strikeout rate:

  • 2011 – 23.7%
  • 2012 – 24.5%
  • 2013 – 26.5%
  • 2014 – 27.3%

Those are all relatively small increases — and the jump from 23.7% to 27.3% isn’t too terribly alarming in itself — but it’s a steady pattern, and not a pleasant one…especially when it coincides with this trend in his walk rate:

  • 2011 – 10.7%
  • 2012 – 9.8%
  • 2013 – 9.0%
  • 2014 – 8.1%

Regarding those rates hitting their low points in 2014, that’s largely driven by the fact that Bruce both swung at more pitches outside the zone (33.4%) and fewer pitches in the zone (69.4%) than ever before. If you’re looking for a surefire way to increase your strikeouts and decrease your walks, swinging at more balls while also taking more strikes is a great way to go about it.

In previous years, these worsening rates were easier to ignore, when Bruce was still hitting at least 30 bombs and maintaining a batting average in the .250-.260 range. This year, that additional negative variable entered his equation, sending his value plummeting. Take a look at his ground-ball to fly-ball ratios, over the past four seasons:

  • 2011 – 0.78
  • 2012 – 0.80
  • 2013 – 0.93
  • 2014 – 1.33

Again, here we see that steady movement in the wrong direction, much like with his strikeout and walk rates. This time, however, he suffered a severe spike in his ground balls — a career-high 45.2% rate, compared to a career-low 34.0% fly-ball rate. His home-run to fly-ball ratio (15.3%) was a touch below his norm, but not too terribly far off his career mark of 17.0%. He simply hit way too many balls on the ground.

It’s interesting looking back on Eno’s fantastic interview with Bruce from July 2, knowing where his season was headed. At that time, he was coming off a white-hot June, a month in which he hit .300/.351/.540, posting an .891 on-base plus slugging, while pounding out 16 extra-base hits.

In that column, Bruce can’t seem to pinpoint why he got off to such a slow start, other than discussing the increased sophistication of defensive shifts. His tone, though, is one of someone who was seemingly back on track. He mentions briefly, “I had knee surgery, I don’t know if that has anything to do with it.” When Eno asked him how it felt, Bruce responded that it felt fine, and pointed to the fact that his June had been along the lines of what he expects to do as a hitter.

As it turned out, that .891 OPS in June was the last time in 2014 that he’d post an OPS above .611 in any month. From the beginning of July to season’s end, he recorded just 15 extra-base hits in 261 at-bats, compared to the 16 he hit in 100 June at-bats. After that .300/.351/.540 June, his slash over the season’s last three months was just .195/.225/.337.

Going back to his unusually high ground-ball rate, it’s even more odd that his BABIP was just .269, considerably short of his career .293 rate. I suppose you could tie that back into what Bruce was saying about seeing more sophisticated shifts, but it’s still exceptionally unusual to see a player hit more grounders than ever — while also maintaining a line-drive rate above his career norm — and still hit just .217 with a .269 BABIP.

Maybe Bruce got really unlucky. Maybe those shifts really did present a challenge he couldn’t adjust to. Regardless of the reason, there’s nothing to like about this. Again, we could go back to the knee, but if that were the cause, it would be strange that he put up a month of elite production immediately after returning from surgery.

Furthermore, he stole a career-high 12 bases this year, in a career-high 15 attempts. He went 7-for-10 on the basepaths in 107 games after returning from knee surgery. Bruce also went 7-for-10 last season, in 53 more games. That’s not the kind of stat that suggests lingering discomfort. Sure, it’s still not a terribly high volume of steals (or attempts), but for a guy who came into 2014 with just 36 steals in 829 games, it’s worth mentioning.

So, what are we to think of Bruce going into 2015? I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say that Bruce likely just had the worst season of his career. For whatever reason, be it the knee injury, some bad luck, trickier shifts, etc., his 2014 was a stinker in almost every way imaginable. Have I even mentioned yet that his isolated power was all the way down to .156, a full 43 points lower than his previous career-worst mark, and 60 points lower than his average? I hadn’t, had I?

With all of this in mind, I think Bruce makes for a solid sleeper next year. Sure, he had already been trending downward in several of the areas in which his 2014 failed to impress, but there’s enough fluky noise in his data that I’m willing to bet he rebounds back into solid fantasy production, after a 2014 that saw him on the fringes of mixed-league relevancy, as the No. 44 outfielder (and that’s including those career-high 12 steals).

The problem is, I’m pretty sure there’s going to be someone in every league I’m in who is more willing than I to roll the dice on him. It’s not a bold prediction to say that Bruce will bounce back to some degree, but he had already been exhibiting enough bad trends prior to 2014 that I doubt he’ll end up on any of my teams next year. He’ll be better, there’s almost no question of that. But how much better is a gamble I’ll let someone else take.

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Scott Strandberg started writing for Rotographs in 2013. He works in small business consultation, and he also writes A&E columns for The Norman Transcript newspaper. Scott lives in Seattle, WA.

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It is funny that prior to this year Bruce was a “safe” player.