Updating the Top 100 - Jay Bruce

Yadier (toilet) Molina hit this ball. - USA TODAY Sports

Guess who's turning 27 next year???

47. Jay Bruce

Played as Red Primary Position Career Rank Peak Rank Prime Rank
2008-2013 RF 56 39 34
Percent Breakdown of Value Best Season Best player on Reds
Hit Field Pitch 2013 Never
81% 19% 0%
Awards/Honors as a Red Leading the League On the Reds Leaderboard
All Star – 2011, 2012
Silver Slugger - 2012
N/A

-12th in career slugging pct
-12th in career home runs
-28th in career RBI
-36th in career OPS+
-44th in career runs

When I was in the fifth grade, our teacher had written a sentence on the board and asked me to take the chalk and do something...probably diagram the sentence or circle the object or some nonsense in that vein. What I do recall is that the sentence's protagonist was a "Mr. Boggs", which to a late-1980s New England schoolroom could only mean one thing. Alas, the sentence was not about baseball, but about Boggs's taking some action connected to the art community; perhaps he was enjoying a painting or two at the local museum.

Nevertheless, I took the opportunity to play to the pre-pubescent and sports-obsessed crowd, and drew an arrow to Boggs's name and wrote in "Wade". This act of mild rebellion got the desired response from the crowd and I took satisfaction in helping a room full of captives find some small piece of joy on an interminable Friday afternoon.

The teacher took a look at the board, grabbed the eraser, and sternly asked me if this was my idea of an editorial comment. "Yes," I said, calmly. "Well this is what I think of your comment!" The eraser violently met chalkboard, leaving only a faint trace of poor Boggs's Christian name.

I was informed that Monday's recess would be spent with her, and I tortured myself all weekend thinking of ways to lawyer out of this pending judgment. I mentally crafted sob stories about the harsh afflictions of high academic expectations; that humor was the release valve to an otherwise demanding schedule, et cetera. I mean, come on.

The teacher and I finally met on Monday and she opened with a brief comment about how deeply she appreciated the renaissance period but that a discussion on nude paintings was not appropriate for this age group. I had already perfected my "WTF" look, even at such a tender age. The teacher reacted: "what, exactly, did you write on the board last week?" "Wade. As in Wade Boggs. He's a baseball player."

Inexplicably, she was not a baseball fan but she laughed anyway, told me she read the word as "nude" instead of "Wade", and sent me out to enjoy what was left of my recess period. In the brief moment of reflection I allowed the episode, it dawned on me that it wasn't the crushing pressure of growing up as a bright kid in a peaceful home in a bucolic Connecticut town that led to my unjust prison sentence, but rather my shitty handwriting. Which brings us to Jay Bruce.

In one sense, it's tempting to say that Jay Bruce was born 15 years too late. Had he entered his prime in the mid-to-late 1990s, he might have been a regular 40 HR guy, instead of a "mere" 30 dinger hitter. Indeed, given the falling offense levels, Bruce's 807 OPS in 2013 can look to be pedestrian if you fail to calibrate your contextual lenses.

This is not to say that Bruce is any more or less valuable in this modern era than he would have been in another. It does serve, however, to reinforce the sinking feeling that all the perception cards are stacked against Bruce.

Consider:

  • Bruce was once ranked the #1 prospect in baseball by Baseball America. Note that in the 25 years or so that BA has been doing their thing, only Bruce and Homer Bailey have ever cracked the top-5 prospect threshold as members of the Reds organization.
  • Bruce entered the majors on an absolute tear, having reached base 22 times in his first seven games. This pace turned out to be unsustainable.
  • After two seasons of being roughly league average with the bat, Bruce elevated his game to a 124 OPS+ as a 23-year-old in 2010.

Not to put too fine a point on it, but Joey Votto was supposed to be the opening act...

I can get comfortable with resetting expectations, and I'm not particularly thrown by an unusual career pattern, as Bruce's near-constant offensive output during ages 23-26 seem to be. Where I get a bit squeamish is when I look at the two most basic rate trends: walks and strikeouts. Bruce's 2013 walk rate (9.0%) is his lowest since his rookie season, and is a far cry from the double digit rates of 2010-11. More alarming is the strikeout rate, which has now increased every year since 2009, and was up to 26.5% this past year, good for 4th best (worst?) in the NL.

While this is where many fans will reflexively point out that strikeouts are not correlated with decreased scoring and that the hitting approach that lends itself to a high number of strikeouts is also an approach that yields extra base hits, I will respond to this strawman I have just created by saying that: a) Bruce's production has not improved as his strikeout rate has increased, despite moving ever closer to the typical hitter peak ages; and b) his power output is also not increasing. This being a 5 year trend now, I'm willing to conclude that something is fundamentally wrong with Jay Bruce offensive game. He's clearly talented, to the point that he's able to overcome such a flaw and be a net positive component to the offense. What I don't know is if the flaw is more a hole in his swing or more a byproduct of a faulty approach. The answer to this question doesn't really change Bruce's value, but it may offer clues to whether he may someday yet break out.

And that breakout is the Holy Grail for this team. Now entering his age-27 season and owner of a remarkably consistent batting record, Jay Bruce's future offers either a peak season that would complement Joey Votto's skill set very nicely, or a peak that looks a whole lot like a plateau, on a team that continues to scramble for the lost offense from 2010.

For my money, I'm still placing a bet that we see that mythical peak season, albeit not to the MVP heights we once envisioned. And now that Bruce is back to playing right field with the skill set of a centerfielder, that can still be pretty damned good.

In six seasons with the Reds, Jay Bruce has come to plate 3,406 times and hit .257/.330/.482, for an OPS+ of 115. He has topped 20 home runs in each of those seasons, and hit at least 30 in the last three, for a total of 164, driving in 485 runs in the process. He leaps from #71 to #44 on the all-time Reds list, and rises two spots to #4 on the team's list of greatest right fielders.

The Top 15 Rightfielders in Reds history

1 Ken Griffey
2 Ival Goodman
3 Mike Mitchell
4 Jay Bruce*
5 Curt Walker
6 Reggie Sanders

7 Dusty Miller
8 Paul O'Neill
9 Dave Parker
10 Greasy Neale
11 Wally Post
12 Sam Crawford
13 Johnny Wyrostek
14 Tommy Harper
15 Dave Collins
*active

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