Indians Lose Michael Brantley, Add Jay Bruce

It was an eventful 24 hours for the Cleveland Indians outfield. On Tuesday, left fielder Michael Brantley sprained his ankle in a game against the Colorado Rockies, so Wednesday, the team put him on the disabled list and promptly traded for his replacement, Jay Bruce.

Because Bruce cleared waivers last week, the transaction was fairly straightforward. The Mets already knew they weren’t going to get much for him, as every team in baseball passed on taking on the remaining $4 million of his contract. So when Cleveland suddenly needed an outfielder, it represented a chance for the Mets to at least save some money while also freeing up playing time for Dominic Smith at first base. In exchange for assuming responsibility for the remainder of Bruce’s contract this year, Cleveland surrendered just RHP Ryder Ryan, a player so notable that this is the first time his name has ever been mentioned on the site.

Here’s what you need to know about Ryan: he was a 30th-round pick in the 2016 draft and is pitching in relief in A-ball as a 22-year-old. This trade isn’t exactly like the Indians claiming Bruce on waivers and the Mets just letting him go, but it’s basically that.

So, Cleveland now has Jay Bruce to add to their outfield mix. Swapping him in for Brantley isn’t really any kind of upgrade, but it at least keeps the status quo going until Brantley returns. If the injury turns out not to be serious, Bruce should give them a better option in right field than they had previously — especially if Bruce keeps hitting more like he has in 2017 and less like did in years past.

Bruce’s current 121 wRC+ is actually the second-highest mark of his career, bested only by the 124 wRC+ he put up back in 2010. The last few years, he’s been more of an average-ish hitter; without much defensive value, that’s not great. But Bruce has upped his game this year by doing what all the cool kids are doing: elevate and celebrate.

Presented here are Bruce’s career results and 2017 on each batted-ball type, and his frequency of batted-ball types for both his career and 2017 as well.

Results on and Frequency of Batted-Ball Types for Jay Bruce
Time Period wRC+ on GB wRC+ on LD wRC+ on FB
Career 23 358 188
2017 12 367 193
Time Period GB% LD% FB%
Career 38% 20% 42%
2017 32% 20% 48%

Results wise, Bruce hasn’t really improved in any meaningful way, his wRC+ on every batted-ball type this year closely approximating his career averages. However, he’s managed to trade six percentage points of ground-ball rate for fly-ball rate, and given that he’s far more productive when he hits fly balls, he’s been better than he was previously.

This isn’t an accident. Bruce talked openly about trying to do this before the season even began. Consider the following passage from a piece by James Wagner for the New York Times.

He said coaches told him to hit the ball to left field, which would perhaps lead to a higher average. But advanced metrics helped Bruce understand that was not his strength.

“You have to recognize what your strong swing is,” Bruce said. “Listen, I’m not going up there trying to yank the ball into the seats. I’m trying to stay in the big part of the field. But my best swing is to right-center. So what balls can I hit to right-center?”

To do that, Bruce looks at heat maps that show how hard he hits the ball, a statistic known as exit velocity, based on the area of the strike zone the pitch is in. He studies what pitches he has most often chased out of the strike zone. He also evaluates the path of his bat, known as launch angle, to see if he is producing the right amount of lift.

“There’s absolutely nothing for you on the ground to the pull side,” he said. “That’s just death to the baseball. So what balls am I hitting there?”

One of the areas highlighted for improvement: “If I didn’t hit a ground ball all year, I’d be in good shape,” he said.

While Bruce knows that will be impossible, he is setting his sights high and shooting for a 50 percent fly ball rate. His career number is about 42 percent, close to his 2016 mark. His highest was 48.5 percent in 2009. An improved launch angle may help.

He’s not quite at 50% fly balls yet, but he’s close, and the realization that ground balls are evil has helped make Bruce a better hitter. So, while there’s obviously some remaining skepticism about Bruce’s overall value within the game, there’s probably some merit to Cleveland’s hope that he might not regress as far as the projections think.

So, yeah, this is a nice little move for the AL Central leaders. It’s not like that $4 million was likely to be allocated for anything else the baseball-operations department could use, and it’s nice to see a mid-market team take on salary rather than surrender more talent for cash savings. So in the midst of a pennant race, the Indians got better at no real cost to the franchise beyond a slightly smaller annual profit for the team. Given that MLB just sold another 42% of BAMTech to Disney for $1 billion the other day, I’m sure they’ll be just fine.

