Ask Alex: Is this a breakout season for Jay Bruce’s power?

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

We all have questions about the 2011 season and Alex Remington luckily has some answers. The Stew's resident stats guru will address the big questions as opening day approaches.

The Situation: Jay Bruce. Jay Bruce. A strong Scottish name. Redleg fans call him Bruce Almighty, but his name always makes me think of Robert the Bruce.  After being taken 12th overall in the 2005 draft, Bruce tore up the minors and within two years was regarded by some prospectors as the top hitting prospect in baseball. He debuted at the age of 21, and spent the next two years demonstrating that he wasn't quite a finished product. He hit a fair number of homers, but racked too many strikeouts and too few walks. Last year he showed real signs of improvement, posting the best hitting numbers of his career while rating as one of the best defensive right fielders in the game. That was enough evidence for the Reds, who gave him a six-year $51 million extension in December. They clearly think that Jay is on the cusp of stardom.

The Question: Will Jay Bruce finally break out as one of the top power hitters in the NL? {YSP:MORE}

The Analysis: Bruce has had two problems in his career thus far: injury and strike zone judgment. He missed much of 2009 with a broken wrist, the kind of injury that can sap power, and he struck out 136 times in 148 games last year while walking just 58 times. In fact, his walk rate has been just around league average, but his strikeout rate is several percentage points above it — he isn't as whiff-prone as division rival Colby Rasmus, but he swings and misses a whole lot. Over the course of his career, more than a fifth of all of his strikes have been swinging strikes, way above league average. It's not necessarily that his plate discipline is bad: he swings at more pitches inside the strike zone than most players.

He wasn't bad in 2008 and 2009, and his performance was quite good for a 21- and 22-year old — .240/.309/.460 with 43 homers and 110 RBI in 209 games. It just seemed a little disappointing coming from a former top draft pick who won Baseball America's Minor League Player of the Year award in 2007 after tearing through High-A, Double-A, and Triple-A all at the age of 20. Still, it probably shouldn't have been quite so surprising. He also struck out a lot in the minors and didn't walk a ton, but he hit for a lot of power with a relatively high batting average, so it seemed like he didn't have much left to learn on the farm.

Over his first two years in the majors, in terms of power and plate discipline, he was almost the same player in the majors as he had been in the minors — except that he hit for a batting average almost 70 points lower, which was a big reason that he had an OBP 57 points lower and a slugging percentage 91 points lower.

But last year saw an improvement in all areas of his game. His fielding stats last year were the best of his career, and though the data is so fuzzy that it's hard to credit dramatic one-year swings, it's clear that he has made himself into one of the best right fielders in baseball (NLDS Game 2 aside). More importantly, both his line drive rate and walk rate significantly improved over the 2008-2009 marks: the increased line drives helped contribute to a significant increase in his Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP), and both the increased batting average and the increased walks led to by far the best OBP of his career, .353, 44 points higher than his production from 2008-2009. That heightened OBP was the single biggest factor pushing him from a below average corner outfielder to one of the better players in the league — by Wins Above Replacement, he was one of the top 10 or 20 players in the NL.

As long as that wrist is healthy, his power production will be fine, and as long as he's hitting line drives his OBP should be at least serviceable. But in order to be one of the top players in the league, he'll need to improve one or both of those skills to elite level. As he gets older, he'll hit more homers — scouts have long believed that his bat contains 40-homer power, and the strikeouts won't prevent him from hitting them a long way when he connects. But an elite power hitter should have an OBP above .380. If he can start taking more walks, he'll be close on Votto's heels as the best hitter on his team and one of the best in the National League. But I doubt that will happen this year.

The Forecast for 2011: The Bill James Handbook and Dan Szymborski's ZiPS both predict more of the same from Jay Bruce, with projected 2011 numbers looking very similar to what he did in 2010. Bill James predicts .280/.352/.517, with 31 HR, 87 RBI, and 58 walks in 153 games; ZiPS projects .269/.341/.495, with 29 HR, 85 RBI, and 59 walks in 154 games. That would be just fine, of course, but hardly the breakout that Reds fans have been expecting since Bruce was called up in 2008.

James and ZiPS are so harmonious in their projections that I find it hard to disagree. I think 30 home runs is very likely if he plays a full season. But I think it's also very likely that his BABIP and batting average will backslide a few points. And it's hard to predict a much-increased walk rate: although it's certainly headed in the right direction, as his 2010 mark was better than his previous major and minor league rates, it's too soon to know whether that established his new talent level or merely a slight fluke. So it's easy to understand the conservatism of James and ZiPS, who would like to see Bruce keep up the heightened walks before they predict him to exceed it.

I think Bruce is very likely for a total around .270/.350/.500, with around 30 homers and sparkling defense in right field. He'll be one of the best right fielders in the league — though Jason Heyward has much better plate discipline, he doesn't yet have Bruce's power — but Bruce won't yet one of the best players in the NL. He's well worth the $51 million, but his best years are still a couple years ahead of him.

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Previous questions: Can the Red Sox win 100 games?, How many games will the Astros win?, Will the Phillies miss Jayson Werth?, Will Buster Posey experience a sophomore slump?, Will Trevor Cahill be a Cy Young contender?, Will Justin Upton solve his strikeout problem?, Will Neil Walker be a top 10 second baseman?, Can Zack Greinke win the NL Cy Young award?, Can Manny still be Manny at 39?

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