People love Jay Bruce.
It’s the way his name was built for a stadium (BRUUUUUUUUUUUUUUCE!). The way he puts up the power stats, the homers, the ribbies. The way he’s built like a linebacker but smiles like a Boy Scout.
People don’t appreciate Jay Bruce.
It’s the way a small market can swallow a star. The way he plays second fiddle in the Joey Votto band. The way he’s built a little differently than predecessor Paul O’Neill; he uses water coolers for hydration, not batting practice.
Or maybe, just maybe, people don’t know Jay Bruce at all.
A national chorus outside of Cincinnati is clamoring to claim him as a rising star, an underrated commodity. In a recent article, Jerry Crasnick of ESPN (who once covered the Reds beat) referred to Bruce’s “impressive numbers” that have come “without an abundance of national publicity.”
Those numbers? Jay Bruce is the only NL Player to hit at least 25 HR every year since 2010. He has more doubles and home runs over the past three years than anyone in Major League Baseball except some dude named Miguel Cabrera. And his age; he’s 27.
Numbers like that probably led to another line on Jay Bruce’s offseason resume. On MLB Network’s Top 100 players in the game “right now,” he ranked an astounding 36th. Higher than Zack Greinke, if you’re keeping track; teammate Brandon Phillips finished 63 spots below him.
And one of the hosts on the show felt he was underrated in that spot.
My initial reaction surprised me. I root for the Reds. I want Jay Bruce to be appreciated. But then I see a name like Matt Holliday a few spots down (I know, I just committed a Cardinal sin (get it? CARDINAL SIN! (fire up the pun gun! (how many parentheses can this guy legally use?)))).
Sorry…I lost myself there…where was I?
Oh yes; then I see a name like Matt Holliday. You know, the same World Champion Matt Holliday that has posted an OPS+ of 144, 138, 151, 149, 169 the last five years. Who has struck out 187 less times than Jay Bruce over the last three seasons. Even with Bruce’s superior defense, I see that name, and I find myself wanting to start that horrid stadium chant: overrated.
Is it possible to be both overlooked and overrated? To be both underrated and understood?
Presenting Jay Bruce, a one-man dichotomy, a one-man debate.
Why Jay Bruce is Underrated
It’s hard to ignore those power numbers in Crasnick’s piece. And with Manager Bryan Price deciding to bat Bruce cleanup on most nights, they may only increase with the luxury of not batting behind the master of grounded-into-double-plays (Brandon Phillips).
And there are other skills you can’t ignore.
Endurance. Jay Bruce has played in 155 games or more for three straight seasons.
Power. Jay Bruce has posted OPS+ totals of 124, 118, 121, and 118 the past four seasons, consistently hitting well above league average.
Production. Though Bruce benefited from Shin-Soo Choo and Votto setting the table (the 500 baserunners he enjoyed while batting was 84 above the league average), he consistently got them home. 16% of players on the base paths scored when Bruce hit. And a whopping 56% scored when standing on third with less than two outs (compare this to Votto’s 40%).
Hardware. Despite often slipping under the radar in Cincinnati’s small market, Bruce is a two-time All-Star, a two-time Silver Slugger, and twice has finished Top 10 in the MVP vote.
Defense. In the last four seasons, Bruce has posted two seasons with a Defensive Runs Saved mark above +15. But I trust our current defensive metrics about as much as I can calculate them. But anyone with baseball know-how and tape to watch can see that Bruce possesses a cannon-arm and good range for a man his size. And if you blame him for the occasional ball lost in the brightness, you’ve never seen the sun sit behind home plate at Great American Ballpark; it’s brutal.
You can quantify Bruce’s offensive and defensive prowess in a number of ways. For example, he finished second in extra-base hits in 2013 across all of baseball. He finished third in defensive zone runs among right fielders.
But this superstar, this superman, might have too many kryptonites.
Why Jay Bruce is overrated
The question marks of Bruce can be summed up in an alliterative swoop: strikeouts and streaks.
First, the guy has more #Whiffs than the official Reds Twitter account.
