Ken Rosenthal recently reported that the Reds could deal Jay Bruce at this yearÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s deadline. Under the right circumstances and with a reasonable return, I think that could be a good thing. But I contend that it only makes sense if the Reds are willing to do a complete fire sale, including selling high on Todd Frazier. For those of us foolishly holding out hope that the Reds can compete in the next couple years, Votto, Frazier, Mesoraco, and Bruce areÃ‚Â key. As Mike wrote yesterday, the core is there. Dealing one of those guys essentially ends all hope of a Reds rebound.
And quite frankly, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m nervous about the Reds dealing Bruce right now. I would support it in the right deal, but Bruce is in the midst of the greatest tease of his career.
If Jay Bruce was going to improve as a hitter over his solid 2010-2013 run, what would it look like? You could argue that he needs to hit the ball with more authority to left field, and he probably does need to do more of that. But the change that would improve Bruce the most is simply making more contact by striking out less.
He has always hit the ball hard. ThatÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s never been a problem. But his strikeout rate has risen every season since 2009. If he was ever going to take another step forward, he would need to stop getting himself out so frequently. This change would likely result in more walks, less strikeouts, and more contact.
Jay Bruce had terrible results for the first five weeks of the 2015 season. In a career of epic ups and downs, Bruce endured maybe the worst stretch of his career. Even his injury influenced 2014 season wasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t as poor as his numbers were from Opening Day (April 6th) until May 14. During that time frame, Bruce slashed .162/.272/.333 with five homeruns. His runs created score stood at 64, which is essentially Billy Hamilton territory right now.
Many fans understandably called for his benching or a trade. Some swore he was part of an evil plot to ruin the Reds. Others claimed he was harming the pets of innocent children on off days. Along with Kevin Gregg, Jason Marquis, and Bryan Price, Bruce was the face of Reds fans’ rage. But BruceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s peripherals suggested he was better than his results would indicate, and Bryan Price remained steadfast in keeping Bruce in the lineup, even if Price did move him down to the seven spot.
Then it happened. The hot streak finally came. While some fans wisely warned that it would last only two to three weeks (because weÃ¢â‚¬â„¢ve seen this movie before), heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s continued to hit for seven weeks and counting. From May 16th until July 7, Bruce hit .299/.382/.533 with seven homeruns. He slugged 24 extra base hits and produced 149 wRC+ during that time span. For over half the season, Bruce hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t just been good, heÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s been excellent.
The difference in results is dramatic. Bruce went from playing like one of the worst offensive outfielders in baseball to playing like one of the best. And he did both for an extended period of time. Several factors seem to have contributed to BruceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s turnaround and extended success. Many of these factors we havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t seen from Bruce during his career. Here are a few notables.
And there it is. The biggest change I see is that Bruce drastically reduced his strikeout rate. BruceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s lowest strikeout rate in a season where he played at least 130 games is 23.7%. For comparison sake, Todd Frazier has struck out at a higher percentage than Bruce during this seven week run, and Frazier has done some major damage during that time as well.
His strikeout rate has dropped in part because he has swung and missed much less, which has led to a significant bump in his contact rate. His career contact% is 73.2%, so he has outperformed that mark lately by quite a bit. In 2015, Bruce has the highest contact rate of his career, mostly because of his current run.
And Bruce hasnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t just made more contact during his long hot streak, he has made better contact. While he hit the ball hard during his early season struggles, he hit more groundballs and less line drives. Since the middle of May, the line drives have increased. Bruce has hit .208 on groundballs this season but .700 on line drives, so hitting more line drives has led to a climb in his batting average.
The most encouraging part of BruceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s extended run in that he has experienced normal ebbs and flows of production. He has gone hitless in three games in a row twice (though he walked at least once in four of those games), and both times it didnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t spiral into a prolonged slump. In his last 19 games, he only has three hitless games, and one of those he walked in two out of three plate appearances. He has played extremely consistently for a longer stretch than we usually see from him.
The one negative is that BruceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s power is slightly down. He is only on pace for 24 homeruns and has hit homeruns at a smaller rate per fly ball than any point in his career. While that could change with one big power week, Bruce has not hit a homerun since June 23. He is, however, tied for the the second most extra base hits on the team with Joey Votto.
The question we should be asking ourselves has drastically changed since mid May. In mid May, we could fairly ask whether Bruce would ever return to form. Now, after seven consecutive weeks of production, we need to ask the following: has Bruce improved as a hitter this year? Is his current run sustainable?
BruceÃ¢â‚¬â„¢s strikeout and swing and miss rates are the lowest since his injury shortened season of 2009. His walk rate is the highest of his career. His contact rate is the highest of his career. We are seeing Bruce do things at the plate that we havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t seen him do in the past.
Is it a mirage? Maybe. IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m not ready to say that this is who he is. He could easily go on a strikeout binge and return to the streaky hitter of the past. Last night wasn’t a good sign and the type of performance that has quickly spiraled south in the past. But Bruce has seemingly improved in the areas that caused him the most trouble as a hitter throughout his career. If he was going to improve, the last seven weeks, coupled with a career high walk rate, is exactly what it would look like.
Watching Bruce for the rest of the season will be interesting. If he continues to take walks and avoid strikeouts, we will likely see his numbers continue to rise, possibly to levels we havenÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t seen before. If he returns to his swing and miss ways, we can expect another prolonged slump and more frustration.
Which brings me back to an earlier statement: IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢m nervous about the idea of trading him. Maybe he isnÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t improved. Maybe Bruce turns back into a pumpkin soon. But IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d rather the Reds let it play out the rest of the season and revisit the idea during the winter. If this is the Bruce of the next few years, IÃ¢â‚¬â„¢d rather not sell relatively low and watch him mash in another uniform.