Bruce Not-So-Almighty Heads to Philly

Jerry Dipoto broke a nearly two-week trade drought over the weekend, sending outfielder Jay Bruce and everyone’s favorite player, cash considerations, to the Philadelphia Phillies. In return, the Mariners received 1B/3B/OF prospect Jake Scheiner.

As with most Mariners, Bruce started the season with impressive power numbers, hitting seven home runs in the team’s first 13 games. There was a period earlier this season when home runs represented seven of Bruce’s nine hits, an unusual balance even for a one-dimensional power hitter in these home run-filled times. As a fan of unusual baseballings, I will cheerfully admit that I was kind of hoping for that to continue. At one point in April, Bruce held a .204/.298/.673 line. To put that into perspective, only four seasons in history among qualified batters have featured a SLG-OBP difference greater than 300 points.

Largest SLG/OBP Differences
Year Player Team SLG-OBP
2001 Barry Bonds Giants .348
1921 Babe Ruth Yankees .334
1920 Babe Ruth Yankees .316
2001 Sammy Sosa Cubs .300
1994 Jeff Bagwell Astros .299
2019 Christian Yelich Brewers .294
2019 Joc Pederson Dodgers .293
1927 Lou Gehrig Yankees .291
1995 Albert Belle Indians .289
1994 Matt Williams Giants .288
1927 Babe Ruth Yankees .286
2019 Josh Bell Pirates .286
1930 Al Simmons Athletics .285
1998 Mark McGwire Cardinals .282
1932 Jimmie Foxx Athletics .280

Bruce’s flirtation with a 400-point difference early was way more fun to me than the usual “Joe So-and-So is on pace for 324 homers!” stuff. A race to topple Mark Reynolds for Mendoza Line-superiority in home runs (32) and slugging percentage (.433) could have been my song of the summer. Unfortunately, Bruce’s homer-pace slackened and he started hitting the occasional single. That has been enough to turn his 2019 into a more typical “middling power hitter” tune.

While I don’t think that anyone believed the Mariners were even close to being the best team in baseball — save for a couple of excited Mariners fans in my Twitter timeline — a 13-2 start gave Seattle some hope for a more interesting summer than expected. After all, this is a team that was forecasted to be on the dull side, but more blandly mediocre than unfathomably terrible. The best recent comparison would be the 2014 Milwaukee Brewers, another team that just wasn’t very good, but after a blazing 20-7 start and a 6 1/2 game lead, had enough of a cushion to be relevant into late summer.

Instead, Seattle unwound their hot start with impressive speed. Since the 13-2 start, the team’s gone 12-35, essentially ending any potential for a shocking run at the AL West title. To find a worse 47-game run for the Mariners, you have to look back to 1980, during the Dark Times of Seattle history. Bruce Bochte led the team in homers that year, crushing…uh…13 dingers, and the starting shortstop was the actual Mario Mendoza.

Once the 2019 version of the team was out of contention, the question became when Seattle would start selling rather than if. Bruce was always one of the best bets to go quickly if another team needed his services, not having been acquired by Seattle because of any burning desire to have him on the roster but as a balancing act to make the money in the Edwin DiazRobinson Canó trade satisfy both sides of the transaction. The Mariners may not have planned to give Daniel Vogelbach a serious look, but the Kyle Seager injury had a domino effect on the roster, sending Ryon Healy to third and Bruce and Edwin Encarnacion to first, opening up a spot for Vogelbach. The early demotion of Mallex Smith resulted in Mitch Haniger playing center field with more regularity, and that defensive combination allowed the team to fit Vogelbach, Bruce, Encarnacion, and Healy into the lineup simultaneously.

That gave the Mariners a lot of homers, but it turned out to be a not-so-good development for the team’s fielding. Through Monday morning, the Mariners are last in the majors in DRS (-50 runs) and UZR (-35 runs). Amusingly, Ichiro still leads M’s outfielders in UZR, at 0.2 in 10 innings.

Once everyone started shuffling back to their proper positions, Bruce was demoted to a semi-platoon role. He now follows another veteran acquired as salary makeweight from the Mets trade, Anthony Swarzak, out of town.

Bruce is a better fit with what the Phillies need. While the team’s left-handed hitters have combined for a wRC+ of 98 in 2019, it’s largely because of the existence of Bryce Harper. Odúbel Herrera’s arrest for domestic violence and uncertain return left the team in search for some left-handed hitting outside of Harper, and an extra outfielder. Ideally, Nick Williams would have been the best option to get increased playing time, but he has had an abysmal 2019, hitting .159/.205/.232 with a single homer as a part-timer. One can argue, probably correctly, that Williams likely has higher upside than Bruce, but things have changed in Philadelphia in the last couple of years. A team in contention and a rebuilding team ought to look at risk in different ways.

Bruce will likely continue in the semi-platoon role, as a fourth-outfielder who spells the regulars and plays a corner against a tougher righty when Scott Kingery isn’t in the lineup. Citizens Bank is a place where Bruce’s power, his only real remaining strength at this point, will shine. He is no longer the young semi-star he was in his early days with the Reds, but at this point of Bruce’s career, nobody’s really expecting that anymore. As a role player for the Phillies, Bruce will do his part to help the team hang onto first place.





Dan Szymborski is a senior writer for FanGraphs and the developer of the ZiPS projection system. He was a writer for ESPN.com from 2010-2018, a regular guest on a number of radio shows and podcasts, and a voting BBWAA member. He also maintains a terrible Twitter account at @DSzymborski.

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sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I think that the Phillies made out pretty well considering they got a guy who was worth 0.6 fWAR in 194 PAs. Getting a guy for…what was it? $3M or whatever it is and an FV35 (which is like $1M in value or something) for two years is a pretty good deal.

I am a little puzzled that this is the best the Mariners could do. The real risk is that they don’t get this guy who isn’t really a prospect and don’t save $3.5M, but right now they’re paying nearly the entire salary for him to pay for someone else for two years. While he’s not a valuable trade chip they might have been able to get more salary relief if they waited for some contender out there who has their corner outfielder get injured and need a guy like Bruce. Dipoto doesn’t do waiting, but I think the potential reward was worth waiting.

From the Phillies’ end, what concerns me is that they’re apparently thinking about moving McCutchen to CF and playing Bruce in the corner he vacates. The Phillies, as evidenced by the Rhys Hoskins experiment, seem to not place much of a premium on outfield defense, but I don’t know if a Bruce-McCutchen-Harper outfield is a viable arrangement. I’m not sure what their options are, though. There seems to be a real dearth of CF-capable backups out there right now. It’s a really good deal for the Phillies in a vaccuum, but I am hoping this is not the end of their search.

3cardmonty
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There is no market for Jay Bruce, nor would one have developed. The Mariners are fortunate to get anything at all for him as opposed to DFA’ing him. Adam Jones signed for $3M. Old corner bats are worth next to nothing in this market. And Bruce’s numbers are propped up by an absurd HR/FB rate that is likely to regress. May as well take the offer now and free up some playing time for the youngs on Seattle’s roster that will replace Bruce. As an M’s fan I’m encouraged that they were willing to pay $18M for a lottery ticket rather taking an org guy for more salary relief.

sadtrombone
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sadtrombone

I don’t buy that a market wouldn’t have developed. Last night, McCutchen had a knee injury and they if they hadn’t traded for Bruce they would have needed corner outfield help, fast. If this trade had happened tomorrow instead of over the weekend, the Mariners would have gotten more.