Bruce struck out more than any man in the National League not named Pedro Alvarez last season. Like Michael Jordan in the opening scenes of Space Jam, he looks good striking out with that long loop of a lefty swing. But he does it with a frequency that makes Adam Dunn nod in appreciation.
For his career, Bruce strikes out once every 3.7 at bats. That’s bad enough. But it’s trending down. In 2012, it was a strikeout every 3.6 at bats; by last season, he’d fallen to whiffing once every 3.4 trips to the plate.
Because of this impatience and propensity to swing at pitches closer to Dayton than Cincinnati, Bruce doesn’t get on-base at an admirable clip. His career on-base percentage falls below what Baseball-Reference.com predicts a league-average player would obtain hitting in the same ballparks. And while he started many a rally last season with Choo and Votto on the base paths, he also killed a fair few.
This feast or famine lifestyle at the play hurts. And Reds fans know this better than most. They remember Adam Dunn.
(Though, to be fair, Adam Dunn couldn’t get a golden glove if he had the Midas touch [whereas Bruce could conceivably compete] and he couldn’t cover right field despite the fact that his body takes up half of it…so there’s that.)
But perhaps the best argument to be sent forth in saying Jay Bruce is overrated is to remind baseball analysts and fans that season totals can mislead. While they present a larger sample size as to what a player is capable of, they don’t necessarily exemplify a player’s game-to-game worth.
Take Justin Upton, for example. His power totals from last year are impressive. But he also amassed most of them in the first couple months. How much did he help, or hurt, his team down the stretch? That takes a more nuanced look.
The same is true of Jay Bruce. Anyone who actually watches the Reds on a regular basis (i.e. not a lot of the national writers) understands that the team’s two left-handed sluggers live polar opposite existences at the plate: Votto is consistent to the point that it feels as routine as brushing teeth.
And Bruce is like streaking naked through the stadium. Sometimes the momentum is exhilarating; sometimes it is arrested.
Despite the end totals, Bruce had a stretch in 2013 where he failed to hit a home-run for 19 straight games. To put that in perspective, that pace (1 HR for every 20 games) would deliver an eight home-run season, also known as a Wellington Castillo.
If you start to look at Bruce’s production in 20 game samples, the fluctuations can be maddening.
For example, from August 2 to August 23, Bruce hit a paltry .192/.289/.315 with two home runs, 25 SO, and never more than one hit in a game. But earlier, from May 11 to June 2, he’d hit .296/.341/.617 with eight multi-hit games and six home runs. These streaks can happen to anyone, of course. But Bruce seems to be consistent only in his inconsistency.
Consider the last six series of the season. Bruce had highs and lows, which often made his impact negative in certain stretches of games. Compared to Votto, the ebbs and flows are much more noticeable.
Dodgers series (3 games) | Bruce: 4-12, 2 HR | Votto: 4-8, 1 HR
Cubs series (3 games) | Bruce: 1-11, 0 HR | Votto: 5-10, 0 HR
Brewers series (3 games) | Bruce: 2-10, O HR | Votto: 4-11, 1 HR
Astros series (3 games) | Bruce: 7-13, 1 HR | Votto: 3-11, 0 HR
Pirates series (3 games) | Bruce: 2-14, 0 HR | Votto: 4-11, 1 HR
Mets series (3 ‘games’) | Bruce: 1-11, O HR | Votto: 0-8 (5 walks), O HR
This may feel like cherry-picking for the sake of argument, but consistency matters when deciding between naming someone a superstar, or merely, someone with star qualities. Hitting in premium spots in the lineup, Bruce has shown a history of effectively disappearing for entire series. That hurts a team more than numbers at season’s end might suggest.
So what does it all mean? Is Jay Bruce overrated? Underrated? Both, simultaneously?
In the curious case of Jay Bruce, maybe it’s truly possible to be both famous and forgotten at once.
But I’d venture to say that for many Reds fans, none of this matters. They’ll remember another number: 24. It’s the number of times, in 2013, Jay Bruce hit a go-ahead hit, likely bringing Cincinnati to its collective feet. Maybe that’s enough.
After all, fans don’t always need a superstar. Sometimes they just want a superman.
A hero they cherish despite his kryptonites.