The Cincinnati Reds may not be winning their division, but they have very little to complain about. They are just two and a half games behind the Cardinals juggernaut, and that is enough for the second-best record in the National League, putting them in great shape for the playoffs either way. While their offense has not been among the best in the National League, with hitters like Joey Votto and Shin-Soo Choo and others, they should be just fine.
Their pitching is excellent, despite Johnny Cueto‘s injury, thanks to Homer Bailey having the season long expected of him, Mike Leake contributing, Ardolis Chapman making people wonder why he is being wasted in relief, and Mat Latos doing his thing.
Given the Reds’ nice situation, it might seem churlish to wonder about Latos’ good buddy Jay Bruce. Bruce has been the Reds’ third-best hitter (122 wRC+) behind Votto and Choo this year, and leads the team in home runs with 14. But while Bruce is far from a bust, there is a sense in which the 26-year-old — who won Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year Award in 2007 and was BA’s #1 overall prospect prior to 2008, when he made his major league debut at 21 — has not become all that people expected. It is one thing to look at players who are obvious busts or surprises, but what about a player who is good, but not as good as one might have thought?
Again, this is not to say that Bruce has been bad, or has even “let down” the Reds. After all, even the best prospects bust (Delmon Young) and carry risk, so to even be an average contributor on the major league level (and on a club-friendly deal) is a win with any prospect. So why am I saying that Bruce has not been all that people might have thought he could be?
When Bruce first arrived in the majors in 2008, he walked at a below-average rate, and had issues with contact – both acceptable and understandable for a 21-year-old. The 21 home runs in just 452 plate appearances kept expectations and excitement levels high. In 2009, Bruce missed a big chunk of the season with injury, but was even more impressive. He upped his walk rate from about 2008′s seven percent to almost 10 percent, just his strikeouts from about 24 percent to under 20 percent, and, most impressively, hit more home runs (22 in 2009 versus 21 in 2008) in fewer plate appearance (387), fuelling an ISO jump from .199 and .246. Power typically develops through a players early and mid-20s, so this was most exciting, as plate discipline does as well. Bruce also looked impressive in the field.
In 2010, when he was just 23, Bruce played his first full, unhindered major league season, and at least on the surface, looked like he was ready for superstardom. While he had always shown power, contact and BABIP issues led to a low average in the previous seasons, holding back his overall production. But 2010 was the year everything seemed to come together for Bruce, and he hit .281/.353/.493 (124 wRC+) and played great defense by all accounts. According to both fWAR and rWAR, he had about a five-win season, and at 23, he seemed ready to become one of the première players in the game. The Reds signed Bruce to a six-year, $51 million extension after the season that seemed like a huge bargain.
This is not a sad story. The contract is still a good deal for the Reds, and Bruce has stayed healthy and productive. Locking up a pre-arbitration player rarely goes wrong, after all. However, Bruce has never managed to better that 2010 performance, even though his most impressive tool, power, has remained intact. It would give the wrong impression to ask “what went wrong?” It might be better to ask why Bruce did not become the superstar people expected him to be after his first three seasons in the big leagues — after that five-win season, why has he not put up more than three since (this season he still is projected to be about three)?
One easy answer, at least on the total value stat front, is that his fielding ratings have never matched up with his earlier-career performance. Both the play-by-play and non-play-by-play metrics see him as being outsanding in 2010, then fluctuating around average since then. Most readers are probably at least vaguely familiar with the difficulty of objectively measuring fielding. His 2010 performance was fairly inflated in terms of WAR(P) by fielding. That is not to say he did not field well, only that projecting fielding going forward is tough, and regresses more heavily.
That is probably a bit obvious, but what is more interesting analytically is Bruce’s bat. While he has not been bad with the bat, he has never matched the 124 wRC+ from 2010. He has not been far below it, but one would expect not just from his performance, but its strength in the key peripherals — walks and, above all, power, that Bruce would have continued to improve his offensive performance. Yet his seasonal wRC+s after 2010 have been 118, 119, and 122. Nothing to complain about, but not the superstar one would expect.
Power has not been a problem. Indeed, Bruce has improved in that aspect of his game. In 2010, Bruce’s isolated power was .212. From 2011 to the present, it is .236. Bruce his more than 30 home runs in both 2011 and 2012, and both ZiPS and Steamer project him to do so again this year. BABIP is a classic culprit, but Bruce only had a slightly low BABIP in one season, a non-horrible .283 in 2012, has a high BABIP so far this year at .343, and overall since 2011 is at a quite average .301. That is not the issue.
When I first started thinking about Bruce for this post, it was just that he had not become the superstar I had expected, and I was not sure why. I am sorry to report that it has come down to a pretty typical issue: plate approach (broadly conceived). Bruce has generally taken walks in about 10 percent of his plate appearances (an above-average rate) since 2009. His walk rate is down below seven percent this year, but it is a small sample so far (and his high BABIP has made up for it for the time being).
Perhaps “plate approach” is a bit misleading right word. For his career, Bruce has swung at more pitches than average, but prior to this year, was mostly around average. The problem for Bruce has been contact, which has led to strikeouts. League average contact rate is usually around 80 percent, but Bruce has been below 75 percent every year since 2010.
Yes, it is the ol’ contact monster again. It is not as if it is killing Bruce’s numbers — he has a 119 wRC+ since 2011, and so far this season, his BABIP has enabled him to almost match 2010′s offensive production. The issue, however, is not whether or not Jay Bruce is a good player. He is. However, given the power and improved ability to draw a walk he displayed in 2009 and 2010, one might have expected a big overall improvement at the plate from a player both stats and scouts had marked for superstar-dom. It has not happened.
Walk rate does usually improve throughout a hitter’s career, and while Bruce’s is down this season, he probably is about a 10 percent walk rate guy in terms of his true talent. Power typically peaks in the mid- to late-20s, so Bruce may improve some there, too. But the contact is going to hold him back. Strikeout rate usually improves until the mid-20s. Bruce is there now. Every player ages differently, of course, so saying it is “now or never” would be rash.
It may be that Bruce is as good as he will ever be, though. Some players manage with lots of strikeouts and only slightly above-average walk rates. Giancarlo Stanton clearly has superstar abilities with even more strikeouts than Bruce, but while Bruce has very good power, he is not on Stanton’s level in that respect. Bruce does not have a low BABIP, but he is also pretty clearly not going to be a high-BABIP player at this point. Unlike Joey Votto, he occasionally pops out, for example.
Although Bruce is only 26, and still has time to surprise us, 26 is not terribly young, either. The contact issues do not seem to be going away. Just about every team in baseball would love to have Jay Bruce. But that is because every team in baseball could use another above-average player. Until he figures out how to put the ball into play more often (while keeping his power intact), it seems unlikely that Bruce will be the superstar many expected him to become.