Coming in to the 2016 season one of the biggest question marks on the Reds' roster was Jay Bruce. During the offseason, many wondered whether or not Bruce would even be a Red much longer. Once it became clear that he would be Cincinnati's right fielder the questions turned toward his production.
In 2014 Bruce underwent knee surgery, and when he returned he endured the worst offensive season of his career. Management and fans alike were hopeful that Bruce could return to form in 2015 with a full offseason of rest. While he performed better, he still wasn't able to return to his pre-2014 form.
There have been a number of suggestions as to why Bruce has struggled. The knee issues really bothered him as he admitted to Fangraphs' Eno Sarris. It's also likely that Bruce is slowing down some because of the natural effects of aging. The current expectation is that hitters peak around 27 or 28. This April Bruce turned 29, and at his current age it's probably unfair to expect him to be who he was 3-4 seasons ago.
However, others have suggested another reason for his struggles at the plate. Last season Bruce had the lowest BABIP of his career (.251). Mike Podhorzer has suggested that defensive shifts are the "likely culprit" for Bruce's diminishing production. Defensive shifts have clearly increased around the league, and Bruce is one of the primary players facing the brunt of this strategy. The data clearly shows that Bruce is coming to the plate against an increasing number of defensive shifts.
|Season||Pitches Faced Against a Shift||Pitches Faced Against Traditional Alignment|
The above data is courtesy of Fangraphs
Bruce has always been an extreme pull hitter. Last season he pulled the ball 46.8% of the time. The previous season (2014), that rate was even higher at 48.9%. In 2015 the league average mark was 39.1%, and this year it's trending at a similar rate of 39.5%. Teams know that if Bruce puts the ball in play he's likely to hit it toward right field. It only makes sense that his production would suffer if there's almost a 50% chance that he's going to hit a ball where defenders have positioned themselves.
One of the key areas where the shift has affected Bruce is his BABIP on ground balls (data courtesy of Baseball Reference). Over the past three seasons it has become increasingly less likely that Bruce will reach base if he puts a ball on the ground.
Bruce's BABIP on ground balls
Unless Bruce is hitting home runs, then teams have been able to neutralize his effectiveness by loading up on the right side of the infield. With this data in mind it's obvious that unless Bruce changed his approach at the plate he was going to become increasingly less effective as a hitter. His power is naturally declining because of his age. In the past Bruce could have burned defenses by hitting the ball really hard and really far consistently. However, if he can't hit the ball as far as he used to as often as he used to, then Bruce faced a major problem moving forward.
The charts below will help you visualize how pull heavy Bruce was in the 2015 and 2014 seasons.
For Bruce to remain productive at the plate something needed to change. A week in to the 2016 season is it possible that we are seeing that change? Yes, Bruce only has twenty-four plate appearances this season. With all of the normal caveats about "small sample size," is it possible that we can still learn something from his first week of data?
In 2016 Bruce is pulling far fewer balls that he puts in play as compared to his career average. For his career he has pulled 45.1% of pitches that he's made contact with. However, this season he's only pulling 21.4% of batted balls. That's a staggering decrease. Every season (excluding 2013) that he's been in the majors he's pulled at least 44.2% of the pitches that he makes contact with. While there isn't much data to go on this season, it's still surprising to see the stark difference in the data already.
So if he's not hitting balls into right field where are they going? A majority of them are actually heading to center this season. The percentage of balls in play that he's hitting toward center has jumped almost twenty points to 50%. He's also seeing an increase in the amount of pitches that he's hitting the other way. Last year he went to the opposite field with 22.7% of balls in play, and this season that number has elevated to 28.6%.
Here is an example of Bruce taking a ball up the middle against the Pirates on Saturday.
How has Bruce's apparent willingness to adjust affected his production in 2016? Forty-six of the forty-eight pitches he's faced this season have come against the shift. Thus far his BABIP on ground balls has spiked to .333. Stories came out this spring about how Bruce was willing to work on bunting to try and mitigate the negative affects of defensive shifts. It appears now that his willingness to change might have extended to his overall approach at the plate as well.
It's also possible to see a small change in his approach when you look at the types of pitches that he's swinging at this season.
Again, it's early enough that you can't draw too many conclusions from the data. Still it's worth noting that Bruce hasn't swung at anything outsize the zone and inside. Some pitches he traditionally would have tried to pull he's laying off of. He's still having the majority of his success on the inside part of the plate, but he's not letting his desire to pull the ball make him swing at bad pitches.
Bruce has come out of the gate in 2016 hitting an impressive .391/.417/.739. It would appear that some of the success that he's experiencing this seasons stems from the fact that he's not trying to be as pull heavy as he's been in the past. If he's focusing less on pulling the ball it will likely mean fewer home runs, but it also might mean that his total offensive contributions trend upward.
Jay Bruce is moving into a phase of his career when focusing on just mashing the ball will lead to diminishing returns. It appears that he's modified his approach to try and use more of the field. For one thing, this will mitigate his aging curve as his power begins to decrease. It could also go a long way toward negating the effects that defensive shifts have had on him over the past few seasons. This year Reds fans might watch Jay Bruce hit fewer home runs, but be more valuable offensively. At this point in his career that's a trade worth making.
Although, he can still do good things when he tries to pull the ball too...