Jay Bruce is off to an intriguing start in the 2014 season. He is hitting just .179 early this season, but he also leads the league in walks with 11. That followed up a spring training where he walked 12 times. Which followed up a September/October where he walked 18 times. Skipping over spring training, since last September, Jay Bruce has walked 29 times in 169 plate appearances.
That breaks down to a 17.2% walk rate in that time. We know, thanks to Fangraphs, that walk rates become reliable over about 200 plate appearances. Bruce is almost there with this sample size and his walk rate. A 17.2% walk rate would have ranked an easy second place, trailing just Joey Votto and well ahead of Shin-Soo Choo and Mike Trout who finished 2nd and 3rd during the 2014 season.
What can that kind of walk rate do for a guy like Jay Bruce? Well, let’s dive into things a little bit. We know that the higher a players walk rate, the higher the odds are they he is a successful hitter. This is for a multitude of reasons. First, players with higher walk rates get on base more often and getting on base is the most important thing a hitter can do. Secondly, it shows that for the most part, they understand the strikezone better and thus, swing at better pitches. When players swing at better pitches, they tend to hit the ball harder because it is easier to hit strikes than it is to hit balls (unless you are Vladimir Guerrero, but no one is him). Third, and it kind of goes back to point number two, it exchanges outs for non-outs because instead of grounding out weakly because you made contact on a pitch out of the zone or you struck out swinging at a non-strike, you are now trotting down to first base.
Here is a comparison of the swing rate for pitches outside of the strikezone by Jay Bruce, broken down into two groups. His swing rate from April 2013-August 2013 and his swing rate from September 2013-April 13 2014.
As we can see, there are a lot of negative numbers on here, showing that Bruce is swinging far less at those areas than he was previously. Where we see him swinging more, the numbers are much smaller (with the exception of that up and in pitch, but we are only seeing a sample of eight pitches in the September-April sample in that portion, so that sample is incredibly small). Jay Bruce is being far more selective.
Now, let’s go back to that .179 batting average he is currently sporting. It’s ugly. It also isn’t going to continue to be that low. Bruce has had the following batting averages on balls in play (baseballs that had a chance to be turned into outs, which means anything that landed in fair territory that was or wasn’t caught, in foul territory that was caught and does not include over-the-fence home runs) over the last four seasons: .334, .297, .283 and .322. That is an average BABIP of .309 since the start of the 2010 season. So far in 2014 his BABIP is sitting at .192.
Let’s just normalize that to the .309 average BABIP he has had over the last four seasons for the 2014 campaign so far. His OPS would go from the current .763 and jump up to .899. That would have ranked 7th in the National League in the 2013 season, directly behind Andrew McCutchen.
If Jay Bruce has indeed changed his skillset to control the non-strikes that he swings at and his walk rate is indeed real over the last 169 plate appearances, the Cincinnati Reds right fielder could be on the verge of going from a good hitter to an MVP caliber hitter.