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Jay Bruce is Young and Talented, But He Still Has Some Adjustments to Make

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In many ways, Jay Bruce is well developed for a 22-year old player.  His 14 home runs are tied with Johnny Bench for the 2nd most in the last 50 seasons by a 22-year old hitter in a team's first 50 games.  His isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) ranks behind only Evan Longoria and Justin Upton this season for players under the age of 25.  And his 35 home runs in his first 157 games played are the 5th most by a player who is 22 years old or younger in the last 55 years.

But even with all of that power, Bruce still has a lot of work to do to develop his game.  I've noticed a handful of articles over the last couple of days telling us not to worry about Bruce.  And they all have a theme similar to Jason Grey from ESPN.com:

However, there are good reasons to think that average is going to be on the way up in the future. Bruce is simply too talented to hit in that range for long, especially in light of the improvements in his approach at the plate. The other reason is purely statistical. Bruce has an extremely unlucky .221 batting average on balls in play (as opposed to a .298 mark his rookie season, which was right around the norm).

How unlucky is that number? It is the third-worst BABIP mark in baseball, behind only Brian Giles and Garrett Atkins, and that's likely to even out over the balance of the season.

Grey tells us not to worry because Bruce has been one of the most unlucky players in the league.  This excites Brad Spieser at Twin Killing dot com:

I'm not sure why some of you are on Bruce's case, but hopefully the BABIP statistic will help. Just think of it like this: If Bruce's BABIP were somewhere around .280 (still below league average, but significantly better) his batting average would likely be in the .265 range and his RBI total would be closer to 40 than 30. Translation: This city would look like it was sponsored by Jay Bruce jerseys.

On the surface, these statements seem reasonable.  Once a ball is put into play, the results can be much harder to predict, especially if it's not going carry out over the wall.  However, it's not so cut-and-dry that Bruce's BABIP should be .300, just like the league average, or even .280 like Spieser simply estimates.  The fact is that while BABIP does have some luck involved, there is more that goes into it than just luck.

One thing for instance is the type of batted balls the hitter puts into play.  Here is the breakdown of BABIP by batted ball type for the last 3 seasons in the Majors:

Year GB FB LD
2007 .235 .135 .723
2008 .246 .142 .718
2009 .238 .142 .726

As you can see, how you hit the ball most definitely matters when it comes to BABIP.  And if you are wondering why flyball BABIP is so low, it's mainly because the majority of hits off of flyballs go for home runs, which are removed from BABIP.

Now let's look at Bruce's batted ball type breakdown this season:

GB FB LD
Rate 36.2% 50.4% 13.5%
BABIP .283 .036 .556

So it does indeed appear that Bruce has been somewhat unlucky, especially on flyballs and line drives.  However, Bruce's flyball percentage is in the top 10% in the Majors, while his line drive rate is the 8th lowest.  So, adjusting strictly on "luck" (i.e. setting his batted ball BABIPs to league average numbers) only gives Bruce 7 more hits on the year for a .258 batting average.  I'm sure we'd all take those 7 extra hits, but the point is that for Bruce to really make improvements in his game, it's not a matter of just waiting around for his luck to turn.  His lack of luck isn't what is killing his batting average.  His lack of line drives is.

The good news is that, as Doug Gray shows us, Bruce is slowly improving on a couple of key peripheral stats.  An increased walk-rate and a decreasing strikeout rate will go a long way toward making Bruce a more complete player.  But there is still much work to be done as neither the 8.8% walk rate or the 21.8% strikeout rate are particularly impressive. 

The biggest problem for Bruce right now appears to be strike zone recognition.  And I think Bruce understands this, at least in thought, as he told Jason Grey:

I have a plan, pitchers have a plan; it's really about who executes theirs better. It's not about taking pitches; it's about taking pitches you can't do anything with. It's about taking balls and swinging at drivable strikes.

He's still learning what those pitches are though, as he's swinging at 28.7% of the pitches out of the strike zone, but only making contact with 48% of those pitches.  Only Ryan Howard swings at more pitches out of the zone AND makes less contact.  Look for Bruce to continue to try to shrink down that strike zone to pitches he can handle as he matures.  If he can manage to do that, then he should blossom into the star we all hope he can be.