Before a game against the Padres, I sat down with Reds outfielder Jay Bruce to talk about his frustrating season so far, divorcing process from results, the value of routine, and his hitting approach in general. The player was so eloquent that it seemed best to leave his words alone.
Eno Sarris: I read a great piece you did with Trent Rosecrans recently. I thought it was very heartfelt and honest. When you said that in the past you felt what it feels like to be lost, and that you don’t really feel that this year, and about divorcing results from process. I wonder if you could talk a little bit more about the lost feeling — how did you feel that was so different then?
Jay Bruce: My whole life, I had not really had a fall back on routine. I just kinda played baseball and was really good at it, but everyone here is really good at baseball. Up until I got to the major leagues in 2009, I had never struggled anywhere. I mean I hit .270 in the GCL…
And you still hit for power. [.230 ISO]
Yeah. There was never really any reason to question what I was doing or why I was doing it or why I wasn’t doing it. I just always played. Just played baseball and the results came to what I thought they should have been and what the standard I had set for myself based on performances in the past. 2009 was the first time I wasn’t performing to the level I had expected and I didn’t have something to fall back on. What now? What do I do now?
It’s a little of both. Trial by error. You see what works for you, you look at your results, and your swing and your game, and say in order to continue doing x that I do well, I need to do y in order to groove that or hone that skill. In order correct x that I don’t do well, I need to y as a drill or a routine, or be cognizant of or aware of.
On the routine side, is it about ‘I’m going to come into the office, I’m going to look at some video of myself, and I’m going to look at video of the opposing pitcher, and I’m going to look at some breakdowns of what he throws, and that’s just a routine I can follow and fall back on’?
Video, for everyone, is a little different. I don’t look at a lot of myself, video-wise. I don’t spend a ton of time looking at sequences necessarily from pitchers. Most of these guys nowadays, I’ve faced. But there are new guys being called up every day. You have to continue to learn, and pitchers evolve, guys you’ve been facing may be pitching a little differently, you have to look at their last start. The thing I have to keep in mind is that these guys have a book on me as well and it’s a cat and mouse game. It goes back to sticking to the approach that made you successful and working their game into your approach. At the end of the day, there is a common denominator: Their job is to throw strikes and your job is to hit strikes. So then you have to pick out the strikes you are looking to hit.
Sometimes I get a little bit more out of hitters than pitchers. I talked to Adam LaRoche about this and he said that ‘hitting is a reactive thing, and I can study all these things, but then when I get up there, I’m reacting, where the pitcher can study all these things, and then get up there and think what pitch am I going to throw, and I’ve got a catcher here to help me.’
I think that’s where the process and routine can help hitters. The more process and routine oriented you can be, the more you can just go up there and trust the work that you’ve done and not have to think. Some guys do think, some pitchers you have a certain idea of what they are going to do and you can kind of think along with them. You work on an approach, you practice, and you have a routine that you do every single day and then you go up there and you play the game. You work before, then you play the game.
What is the offseason process like. You said to Trent that you always want to get better. How can you spend the offseason getting better?
Thats more from a strength and conditioning standpoint. Being in shape allows me to perform at a peak level. There’s one month, one month where you don’t do much at all. Starting in November, you’re back at it. I start hitting around Christmas time. When you start hitting in the offseason, it’s more just to get my body in shape to hit.
Because you’re not going to see major league quality pitching in December.
No, and a lot of the work, and changes — if there are changes — and the consistent routine begins in Spring Training. Every single day. In the offseason, I still do my drills and stuff, but it’s more just to prepare me for the workload I’m going to have in Spring Training.
You talked about taking more pitches — not taking more pitches by itself, but taking the right pitches — and generally you are taking more pitches this year. Generally it’s a double-edged sword in that it leads to more walks, it leads to more power, but it always leads to more strikeouts. Have you found yourself deeper in counts?
Striking out has always been my Achilles heal as a hitter. It’s frustrating because I don’t feel like I’m a 175-165-185 strikeout guy. The numbers don’t lie, obviously. But I’ve been through the wringer when it comes to trying to figure out ways to do less of that. I have figured out that the way to do less of that is to not to try and think about doing less of it.
You have tried to be more aggressive and less aggressive?
