The baseball season is a long, difficult journey. Players inevitably face ups and downs to various degrees. Just ask the Reds big three of Todd Frazier, Jay Bruce, and Joey Votto. As Steve wrote last week, all have experienced prolonged slumps. Even so, all three have strong numbers to this point unless you think batting average is the defining offensive stat, which it isn’t.

Baseball is a constant series of adjustments. Joey Votto made changes to his swing over the All-Star break and his subsequent tear has put him in the top five in wRC+ in all of baseball (164). These adjustments differentiate the average players from the good ones and the good ones from the great ones. Right now, Jay Bruce is in need of an adjustment and may be in the middle of doing so.

Bruce had arguably the best elongated stretch of his career from May 16th until August 1st of this season. Over 270 plate appearances, Bruce batted .308/.378/.570 with a 154 wRC+. Only six players in all of baseball have a wRC+ of over 154 on the season. For 64 games, Bruce was a top ten hitter in the major leagues.

During this stretch, Bruce only struck out 17.8% of the time. For a guy with a career 24.3% strikeout rate, that is significant improvement.

Back on July 10th, I wrote an article highlighting Bruce’s run to that point. The article emphasized Bruce’s improved plate discipline as a reason to be optimistic that he could continue his run in some capacity. I also offered a warning:

“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 haven’t seen before. If he returns to his swing and miss ways, we can expect another prolonged slump and more frustration.”

And unfortunately that warning has proven somewhat true. Through the Reds first twelve games in August, Bruce has struggled mightily. So far, he has struck out 32.7% of the time with only two walks. His .160/.192/.340 slash line paints an ugly picture. It’s only twelve games and doesn’t mean much yet, but my fear for Bruce’s August rests in something more substantial.

It started in July. While many in Reds country were rightfully praising Bruce during an excellent month where he slashed .315/.360/.618, I was growing increasingly anxious about him. It was happening slowing, but it was still happening. Bruce’s plate discipline was eroding.

At the very core of plate discipline is the idea that players should swing at good pitches (usually strikes) and avoid swinging at poor pitches that will likely result in swings and misses or weak contact (usually balls). Seems simple enough. Swinging at better pitches typically leads to more and better contact, fewer strikeouts, and more walks. All good things.

The easiest way to explain Bruce’s (hopefully temporary) plate discipline erosion is to go back to the beginning of his 11 week elite stretch. Bruce started hitting like an All-Star on May 16th. From that time until the end of June, Bruce swung at 30.1% of pitches outside the zone. The league swings at just over 31% of such pitches, meaning Bruce was slightly better than average during this time period.

This plate discipline helped lead to all kinds of good outcomes. Bruce had a 12.7% walk rate and only struck out 16.9% of the time.  He slashed .299/.386/.528 with 7 homeruns. Notice how the OBP is almost 90 points higher than the batting average. He swung and missed only 9% of the time, which is just  slightly better than league average. These peripherals are/were reason to think that Bruce could be improved as a hitter.

Then July came, and Bruce continued to destroy opponent’s pitching. But he did it a different way. In July, he swung at over 37% of pitches outside the strike zone, significantly more than he did from mid May until the end of June. He stopped walking (6%) and swung and missed over 12% of the time. While Bruce didn’t strike out an obscene amount (19%), he was clearly beginning to expand the zone more. He raked for the entire month, but long term, I feared his aggressive ways would catch up to him.

And here we are in August. In the first nine games, Bruce continues to swing at pitches outside the zone, swing and miss, and strikeout. He has walked twice.

Swinging at poor pitches has also led Bruce to hit more groundballs this month than line drives or fly balls. And Bruce has hit .183 on groundballs this season. Poor plate discipline leads to weaker contact.

Pitchers have adjusted to Bruce’s aggressive approach and made him pay. Previously, Bruce was willing to take a walk if he didn’t get a pitch to drive. In early August, he seemingly hasn’t seen a pitch he could resist and has felt the consequences.

The last few games against the Padres were better, and Bruce may be adjusting back to a more disciplined approach. For example, on Tuesday against the Padres, Bruce swung at zero pitches outside of the strike zone. He went hitless (hitting a rocket line drive right at someone), but he didn’t swing and miss at all. He also went to a 3-2 count in his first at bat on Wednesday and proceeded to Triple in two runs. In his next at bat, he walked. Unfortunately, he swung at several bad pitches last night against our old buddy, Mat Latos.

We should not overreact to a week and a half of games. Most players go through stretches like this over the course of a season. Bruce could easily right the ship over the next week and be fine That’s baseball. Pitchers adjust to hitters, and hitters adjust right back.

Bruce has proven he can command the strike zone as a hitter, and if he wants to have more consistent success, he needs to return to his patient ways. It’s not that he can’t get hot while swinging at more pitches outside the zone, it’s that he likely won’t be able to sustain success that way.

When Bruce doesn’t get himself out, he is a borderline elite offensive player as he showed for two and a half straight months this season. When he starts expanding the zone, he eventually goes into hitting funks. It seems like a simple adjustment when you’ve shown you can do it. But adjustments are hard when someone is throwing 95 with a sharp breaking ball. Let’s hope Bruce rights the ship quickly.