What Happened to Jay Bruce in 2009?
Not very many players have the ceiling that Jay Bruce has—at 6’3” and 225 pounds, Bruce has a smooth left-handed swing that generates a ton of power along with a plus arm and good range in the outfield. The prized prospect of the Cincinnati Reds, Bruce rocketed through the Minors in 2007 and won Baseball America’s Minor League Player of the Year award. Here’s an excerpt from BA’s scouting report on him in 2008:
(…) Bruce combines tremendous bat speed with an excellent swing plane. He has a knack for deciphering and correcting flaws in his swing between at-bats and sometimes even between pitches. He has the natural ability to hit for average and power even if he didn’t work hard, but he does have the drive of a baseball rat, which explains why he’s the first person to the ballpark and the last to leave. Every one of Bruce’s tools is better than average. On the 20-80 scouting scale, his bat rates as a 65, his power as a 65-70, his speed as a 55, his defense in center field as a 55 (projected as a 60 if he moves to right field) and his arm as a 60. As impressive as his tools are, he also has exceptional instincts and exceptional makeup. He’s a leader in the clubhouse and has the aw-shucks humbleness to be the public face of the franchise.
Talk about a future superstar. Jay made his debut in 2008 at the age of 21 and hit .254/.314/.453, good for a wOBA of .328 in 452 plate appearances. He showed considerable power, posting a .199 ISO and 21 big flies, which prorates to 33 in a full season. His performance was somewhat subpar compared to what Cincinnati fans expected out of him, but this was his first year in the Majors and he was 21, so not much could really be expected.
In 2009 Jay had his season cut short by fracturing his wrist on July 11th, and he finished the year with a line of .223/.303/.470 and a wOBA of .329, which was exactly league average. While he flashed outstanding power (.246 ISO), his lackluster average and subsequent OBP and SLG suffered terribly. But was Jay’s 2009 season an indication that he’s not quite the Major Leaguer that we’d thought he’d be, or was it a fluke? Let’s take a look at his hitting as a whole and see what we come up with.
First of all, Jay posted a walk rate of 9.9%, which was 0.8% better than league average. This may not seem particularly great, but let’s keep in mind that his career BB% in the Minor Leagues was only 8.1%, so this was a nice improvement for him. In terms of pitch selection, Jay swung at 0.9% more pitches outside of the zone than the average Major Leaguer and swung at 8.3% more pitches than average on pitches in the zone, which indicates that he has relatively good pitch recognition in addition to some aggressive tendencies. He attacks pitches in the zone and does a pretty good job at laying off of pitches out of the zone. The troubling thing, though, is that when Jay swings at pitches he misses more than usual (by 11.8%) and he has some contact issues within the zone as well (4.6% worse than average). This suggests he might have some mechanical issues in his swing, which could lead to more strikeouts—and it did, but not by much—he only struck out 1.4% more than the average hitter. Jay’s batted ball data suggests that perhaps he has a bit of an uppercut in his swing, as he knocked nearly 50% of his balls in play up into the air. About 40% of those flyballs were smacked into the outfield, where it’s a bit easier to convert balls in play into an out. So what the heck caused him to hit for such a low average?
Quite simply, Jay’s batting average on balls in play was incredibly low. League average BABIP hovers around .290-.300; Jay’s was .221. His BABIP in the Minor Leagues was consistently around .350-.400, and his limited stint in the Majors during 2008 resulted in a .298 BABIP. So something seems a bit off here. Hitters have some relative control over their BABIP as compared to pitchers, but to see a drop this low indicates “bad luck,” as in less balls in play are falling for hits than they rightfully should. Perhaps this is due to the fact that Jay only had a line-drive percentage of 13%, which is well below his norm and well below league average. While the power was there, perhaps the balls he’d hit into play were “easier” to catch because less of them were line drives. Then again, it’s not out of the realm of possibility to believe that a number of Jay’s outs made were “lucky” catches by the opposing team. This begs the question—if we adjust for this “luck” factor and find what his expected average on balls in play are based on his component rates, could we get a better idea of how well Jay should have performed in 2009?
Last year Peter Bendix and Chris Dutton introduced xBABIP, which stands for “Expected Batting Average on Balls In Play.” It’s an extremely dense formula that takes into consideration the player’s component rates and speed and spits out an expected BABIP. It has a correlation of 0.59 to actual BABIP and worked better at predicting BABIP than the previous years’ BABIP or any other estimator, for that matter. So while it’s certainly not a perfect model, it’s quite accurate and gives us a good idea as to which players experienced “luck” or were “unlucky.”
Jay’s xBABIP is 0.294, which is 73 points higher than his actual BABIP. If that doesn’t tell you something, I don’t know what will. First and foremost, it does indicate that he was extremely “unlucky,” low line drive rate be damned. It also tells us that he’s unlikely to have such a low average and slash rates next year—but most importantly, we can use this to get an idea of how well Bruce should have performed, and the results are a bit exciting:
“LWTS” stands for linear weights, which are the average run value of each event tailored to fit the 2009 run environment. “LWTS/150” are the amount of runs Jay is expected to contribute over the course of 150 games, and “RAA/150” are Runs Above an Average player per 150 games played. As you can see here, there’s a large discrepancy between Jay’s RAA/150 and his expected RAA/150; a full swing of 23.5 runs, or about 2.4 wins. I’d also like to mention that he was on pace for 33 home runs…talk about some serious power.
Now let’s put it all together to find Wins Above Replacement (WAR):
My, that’s a big swing. By this measurement, Jay’s predicted line would put him as All-Star status at the age of 22. While there are issues with extrapolating numbers, remember that this is an estimate—there’s no guarantee that he’d put up a 4.4 WAR if he had been more “lucky,” but Jay’s line should have been substantially better than it was, and he’s a prime candidate for a true breakout season in 2010. Make no mistake, we’re looking at a superstar in the making—let’s just hope that he doesn’t run into any more bad luck next year.