Oh my gosh, you name it I’ve tried it. But the way I think about taking pitches, it’s not to walk, it’s not to be less aggressive, it’s just being more focused on your approach. It’s to get my pitch and not his.
I mentioned in that story that I’d rather be oh and one and not oh for one. A big component of that for me, is if I do get that pitch, the at-bat should be over. If I get a pitch that I’m looking for and I miss it, the at-bat should be over. It may come to a few more strikeouts sometimes, but that goes back to the results thing. The more efficient I can be playing my game, what I do well, which is driving the ball and not making outs — that’s the goal. My goal is to drive the ball, play great defense, and get on base as much as I can.
Within the zone, there’s always your zone. The strike zone, and then what you’re looking for. I talked to Billy Butler about this before. He said, ‘I look low, because pitchers throw it low. I’m just going to look there, because that’s where they want to be. Sometimes I’ll hit more grounders, but that’s okay, because I’m in the place I want to be.’ When I look at your swing rates and pitch rates, they’re a little different. Pitchers want to pitch you low and away, almost every pitcher wants to, and you like it high.
Relatively. Everyone has a relative up. I look for my relative up, which is up, with a little bit of height, over the plate, because I’m not trying to hit ground balls.
That’s about your strengths. You’re a power hitter, and you can drive it a little.
I’m trying to hit line drives, and the lower the pitch is… There’s a point where it gets too high and a point where it gets too low. I definitely differ from Billy when it comes to that. I look for my relative up, where I like the ball. Sometimes you have to swing at the low ball, depending on the count and the situation.
How about push and pull? Are you more of a pull hitter early in the count?
I don’t think about it as a count thing. My true swing is more to right center. You probably know good and well that they do put the shift on, which is a little frustrating. But you hear people talk all the time, ‘I don’t know why he doesn’t just hit the ball to left field, or bunt.’ Well, the shifts are getting more sophisticated, where the third baseman is playing in. And the other guys are over. How many guys do you really know that hit for power that hit ground-balls to the opposite side of the field? In the air? Absolutely. In the air is totally different.
Everyone pulls it on the ground.
You have your slap guys that hit the ball in the other holes.
Alberto Callaspo, I see him practice it. But Callaspo is not going to hit 27 bombs.
Exactly. So I understand why they shift. But it’s way harder to manipulate the ball from one side of the field to other. And your strengths are your strengths and you have to be as efficient as you can with them. That’s not saying I’m going up there trying to pull. I never go up there trying to pull the ball. I’m looking to hit the ball to the big part of the field. From right-center to left-center, because that’s where my swing goes. If you’re late, you go to left, if you’re early, you go right. That gives you the most room for error.
This year you have the most ground balls per fly ball in your career. Not the whole season, it’s not a huge sample, but is that something you might have noticed.
I have noticed it, yeah. It’s tough to explain.
Is that something you can even do anything about in season?
I think that you can continue to look for your strengths. You can’t think about it. It’s a long season. We’re not at the end.
Have you changed anything about your swing?
It’s a results thing. You can go to sample sizes for that, maybe. I had knee surgery, I don’t know if that has anything to do with it.
But how does it feel?
Feels good! My June was super normal. Along the lines of what I expect to do.
I talked to Josh Donaldson about this, he hit more ground balls and hit for more power, and he said that he leveled his swing plane out.
My goal is not to hit ground balls, it’s to hit line drives.
How do you do something about that, level your swing out?
You can see from your results, in BP, in the games.
But you’re process oriented. What do you do to keep that bat in the zone as long as possible?
You do drills. You hone your what you’re trying to do. Tees, soft-toss, one-hand drills. I like to work independently with my hands. I believe that if you’re making the correct move with each hand independently, when you get them together, it’s going to be easier for both of them to make the correct movement instead of when you’re hitting with two hands, you can compensate for one or the other. I’ve never heard anyone tell me that, but you do work independently with your hands. Just focus on that one aspect of your swing. I’m trying to hit line drives, and I’ve noticed that my line drive rate has gone up. That’s something I’m working on. Just a couple percent here or there. I don’t feel like I’m a strikeout machine. I strike out too much, but I’m working diligently in order to be the most efficient player I can be.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.