Jay Bruce loves to hit, and he loves to talk hitting. He’s good at both. The veteran outfielder has a well-earned reputation for being thoughtful and engaging, and the numbers he’s put up over 12 big-league seasons speak for themselves. Bruce has 649 extra-base hits in 6,500 career plate appearances, including 312 home runs.
A first-round pick by the Reds in 2005, Bruce debuted three years later as a 21-year-old and went on to spend eight-plus season in a Cincinnati uniform. The native of Beaumont, Texas has since bounced around, hopscotching from the Mets to the Indians, back to the Mets, from there to the Mariners, and last summer to the Phillies. At age 32, he’ll head into 2020 in the final year of his current contract.
Bruce sat down to talk hitting when the Phillies visited Fenway Park in mid-September.
David Laurila: How have you evolved as a hitter over the years?
Jay Bruce: “As I’ve gotten older and more experienced, a lot has happened in the game in terms of information and hitting philosophy. Numbers have started being attached to thoughts, or assumptions. I definitely pay attention to that. But I wouldn’t say I’m of the launch-angle revolution, or whatever you care to call it. I’ve always hit the ball in the air. I have a problem with hitting the ball on the ground.
“If your fly balls are your misses, that can cause some BABIP issues — there are issues that could potentially zap parts of your game. But if you have power, and are hitting the ball in the air, you’re giving yourself more opportunities to produce a positive outcome. That should be obvious.
“The thing I probably do the most is pull the ball in the air, and that’s one of the, if not the most, successful ways to hit a ball. So for me… I think the outside philosophy of hitting has changed a little bit. When I came up, you were taught to use the other side of the field. Stay up the middle. Even hit the ball on the ground sometimes.”
Laurila: Evan Longoria told me earlier this season that groundballs up the middle aren’t hits anymore.
Bruce: “They’re not. That’s completely changed. I can smoke balls as hard as I want up the middle, and it’s an out. Every single time. There will be someone standing right behind second base, so… the numbers have changed with the shift, and the hitting philosophy has changed for a lot of people because of the shift. You hear a lot of stories about guys who have changed the paths of their careers by buying into launch angle, and swing path. For me, that’s just not the case. Not one time in my career have I ever set out to change my swing path, or my launch angle.”
Laurila: Are there things you have changed?
Bruce: “I’ve changed my stance a little bit, here and there. When I was younger, I stood a lot taller. In 2016, I got more into my legs. And really, this year I started standing taller again. That’s partly because pitchers are pitching differently now. You have to be able to extract the most athleticism out of yourself that you can, in the box. Especially these days. Pitchers are pitching up more.”
Laurila: That’s been the case for a few years now, has it not?
Bruce: “Yes, but it’s really taken off. Velocity is also up more than it’s ever been. And while I’m not sure what the numbers are, it feels like there’s more breaking stuff. Nowadays, pitching is a little less precise, and more about stuff.
“Everyone talks about the doctored baseballs. I don’t know, one way or the other, if that’s true or false. But I do know that higher velocity, and lesser-quality pitches in the zone, are going to create better outcomes when it comes to the power department. So while everybody is getting caught up on the balls being juiced, we also need to look at what type of pitches are being thrown, and where they’re being thrown. Higher velocity is going to produce more exit velocity. In my opinion, anyway. I’m not a scientist.”
Laurila: How is standing more upright helpful to you?
Bruce: “I feel that it’s harder for me to get to the pitches that are farther up in the zone if I’m more cropped in my legs. Especially as I’ve gotten a little older. The athleticism I have — and I’m not calling myself one of the best athletes in the game, not by any means — needs to be optimized to allow my swing to work the best it can. I need to be able to ‘counter-punch’ the opposition, so to speak. Again, guys are pitching with higher velocities, up in the zone.”
Laurila: Do you want to swing at elevated fastballs, or is that a pitch you’re better off letting go?
Bruce: “The short answer is ‘no’ — it’s a very hard pitch to hit when it’s where it’s supposed to be — but there’s also a fine line. If it’s two balls lower than where they want to throw it, that’s a great pitch to hit. I want to have as many options as I can. I don’t want to be one-dimensional when it comes to the types of pitches I can hit.”
Laurila: Are you always taking the same swing, regardless of the pitcher or the location?
