What Jay Bruce Is Missing

Well, a new team, for starters. What Jay Bruce is missing is a new team. Rather, a new team is missing Jay Bruce. Twice now, the Reds have reportedly been on the verge of trading Bruce. First, to the Mets at last year’s trade deadline, more recently to the Blue Jays, just last night. Twice, Bruce has reportedly been on the verge of being dealt, and twice, the deal has fallen apart.

Maybe that tells you something about Jay Bruce. Or maybe it tells you something about the other players in the deal, as both deals collapsed due to medical hangups concerning the players whom the Reds were attempting to acquire. In July, it was the Reds who backed out of the proposed deal that could have netted them Zack Wheeler, in the midst of his recovery from Tommy John Surgery. Last night, it wasn’t even Michael Saunders‘ bum knee that gave the Reds pause.

Neither proposal fell apart because of Bruce, specifically, but that doesn’t mean the failed deals don’t tell us something about Bruce, because they do. What they tell us about Bruce is this: thus far, teams have only appeared willing to give up already-injured players for him.

Which is shocking, given where Bruce’s career was just two years ago. Just two years ago, he was a 26-year-old Gold Glove-caliber right fielder who doubled as one of the game’s most prolific home run hitters. Now, the Reds are struggling to rid themselves of his salary for anything more than damaged goods.

It began with a knee injury, in 2014. After years of good health, Bruce tore the meniscus in his left knee early in the season, an injury that required surgery. He returned quickly from the surgery — surprisingly quickly — and looked nothing like himself for the remainder of the year. He started hitting a ton of ground balls, and the power was sapped. The defensive ratings in right field plummeted. It was a disaster of a season, the whole thing, but one that could easily be written off, as he was clearly still hampered by the knee.

The following Spring Training ushered in a sense of optimism, and Bruce asserted a clean bill of health, declaring the knee a “non-issue.” He stayed off the disabled list for all of 2015, and the batted-ball mix returned to normal. I’m willing to throw out the numbers from 2014 — such a drastic ground-ball spike indicates a player out of his element — but 2015 counts. By all indications, Bruce was himself last season, and therein lies the problem.

He looked like himself, but the production didn’t return. Overall, he was a below-average hitter. His fly balls turned into homers at a career-worst rate. He pulled more ground balls than ever, which may or may not have been swallowed up by the shift. The defense graded average at best. Bruce was barely a replacement-level player.

He was once on the verge of stardom. Now, the Reds have internal concerns they’ll be able to move him at all. Clearly, something has gone missing from his game. This image should help:

Screen Shot 2016-02-23 at 9.12.36 AM

Those are all of Bruce’s dingers, with 2012 and 2013 on the left, and the most recent two years on the right. You’ll notice, in the image on the right, that essentially half the field is represented. Used to be that one of Bruce’s greatest strengths was his ability to hit for power to the opposite field. Lately, that power’s disappeared.

Don’t get it twisted — Bruce is still powerful. The isolated slugging percentage was up over .200 last year, he slugged 26 homers, and when he turns on an inside pitch, he can still drive it with plenty of authority. As far as pull power goes, Bruce still has it with the best of them. It’s just that, he used to be able to cover the whole plate, and that’s what made him a dangerous at-bat. Now, the plate coverage is limited; he’s a liability on the outer-half.

The effect is drastic:

Largest Declines in Opposite Field Production
Name 12-13 ISO 12-13 wRC+ 14-15 ISO 14-15 wRC+ ISO_DIF wRC+_DIF
Jay Bruce .281 167 .102 53 -.179 -114
Jean Segura .221 155 .068 43 -.153 -112
David Wright .243 167 .075 66 -.168 -101
Torii Hunter .179 181 .151 91 -.028 -90
Melky Cabrera .087 153 .073 71 -.014 -82

Bruce has lost more power to the opposite field than anyone. As a result, he’s lost more overall production to the opposite field than anyone. It wasn’t just the injury-riddled 2014; Bruce ran a 47 oppo wRC+ in 2014, and a 56 oppo wRC+ in 2015. The opposite-field power went away with the injury two years ago, and the bigger problem is it never came back.

With any kind of injury, getting over the ailment, physically, is only one part of the recovery process. The other is getting over any bad habit the injury may have caused. Bruce may be completely healthy, but the injury threw his swing into a funk, and it doesn’t seem like he’s been able to shake it.

Here’s Don Long, Bruce’s hitting coach:

“I think the leg had a lot to do with (him not being able to drive the ball to left)…”

And now here’s some still images from two clips. On the left, a 91 mph fastball, low-and-away, that Bruce took to the opposite field for a homer in 2013, and on the right, a 91 mph fastball, low-and-away, that Bruce took to the opposite field for a pop-up in 2015. I’d recommend clicking the image to view a larger version:


The first frame of either swing, at the point of release, doesn’t reveal much. Bruce essentially has the same stance, and the same load. It’s the second frame, the moment when Bruce’s heel touches the ground, where a problem reveals itself. Look how, on the left, Bruce’s hips are already rotating, the barrel already darting toward the zone. On the right, Bruce is flat-footed and straight-up. Nothing is coming from the lower half.

Now, of course there will be differences when comparing any given home run swing to any given pop-up swing. But here’s Long again, talking about the effects of a lower-body injury on a power hitter’s swing

“…you try to manufacture the same amount of bat speed and more of that’s coming from your upper half and you’re generating from your upper half, which makes you susceptible to being about to be quick with the barrel and go over the ball and all that.”

The end of that quote gets a bit messy, but you get the point. The images, while admittedly cherry-picked, are representative of Bruce’s swing troubles ever since the knee surgery in his plant leg. The timing is off, and there’s not as much power coming from the lower half. On the outer half, he isn’t letting the ball get deep, and that’s vital to going the other way with any kind of authority.

Jay Bruce still has his power. It’s just that the power used to be all-encompassing and omnipresent, and now the power is just selective. What that means is Bruce is working with less room for error, making him susceptible to more risk. Can’t say for sure how healthy the knee was last season. Maybe it really was at 100%, and maybe 100% just means less than it used to. Could be that even a healthy knee is a weaker knee than Bruce used to have. You want to think that, with health, he would be able to overcome the bad habit necessitated by his injury and get his old swing back. He’s still just 28. But he seemingly had a year to fix himself, and the outer-half plate coverage never returned, meaning the opposite-field power never returned, meaning Bruce was just a fraction of what he used to be. That’s how a once-top slugger can end up the subject of multiple failed deals for already-injured players.

August used to cover the Indians for MLB and ohio.com, but now he's here and thinks writing these in the third person is weird. So you can reach me on Twitter @AugustFG_ or e-mail at august.fagerstrom@fangraphs.com.

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