In the month of May, Bruce has hit a whopping 12 home runs and put up Bautistaesque slugging numbers while getting on base more than 40% of the time. When asked what changes in his approach have contributed his sudden power surge, Bruce admitted:
I’ve been making better decisions, which is the one of the big things. It’s cliché and all that, but it’s the truth. Swing at pitches you want to swing at and don’t swing at the pitches they’re trying to get you to chase, and you’re going to have a lot easier time up there.
A quick look at his numbers reveals that so far this year Bruce has actually continued to swing at a league average percentage of pitches outside of the strike zone, as he’s been wont to do throughout his career. In fact, his plate discipline numbers are almost exactly in line with his rates last year and the year before. What’s different is that he’s making contact on more pitches outside the zone. Last year, Bruce made contact with 53.7% of the pitches he saw outside of the strike zone. This year, he’s making contact at a rate of 61%.
This could mean quite a few different things, but if you take a look at the specific pitches that Bruce is taking and swinging at, we begin to learn that the Cincinnati Reds outfielder is showing an incredibly improved ability to spot sliders.
Compare the sliders that Bruce swung at last year:
To this year:
All of those swings at sliders away from the left handed hitter, that made him look foolish in 2010, are being taken for balls in 2011. I realize that the sample sizes between all of last season and to this point in 2011 are different, but it’s not as though he isn’t still being tested with those outside pitches, he’s just no longer chasing them.
While his new found ability to lay off sliders away might explain Bruce’s lower whiff rate on the pitch this year compared to last, it doesn’t explain how Bruce is swinging at a higher percentage of sliders this year (49.6%) than last (47.4%), and putting them in play at a better rate too, despite getting around the same percentage of pitches for strikes (59.6% in 2010 vs. 58.9% in 2011). Last year, of the 361 sliders that Bruce saw, he got fourteen hits off of the pitch. This season he already has seven hits including three home runs from only 129.
If you look back to the two original swing charts, you’ll see that Bruce is still swinging at pitches below the strike zone. In fact, he’s doing so at an even higher rate now than he was before, just now he’s making slightly better contact.
So, instead of cutting out all of the bad pitches he sees, he’s only really stopped swinging at the ones he can’t make contact on. And if anything, he’s increased his swings at the bad pitches that he does make contact with to compensate. He’s sort of like a more selective, but ultimately less accurate Vladimir Guerrero, and it’s showing in his decreased walk rate, which should seem strange considering his slightly improved strikeout rate and all of the talk about his improved plate discipline.
We’ll see if he can maintain this approach throughout the whole season, but Bruce may be on to something as a way to keep pitchers guessing: just become a completely different hitter each year.