For the Mets, they clear up a logjam of corner infielders that had already pushed Bruce to first base, an unfamiliar position, and can now easily promote Smith to take his place and audition for the 2018 job down the stretch. They also avoid the temptation of making Bruce a qualifying offer, which would have been a bad idea. Sure, perhaps they should have agreed to pay his salary in order to get a better prospect in return before the deadline, but it’s not clear anyone was actually willing to surrender any real prospects for rental hitters this year, so at least this way they stop blocking their young players from getting everyday at-bats.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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6 years ago

Don’t understand this trade at all.

Bruce obviously had to clear waivers from every major league team.

1) Why would the Indians not have taken him, eating salary, and not give up a lottery ticket like Ryan?

2) Why would the Royals not be willing to either make a blocking claim, or failing to do that, give up more than a 30th round pick to keep Bruce from the Indians?

6 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

1. Presumably Michael Brantley was healthy when Bruce cleared waivers.

2. Do the Royals have 4 million dollars to pick up guys just in case Cleveland wants them?

6 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

uh, it gives them a good power bat that they desperately needed to fill the void?

6 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

Jay Bruce cleared waivers on the 5th. Bradley didn’t sprain his ankle until Tuesday.

Given that Cleveland didn’t put in a claim, the second question is irrelevant. There is no way the Royals can block the trade after Bruce made it through waivers.

6 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

I think the answer to both (1) and (2) is: the linearity of spacetime.

Roger McDowell Hot Foot
6 years ago
Reply to  Eminor3rd

look, all you need to do is pass the waiver wire through a quantum-entangled communication link, that’s what any truly forward-looking front office would/will (have) do(ne)

6 years ago

Only Mike Trout can do that.

6 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

The Brantley injury explains it, but it’s still interesting. As of 5 days ago, not a single team thought 2 months of Jay Bruce was worth $4M. Now, the Indians are willing to pay the $4M plus a fringe prospect.

I’ve never understood why so many slightly-overpaid players pass through waivers unclaimed. You’re only talking about 1/3rd of a season of salary. Overpaying by $1M is a drop in the bucket for an MLB team.

6 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

Maybe clubs value $1M more than you think they ought to.

Doug Lampertmember
6 years ago
Reply to 

And if you don’t need him, it doesn’t cost you $1M, it costs you a spot on the 40 man roster AND all of the $4M he’s owed for nothing much.

Taking him on spec is a bet of 4M+a roster spot that you’ll need him badly enough to be willing to overpay by $1M. The alternative is just to wait and throw in a very low value prospect to pick him up for roughly the same cost after you know you need him.

$10 isn’t much, but if you ask me to pay $10 to buy insurance against an $12 accidental expense which is unlikely to happen, I’m still not buying your policy, I’ll wait and pay the cost if I need to.

6 years ago
Reply to  Doug Lampert

People underestimate the roster crunch for sure. Bruce’s $4M may only represent 3% of Cleveland’s opening day payroll, but he’s going to be taking up 4% of their 25-man roster. The 40-man is a little easier but it’s not uncommon to see teams move guys onto the 60-day DL to free up a 40 man spot because they picked up a new guy and there are players they’re trying to protect from Rule 5 etc.

6 years ago
Reply to  Joser

Yeah. Basically the Indians thought they didn’t need him, but then suddenly they did (when Brantley got hurt after Bruce went through waivers).

But Bruce would be well off the 40-man by December, so only the 25-man and the money are considerations here.

6 years ago
Reply to  Joser

In 3 weeks rosters expand

6 years ago
Reply to  Yirmiyahu

This year is also an outlier, in that most teams are either projected to win their division easily or are worrying about next year. That alone made it a buyers’ market, but the roster makeup of the contending teams just obliterated the market for Jay Bruce type rental players (see: the much superior JD Martinez).

Before a few days ago, Jay Bruce wasn’t materially changing anyone’s world series odds. If the sell to management is that their internal simulations have his pickup increasing their odds of getting another series of playoff revenue by a fraction of a percent, good luck getting 4 million dollars for that. A need opened, and so did the marginal improvement of adding Jay Bruce to a roster.

6 years ago
Reply to  CM52

There is literally no one outside of maybe a handful of players who’d materially change the WS odds for anyone. Teams are just looking for any edge they can get at this stage.

And the gap between JDM and Bruce is a lot less then people think. The narrative that Bruce is a bad OFer is just false.

6 years ago
Reply to  GoNYGoNYGoGo

Ryder Ryan is not much of a lottery ticket. It’s like buying a $1 scratchoff ticket and hoping to win the Powerball

6 years ago
Reply to  dcweber99

The powerball is something like a 1-in-200-million chance of winning. Don’t get me wrong, Ryder Ryan is not really a prospect, but I will take the chances on Ryder Ryan over a powerball ticket any day of the week.

(it’s literally 0% chance if you’re trying to win it with a $1 scratchoff ticket, but I’m assuming you’re thinking of something else there)