The Care and Feeding of a Slugger


In the ashes of the 2011 season that fell short of the hopes of Reds fans everywhere, the Reds have highlights to celebrate and promise to embrace.  The individual that embodies both promise and achievement is right fielder Jay Bruce.  Jay debuted with the Reds 3 and a half years ago at the tender age of 21 and on Tuesday became the 26th player in Cincinnati Reds history to hit 100 home runs.  I hear a broad variety of criticism leveled at Jay for everything from an inability to hit breaking balls to being a right handed specialist unable to face left handed pitchers.  While there is truth to these statements, they do not paint the full picture.

Jay was drafted in the first round with the 12th pick in the first year player draft on June 10, 2005 fresh out of West Brook High School in Beaumont, Texas at the age of 18.  He immediately sat down with the Reds organization and signed his contract a mere 3 days later for a $1.8 million dollar signing bonus and was assigned to the Gulf Coast League to start his professional career where he managed a .270 batting average and 5 home runs in just 37 games before being promoted to the Billings Mustangs, the Reds rookie league affiliate.  In an article written by Anthony Castrovince at the time on Terry Reynolds, the Reds Director of Amateur Scouting was quoted as saying “The players who aren’t really confident in themselves drag things on and want a lot of guarantees,” Reynolds said. “Here we are, three days after the draft, and he’s ready to go. I think that says all you need to say about him and his family and his desire to be a pro baseball player.”

Bruce spent just 17 games prior to the end of the season in Billings but hit 4 home runs in 70 at bats and began to draw attention to himself.  Baseball America listed him as the 76th best minor league prospect entering the 2006 season where Jay took the spotlight for the Dayton Dragons.

Earlier this year I wrote about a fascinating All Star game in the MidWest League midway through the 2006 season that featured 19 year old Bruce and 18 year old Justin Upton.  Upton was listed as the #2 prospect in MiLB by Baseball America and both seemed destined to run fast track the major leagues.  In Dayton, Bruce hit .291 with 16 home runs and an .891 OPS and he no longer was a distant prospect on the Reds horizon.  He began 2007 on the Class A advanced Sarasota Reds and his torrid hitting continued posting a .325 batting average with 11 home runs in 67 games them moved through a brief stint with AA Chattanooga and on to the AAA Louisville Bats.  His OPS in Chattanooga was 1.057 then settled back to .925 for the Bats.  Upon seasons end he was recognized as the Minor League Player of the Year and the Reds even introduced him on the field during last game of the season to recognize his accomplishments.

The 2008 season began for Jay with high expectations.  Baseball America had named him the #1 prospect in the minors and after scorching AAA pitching for a .365 batting average and a 1.023 OPS the Reds organization decided it was time for Jay to be introduced to Cincinnati fans.  Quite an introduction!  In his first game he went 3 for 3 with a double and 2 RBI, 2 runs scored, 2 walks and a stolen base.  He reached base in his first 6 plate appearances and then on May 31st, the 5th game of his MLB career, he had his first signature moment.  The game featured a young (22) phenom, pitching for the Braves named Jair Jurrjens against Josh Fogg for the Reds.  For 9 innings the two teams slugged each other senseless.  Ken Griffey Jr. and Brandon Phillips had both hit home runs for the Reds and Jeff Francoeur, Mark Teixeira, and Greg Norton had all left the yard for the Braves but after 9 and a half innings of baseball the games was knotted at 7 apiece.  Jerry Hairston led off the inning against the Braves reliever Manny Acosta and promptly struck out.  Jay Bruce stepped to the plate having a 2-4 day with 2 runs scored and an RBI along with a walk for his days efforts but this day was special.  Jay, facing a 2 ball, one strike count deposited the next pitch 404 feet into the right field stands.  His first walk off home run.

Since that day in May 2008 Jay has circled the bases 99 more times.  At 24 years of age he is the youngest active player in the majors with 100 homers.  Justin Upton, who was called up the year before Jay, is now 23 and has 91 home runs.  It is certain for years to come these two talented players will continue this chase.  Jay has homered off of 79 pitchers including Roy Halladay, Jurrjens, Cole Hamels, Adam Wainwright, Joel Hanrahan, Randy Wolf, and Carlos Zambrano.  He has tallied 3 leadoff home runs and 3 walk off homers.  Most of you have fond memories of his second walkoff just a 367 days ago to clinch the Reds berth to the 2010 playoffs.  It was only the 5th time a ML player had hit a walk off home run to clinch a trip the playoffs joining Babe Ruth.

Jay is tied for 772nd place on the all time home run list.  That sounds like a laughable statistic but consider he is tied with John Kruk and has passed, Tim McCarver and former Reds Mike Lum, Gary Redus and Wally Pipp (Pipp is the guy who sat out a game with an injury and Lou Gehrig replaced forever, he was traded to Cincinnati shortly after).  With just 5 more HRs he will eclipse Dave Concepcion, Honus Wagner, Lou Pinella, and Steve Yeager.  Joey Votto currently sits at 119, but Joey is 3 years older than Jay.  In fact only 2 Reds have ever reached 100 HRs younger than Jay: Hall of Famers Johnny Bench and Frank Robinson.  Again Jay keeps good company.

His 100th home run also represented something else.  He hit it against left handed pitcher Chris Capuano marking his 28th home run against lefties.  Eleven of those were this season as he grows increasingly more comfortable facing lefties.

Jay signed a 6 year contract coming into 2011 so the Reds may have the opportunity to benefit from 160 more home runs if he can hold the pace he set this season.  If he continues to improve, as he has in each year of his 4 year career, who knows what he might accomplish.  I for one, can not wait to find out.

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