Mets Bet on Jay Bruce and His Revamped Approach

Hey, something happened!

Outfielder Jay Bruce has signed with the New York Mets, and FanGraphs readers nailed the terms, having collectively produced a median projection of three years and $39 million. [Give yourself a pat on the back!] Six of Dave’s top-20 free agents have now signed.

Notably, the ballots for those crowdsourced predictions were submitted before it was clear just how slowly the free-agent market would unfold. Since contracts signed after Jan. 1 tend to compare less favorably to the crowd’s projections, this contract should be considered a win for the Bruce camp, especially with the supply of sluggers available.

As noted here last week, Max Rieper of Royals Review found that, from 2013 to -17, free agents who signed before Jan. 1 received guaranteed dollars 4.6% below FanGraphs’ crowdsourced estimates. Free agents who signed after Jan. 1, meanwhile, received 25.3% less than FanGraphs’ estimates.

The Mets, presumably, are buying into Bruce’s fly-ball swing. As a club, they recorded the league’s second-lowest ground-ball rate last season.

Bruce has always been a fly-ball hitter, but he was more extreme last season, launching a career-best 36 home runs while posting a career-high 46.7% fly-ball rate. It makes sense the Mets would buy in, as they are familiar with Bruce, having rostered him last year before dealing him to the Indians. And really, Citi Field is the birthplace of the modern air-ball revolution.

Marlon Byrd transformed his batted-ball profile in New York. He passed along advice and the number of his private hitting instructor to Justin Turner, who has since spread the word in Los Angeles. Daniel Murphy re-invented himself in New York, too — as did Bruce. Former Mets hitting coach Kevin Long played a large role in this, too.

And it’s not just that Bruce puts the ball in the air; it’s where he puts the ball in the air. I spoke with Bruce for The Athletic after he was traded to Cleveland last season. Long and the Mets showed Bruce how much damage he did to the pull side and suggested he needed to hunt and drive more pitches in that direction.

Since 2007, only five major leaguers have converted a greater percentage of fly balls hit to their pull side into home runs than Bruce’s 40.9 percent mark: Miguel Cabrera, Nelson Cruz, Robinson Cano, Prince Fielder and Adam Dunn.

Long was asking Bruce to do more of what he did best: launch balls in the air to right-center field, his pull side. Long was asking Bruce to go against traditional teaching.

“All I heard my whole life was ‘Stay up the middle, hit [toward] the pitcher,’” Bruce said. “Now if I hit a [ground ball] up the middle I am out every single time. … My whole career I’ve heard ‘You have to use the whole field, you have to hit it the other way.’ The [Mets] said listen ‘Why don’t you do what you do best more often? Everything else is going to fall into place.’ It has been nothing but true.”

Bruce increased his fly-ball pull rate by 5% last season.

You can see that Bruce has been at his most productive when both his fly-ball rates have been at their highest:

Steamer thinks the Mets will be hard-pressed to squeeze surplus value out of the deal, but both Bruce’s 2017 season and his swing might very well be repeatable.

Steamer projects Bruce to post 23 home runs and a 106 wRC+ over 478 plate appearances. The result of that? Just 1.0 WAR. But projection systems might not capture the extent of Bruce’s swing and philosophical changes. Bruce’s new, more extreme approach could very well be repeatable.

Now, the Mets have to find a place for the swing.

Mets Nation was once upset that Bruce was blocking Michael Conforto early last season. And it’s not clear at the moment where Bruce will fit.

With Conforto’s shoulder still an unknown, Bruce supplies some outfield insurance. But the Mets also have Yoenis Cespedes, Juan Lagares, and Brandon Nimmo in the outfield. Perhaps Bruce can also be a hedge against struggles from Dominic Smith at first base.

For three years and $39 million, the Mets will find a place for Bruce’s fly balls.

A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Noah Baronmember
4 years ago

To answer your question, I imagine he’ll play RF, with Lagares in CF, and Cespedes in LF. When Conforto returns, they’ll likely have to decide between Smith and Lagares of who is more deserving of playing time. They could decide to move Bruce to 1B, or they could just plug in Conforto for Lagares in CF.