I was in Great American Ball Park for Jay Bruce's MLB debut in late May of 2008. I drove up from Lexington when I found out he'd be in the lineup against the Pittsburgh Pirates, and I sat about fifteen rows up in RF while he went 3 for 3 with a double, two opposite-field smacked singles, and a pair of walks.
I was mesmerized by the talent the then 21 year old possessed. At times, I'm still mesmerized by the talent he displays.
I am and will continue to be a very big fan of Jay Bruce, which makes writing about his terrible, horrible, no good, very bad 2014 all the the more painful.
A torn meniscus. A rushed recovery. The usual deep slumps left unbuttressed by the hottest of hot streaks. Disastrous defense. Each problem seemed to compound, and by the end of the season, Bruce had produced the worst marks of his career in most every statistic imaginable.
He set career worsts in batting average (.217), on-base percentage (.281), slugging percentage (.373), wRC+ (79), wOBA (.288), dingers (18), strikeout rate (27.3), ISO (.156), defensive runs saved (-13.6), fWAR (.1.1), oWAR (-0.1), dWAR (-1.7), and bWAR (-1.1). In fact, among all NL players who played in both 2013 and 2014, no player had a larger fWAR drop off than Bruce, whose -5.1 decline was eclipsed only by Baltimore's Chris Davis (-6.3) in all of Major League Baseball. [Since you've got the Kleenex out, I should go ahead an mention that among all players who played in the NL in 2013, the three with the largest year over year declines in fWAR were all Reds, as Shin-Soo Choo (-5.0) and Joey Votto (-5.0) nearly caught Jay.]
From April 27th until the end of the season, he never once woke up with an OPS over .764. For the last 57 games of his season beginning July 20th, he never once woke up with an OPS over .700, and he hit just .208/.245/.338 (.584) from that date until the end of the season.
By the end of August, it had left him - by his own account - miserable, embarassed, humbled, and on the verge of a panic attack. It left even his most ardent supporters scratching their heads and hoping for the quickest possible end to what had been a completely lost season.
Was it just a bad luck, bad BABIP season? Was it the opposition's continual increase in using the shift that had sapped his pull-side success? 2014 was, of course, Jay's age 27 season, the year in which many cite as the peak year for power and production, yet nearly every aspect of the already successful career Bruce had established fell apart in painfully obvious ways. Or, was it him being rushed back early from meniscus surgery in hopes that he and one of his hot streaks could help the Reds overcome the eventual losses of their other two established offense stalwarsts, Joey Votto and Brandon Phillips?
If there's any silver lining to Bruce's 2014, it's in the numbers he posted prior to his knee sending him to the shelf on May 4th. A notorious slow-starter, Bruce hit just .216 with 3 dingers through the first 30 games of the season, but he did so with a .352 OBP and 22 walks in that time frame, a level of patience that he'd never approached in any full season in his career. The strikeouts were there, and the pop hadn't yet developed, but as the calendar flipped and "May Bruce" was about to be unfurled, the knee injury struck and sent everything spiraling toward the toilet.
And, here we are. The guy who hit at least 20 dingers in six consecutive seasons prior to 2014, posted an OPS over .800 for four consecutive seasons prior to 2014, averaged over 30 dingers and over 100 RBI for three consecutive seasons prior to 2014, and will play in 2015 at a still-young 28 years old is - all of a sudden - one of the biggest question marks the team must face in the midst of a pivotal offseason. Can the Reds honestly expect a .260/.330/.490 season from their RF? Should they be forced to expect a mere fraction of that based on the rapid decline he saw this season?
To his credit, Bruce has stated publicly that he's going to do everything in his power to right the wrongs his abilities reflected over the past season, and he's acknowledged that a full offseason reconditioning his surgically repaired knee is in the offing. Even the mouth-breathing casual fans who accuse players from time to time of looking like "they don't care" can't accuse Bruce of the same, and we've all got the highest of hopes that he can manage to put this awful year behind him and recommence destroying baseballs at a should-be franchise career dinger leader at some point soon pace.
Who knows. Maybe 2014 was the pooled bad-Jay streaks wrapped into a single season so that the breakout, hot-Jay, MVP season we've all hoped for materializes in 2015. For the sake of Reds victories and one of my favorite player's psyche, I'm damn sure hoping that's the case.