Jay Bruce Decides to Retire; Hangs Out for Three More Games

When Jay Bruce debuted with the Reds, he was the top prospect in baseball. Our very own Kevin Goldstein projected him as a perennial All-Star, writing that he could be a “true superstar in the mold of Larry Walker.” He debuted as a 21-year-old and went 3-3 with two walks in his first game. Three days later, he had four hits and scored the winning run. He topped that off with a walk-off homer, his first dinger in the big leagues, the following night. Over the next two days he went 4-7 with two more homers, lowering his batting average to .577. As Bruce’s heroics mounted and his legend grew, you had to wonder how anyone could possibly live up to this kind of start.

Bruce didn’t, of course. His bat cooled considerably over the summer and he ended the year with 0.8 WAR and a fifth-place finish in Rookie of the Year voting, a few slots behind Joey Votto. But while Bruce’s numbers fell a bit short of his prospect league billing, he still blossomed into a very good major-league player. Over 14 seasons, Bruce hit 319 homers, won two Silver Sluggers, made three All-Star appearances, and accrued exactly 20 WAR.

It’s a career worth celebrating, and now is the time to do so, as the 34-year-old Bruce announced his retirement yesterday. After an injury to Luke Voit, Bruce made the Yankees Opening Day roster and started the team’s first eight games at first base. He didn’t hit a lick though, and he soon fell out of manager Aaron Boone’s plans. He told Boone of his intention to retire before Friday’s game against Tampa Bay but stayed on the roster throughout the weekend for a few more days in case he was needed. On his way out, he echoed fellow Yankee luminary Joe DiMaggio on his decision to call it quits at a relatively young age:

“The reason I ultimately chose to do this is because over 13 years of playing pretty much every single day, I set a standard of what I expected out of myself from a performance standpoint… ultimately, I just felt like I couldn’t perform at the level that I expected out of myself.”

The Reds took Bruce out of high school with the 12th overall pick in a loaded 2005 draft. At a time when most players, especially high school draftees, didn’t sign for a couple months, Bruce put pen to paper quickly and tore through short season ball later that summer. He captured MVP honors in the Midwest League a year later and established himself as the game’s premier prospect after batting .319/.375/.587 with 26 homers across three levels in 2007. We weren’t calling it salary suppression back in 2008 when the Reds sent him back to Louisville the following spring, but in any case, while marinating there as the Reds waited for the Super Two deadline (unsuccessfully, it turned out), he whetted everyone’s appetite by hitting .364/.393/.630 in 49 games. Called up in late May, Bruce hit the ground running.

But after his torrid first week in the big leagues, Bruce started to struggle a bit. He barely managed a .700 OPS the rest of the way, striking out in 26% of his plate appearances. That sounds quaint these days, but back then only seven players struck out more frequently. Bruce liked to swing early, and he was easily lured out of the zone. Together those proclivities threatened to derail his ascension to stardom.

Ultimately he fought them to a draw, making enough hard contact to hit in the middle of the order even as he whiffed and flew out too often to become an MVP candidate. Meanwhile, Bruce’s speed and defensive versatility also waned early. The Reds stopped using him in center after his rookie year, and while he came up as an above-average runner, he was never really a threat on the bases. Instead of the well-rounded player many evaluators projected he’d become, Bruce turned into something of a one-dimensional bopper. Years before “launch angle” entered our vernacular, he steepened the plane on his swing and became a low-BABIP, fly ball hitter. That ruined his chances of ever hitting .300, but he did club 30 homers five times and hit at least 20 in nine of his first 10 seasons.

If there’s a broader lesson to take from Bruce’s career, it’s the limitations of the boom/bust framework used to classify a player’s performance. We tend to remember the ones who turn into either Mike Trout or Brandon Wood, but obviously most top farmhands settle in between those poles. A midpoint career on that spectrum looks a lot like what Bruce managed to accomplish: he’s not headed to Cooperstown, but for the better part of a decade, Bruce was a first-division regular, and along the way he sprinkled in a few All-Star seasons. That’s a really good career, and it should be more than enough to get him into the Reds Hall of Fame.

Even relative to the lofty expectations he arrived with, Bruce’s numbers were probably better than you think. First of all, 20 WAR is an excellent return from the the No. 12 overall pick in a draft. Of the 57 players taken in that slot, only 12 have generated 10 WAR or more. Bruce has the seventh-highest figure of the group, and among active players, only Yasmani Grandal is anywhere near him.

Narrow the criteria to more exclusive territory and Bruce still holds up pretty well. In 2014, FiveThirtyEight’s Neil Paine calculated the average WAR total for each slot in Baseball America’s top 100 prospect lists. It’s obviously an inexact science, but BA has been doing these lists for a few decades now, so the sample is large enough to at least be interesting. And wouldn’t you know, Paine found that the No. 1 overall prospect has averaged 20 WAR on the dot.

Bruce also left a few marks in baseball history. In 2010, he clinched Cincinnati’s first division crown in 15 years with a no-doubter out to center:

Seven years later and a few hours to the north, Bruce’s extra-inning double completed Cleveland’s dramatic comeback against Kansas City as the club extended the longest winning streak in American League history to 22 games:

After announcing his retirement, Bruce was asked about what was next for him, and whether he’d be involved in the game in any way. He gave a true seamhead’s answer:

“As far as baseball goes, I love baseball. I love it. Anyone who knows me knows that I am such a big fan of baseball. I always have been. I go home at night and I watch baseball. And some people think that’s crazy. Some people think it’s awesome. Who knows?”

We think it’s awesome too, Jay. Hope to see you around on the other side.





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kylerkelton
Member
kylerkelton

Congrats to him on a fine career. I like how you discussed our view of top prospects. 20 career WAR may sound a little disappointing for a top prospect, but that’s a solid career. Any prospect that turns into a 20 WAR player is a success.

sadtrombone
Member
Member
sadtrombone

I kind of think the story with Jay Bruce is similar to a lot of other successful players. He had a knee injury at some point which everyone thought was pretty minor but it turned him into a shell of himself, and while had some hot streaks here and there after that he never was the same.

Once you’ve become as successful a position player as Jay Bruce was in his first ~1500 PAs it’s the timing of an injury that doesn’t heal as fast as you thought or slowing down or something like that that determines whether you’re a 10 WAR, 20 WAR, 30 WAR player.