Bruce: “The same swing, yes. A swing, in general, is very hard to master. But with two strikes, my thought process changes a little bit. I’ll choke up. I’ll focus on letting the ball get a little deeper. Regardless of the idea that strikeouts don’t matter, they matter to me. I had a tough time [in 2018], but one of the silver linings is that I had one of the highest walks rates, and one of the lowest strikeout rates, of my career.
“If I can be around that 20% range, that’s going to lead to some success. I’ve never been a guy who strikes out 27-28% of the time, but I have been in that 23-24% range. It’s not something I’m proud of. I definitely don’t think it’s a make-or-break thing. You can strike out a lot and still be successful. I won a Silver Slugger striking out 185 times. But the way my swing works, and the way my talent plays… I don’t feel that I have to sacrifice quality of contact.”
Laurila: The way you view strikeouts has changed somewhat…
Bruce: “I’d say that I understand more clearly how I should go about making contact more often. When I was younger, my goal was to just not strike out. That’s not going to work.
“My whole career, I’ve wanted to strike out less. It’s been, ‘What can I do to strike out less?’ Well, I feel that when I started focusing less on striking out less, and more about ending at-bats when they should be ended, it got better. When I get a good pitch to hit, I need to have a swing ready to put that pitch in play, with quality. That’s when the at-bat needs to be over. Fouling it off, or missing it, is how you get to worse counts, and to statistically less-successful outcomes.”
Laurila: Does striking out less require having more than just an A-swing? There are going to be plate appearances where none of the strikes you see are good pitches to hit.
Bruce: “To me, the question would be, ‘What is an A-swing?’ What I tell myself is that the swing I practice in the cage is the swing I want to take to the game. A lot of times, what changes the swing you take from practice to the game is adrenaline. Being a competitor, being a baseball player, when you get to a 2-0 count, you want to crush the ball. You want to hit one to the f-ing moon, so you take too big of a swing and foul the ball off. What I want to do is practice a swing that is repeatable, and under control. You’re right about at-bats. You get good pitches here and there, but after seeing that pitch, it’s not often that you get too many more.”
Laurila: Being neither a top-shelf athlete, nor someone with elite bat-to-ball skills, you need to hit home runs to provide value. Is that accurate?
Bruce: “There wouldn’t be a lot of use for me, especially if I’m not getting on base at an above-average, or elite, clip. Over my career, I’ve basically been a league-average on-base guy. That and above average in slugging. You could ask 20 people whether they thought run-producers are a thing, or not a thing, and depending on when they were born, you’ll probably get a different answer. Coming up, I was taught that there was value in being a run producer — driving in runs, hitting for power, being an impact bat in the middle of a lineup.
“So, yeah. I have to hit for power. Period. Obviously, the way game is evolving, there’s more of a premium being put on defense, and on value that can be derived from other parts of the game. But I think that however you slice it, the most important part of the game is always going to be offense. That’s when it comes to non-pitchers.”
Laurila: When did you start choking up with two strikes?
Bruce: “Probably in… 2015? And there are times I’ll actually choke up for the whole at-bat, depending on who I’m facing, how I’m feeling, and things like that.”
Laurila: Is that a Joey Votto influence?
Bruce: “Yeah. There was some of that.”
Laurila: You’ve probably been asked about Votto a thousand times…
Bruce: “I never mind being asked about him. He’s one of the best, if not the best, hitter I’ve ever come across. His numbers, and his level of success, speak for themselves. But yeah, there was some influence there. It’s not something where he was like, ‘Hey, you should choke up.’ That’s not how he goes about things. He’s an open book when it comes to talking hitting, but he’s… I’ll put it this way: If Joey Votto is choking up, then Jay Bruce can choke up.
“Even if it doesn’t help me physically, mentally it’s a little check point within that at-bat. It kind of gets me into that mode of, ‘Hey, let the ball get a little deeper, and actually see the ball.’ I know everyone says ‘see the ball,’ but for me, when I get to two strikes, that’s what it is. ‘See the ball.’
“I’ve hit a lot of home runs with two strikes, sometimes while choking up. I’m not so much letting the ball get deep as I’m thinking, ‘Let it get deep.’ I haven’t seen my power go down while choking up.”
Laurila: As prolific as he is, Votto has been accused of not being enough of a run-producer.
Bruce: “He’s dealt with that a lot in Cincinnati.”
Laurila: Is that fair?
Bruce: “No. Joey is an elite hitter. I mean, you talk to some people who think his thought process is a little flawed. It’s ‘Hey, he’s the best hitter on the team, so he should be driving in more runs.’ Blah, blah, blah. But how can you argue with… I mean, this guy has led the league in on-base percentage seven or eight times. And when I say, ‘led the league,’ I mean by like 40 points. It’s not even close.
