Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Breakout Performances: Jay Bruce

We like our phenoms to be finished products, ready to contribute at the highest level as soon as they arrive on the scene. Tiger Woods won his first Masters as a professional. Fred Lynn won the MVP in his rookie season. Bobby Fischer was a grandmaster at 15. Everyone wants the next awesome thing, that shiny new toy that works like magic right out of the box. Sure, maybe that toy will be Steven Strasburg or Mark Prior and break after a few uses, but we all remember that immediate gratification of them showing up and, for a fleeting moment, being everything we hoped they would.

Sometimes though, that new toy has some assembly required. What's worse, the learning curve might be a little higher, requiring some patience. We wished for it to come, but when it arrived, we found it frustrating. More frustrating than a complete lemon - with a bust, you can just throw it to the side, disappointed, but accepting that it was just no good. Not like the assembly-required, hundreds of hours of practice toy. That will make you work, trying to get the most out of it. Some nights you'll just want to throw it to the floor, or maybe AAA, in frustration. In the end though, when that patience is rewarded, it's such a rewarding feeling.

So, I think you know where I'm going with this.

In 2008, Jay Bruce was the #1 prospect in baseball. In 2011, Jay Bruce leads the National League in HR, RBI and TB through the first two months. Reds' fans, consider yourselves rewarded.

A little background: In 2005, Bruce was the #12 overall pick in the MLB draft, and signed fairly quickly, spending the rest of that year and the next hitting reasonably well in the low minor. In 2007, he broke out, tearing through three levels at a .319/.375/.587 clip, landing in AAA Louisville, at the top of several prospect lists, and drawing favorable comparisons with Larry Walker, for what seemed like a flawless all-around game.

Bruce made his debut on May 27, 2008, and for his first 18 games hit a robust .382/.468/.632, much to the enjoyment of long-suffering Reds fans. Then, the Bruce slipped to .229/.282/.417 for the last 90 games, striking out 98 times in only 393 PA. His final line .254/.314/.453 was hardly an embarrassment for a 21 year old - the #1 pick in the 2008 draft, David Price, rightly considered a phenom, was 19 months older than Bruce - but he was clearly not the ready-out-of-the-box superstar that the Reds were hoping for.

In 2009, Bruce saw incremental improvements to his power, walk rates and strikeout rates, but a disturbing drop in batting average due to a .221 BABIP, leading to a .223/.303/.470 season line. Bruce also played in only 18 games after fracturing his wrist on July 11th.

2010 brought more improvement. Bruce's HR rate actually fell slightly, but his walk rate continued to rise, and that BABIP corrected itself in a big way to .339. Beyond this offensive improvements, Bruce emerged as the NL's premier defensive RF. Defensive metrics can be tricky, but Bruce led all RF in both UZR and Range Factor, and his strong arm allowed him to add 7 assists and keep numerous runners from taking an extra base. Still, even with that great defense, a .281/.353/.493 line, with 25 HR and top 10 finishes in zero categories was hardly conjuring images of Larry Walker.

Maybe it should have. Now three years removed from his "top prospect" status, Bruce felt like an established veteran, so it was easy to forget that he had just finished his age 23 season, sporting a career .257/.327/.474 line. At the same age, Walker had a .234/.320/.408 career line. Walker "broke out" in 1992 with a line that wasn't a whole lot better than Bruce's 2010.

So here we are, the end of May 2011, and Jay Bruce has a .294/.358/.578, with the biggest boost coming in his increased home run rate. After spending his first three years homering once every 20.7 PA, Bruce is doing so every 14.2 PA this year. He's walking at his career rate, and striking out less often, as well. These improvements have allowed him to excel despite his BABIP falling back to .312. That .312 is well within the expected range for someone with Bruce's line drive rate, so there's little reason to thing that his improvement isn't sustainable.

In Larry Walker's MVP season, he hit .366/.452/.720. It's probably unfair to expect that from Jay Bruce, just as it would be unfair to expect it from Jason Heyward, Justin Upton, or Bryce Harper. Bruce is already one of the most valuable players in the National League, and is locked up for the next 7 years at a very reasonable $63M. If he continues to produce at his 2011 levels, that will be a great value for the Reds. If there is more improvement to be had (and he still is less than two months past his 24th birthday), it will surpass Evan Longoria's as the most team-friendly longterm deal in all of baseball.

(Aside - I mentioned Justin Upton in the paragraph above. Upton is still only 23 and has a career line of .271/.351/.473. Anyone who thinks the Diamondbacks need to trade him to improve is a fool. This probably deserved a post of its own this offseason when rumors were swirling about his being dealt, and I may get to it yet. Upton is even a better example than Bruce about unreasonable expectations hindering our appreciation of young players).

Long-term, there are two paths Bruce can take toward becoming an elite, MVP-level star. The first is to reduce that strikeout rate to less than one every 5 PA, because when he hits the ball, he hits it hard. His line drive/fly ball rates make it hard to see him delivering a BABIP lower than .300, and .330 would hardly be out of the picture). Of course, there have been Hall of Fame level players who have struck out at high rates - Reggie Jackson, Sammy Sosa, Jim Thome - but we're talking about guys with historically great power numbers. Which brings us to the second path - Bruce could get there, too - he's on pace for a 47 home run/348 total base season, and, not to belabor the point, he's only 24.

Whatever path Bruce takes, continue to enjoy the ride, Cincinnati fans. You've certainly been patient enough.

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