“That’s the name of the game. Right? At the end of the day, it’s about not making outs. Not making an out is the best thing you can do, and Joey has been the best at not making outs for essentially his whole career.
“Watching him is something I’ll always appreciate. I don’t take that for granted. But we’re different. My bread and butter is derived from power. Period. Do I wish that I was able to hit for power, and also get on base at an elite clip? Of course. I’ve done things to try to improve certain facets of my game, but at the end of the day, you are what you are.”
Laurila: Are you and Bryce Harper similar hitters?
Bruce: “I think our power profiles are probably close. He’s clearly a better hitter than me, though. He’s better at not making outs. Maybe not to Joey’s level, but more so than I am.”
Laurila: What about in terms of approach and mechanics?
Bruce: “I’d say we’re similar there, although when it comes to mechanics, Rhys Hoskins is more similar to me. Bryce is a torque-y, powerful hitter. I’m more contact point and leverage. I don’t feel like I’m ever swinging as hard as Bryce is swinging. He’s more rotational, while I’m more directional and wrist-y.
“Rhys never looks like he’s swinging hard, but the ball still goes out. I’d say I’m more in that realm. But as far as the product of balls off the bat, Bryce and I are similar, for sure. Again, both of those guys, Rhys and Bryce, are much better at getting on base than I’ve ever been.
“Now, can you have… there’s space in the game for a lot of different players. I feel I can be an impact hitter on a championship-style team, because teams like that are sequenced correctly. You have guys who get on base, and you have guys who drive them in. You find a way to stretch the lineup, and make it work.”
Laurila: You signed out high school in 2005. Who is most responsible for you being the hitter you are today?
Bruce: “When I came up — we touched on this earlier — it was hammered into me that I had to hit the ball the other way, had to hit the ball the other way, had to hit the ball the other way. I believe there’s a fine line between hitting the ball the other way, and taking your best swing, over and over again. My best swing is simply not to the opposite field. I have power to left-center, but my success comes more to right-center.
“I’ve had a lot of great hitting coaches throughout my career. Alonzo Powell was probably the first person to teach me about a routine, a plan. That was in Low-A, when I was 19 years old, and it really stuck with me. Not his specific plan, but having one, and being committed to it. Back then, I was just a kid. Before that, there wasn’t much thought involved. I was just hitting. I needed to understand what it took to groove a swing, groove an approach, and practice it with intent every day.
“I really learned how to work, and prepare, from Joey, and from Scott Rolen. I can’t say enough how much I appreciate the time I got to spend with them. And Dusty Baker was great. He was a big RBI guy. He taught me a lot about what it takes to drive runs in. Brook Jacoby, Don Long, Kevin Long… all of these guys helped me. Kevin Long kind of got me back on track when I got to New York. He helped me use my legs a little more. Pat Roessler was good, too.
“But really, the person who is most responsible for the hitter I am, is me. I came up as a very young player who’d had a lot of success in the minors. I’d never struggled until I got to the major leagues. I had a lot of fact-finding missions, where I had to figure out things on my own. I’ve had to evolve as the game has evolved.”
Laurila: As we touched on earlier, hitting analytics haven’t changed you, but they have impacted the way you think.
Bruce: “They have. I’m a big believer in analytics. I really am. They tell a story. I feel there needs to be a marriage between the eye test — the old-school thought process — and the information that’s coming in. I’m an advocate of gathering information and using it to make myself better. That said, you can’t just take information and mold yourself into a player you thought up in your head. For the most part, you are the player that you are. But you can become more efficient. You can use what you have, better. That’s what I’m trying to do at this stage of my career.”
Earlier “Talks Hitting” interviews can found through these links: Nolan Arenado, Aaron Bates, Cavan Biggio, Matt Chapman, Nelson Cruz, Paul DeJong, Rick Eckstein, Drew Ferguson, Joey Gallo, Mitch Haniger, Evan Longoria, Michael Lorenzen, Daniel Murphy, Fernando Tatis Jr., Justin Turner, Mark Trumbo, Luke Voit, Jesse Winker.
David Laurila grew up in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and now writes about baseball from his home in Cambridge, Mass. He authored the Prospectus Q&A series at Baseball Prospectus from December 2006-May 2011 before being claimed off waivers by FanGraphs. He can be followed on Twitter @DavidLaurilaQA.