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40 in 40: Jay Bruce

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After an injury-plagued 2018, Jay Bruce hopes to bounce back with the Mariners.

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Washington Nationals v New York Mets Photo by Rich Schultz/Getty Images

Like so many kids who grew up in the 90s, Jay Bruce idolized Ken Griffey Jr. “I was completely obsessed,” he admitted in a radio interview a few weeks ago. After being drafted by the Cincinnati Reds in 2005, Bruce quickly moved through the organization and made his major league debut just as Griffey was exiting his tenure in Cincinnati. It’s rare to even meet our idols, let alone share an outfield with them. Bruce not only got that opportunity as a rookie; he built a lasting friendship that continues to this day. And now Bruce is a member of the organization that retired Griffey’s jersey number.

Bruce was included in the Edwin Díaz mega-deal to offset some of the salary owed to Robinson Canó. Jarred Kelenic and Justin Dunn were obviously the headlining acquisitions in that trade, but we shouldn’t think of Bruce as simply a toss-in for salary relief. He’s one season removed from posting a 118 wRC+ and 2.6 fWAR, and he’ll turn just 32 in April.

With Cincinnati, Bruce was a potent piece in the middle of their lineup. Between 2010 and 2013, he produced a 120 wRC+ with passable defense in right field, averaging 3.6 fWAR per year. But the next two years were a far cry from that peak. The game was changing, and Bruce wasn’t changing with it. Defenses began to employ the shift against him more often and he continued to pound ground balls right into their waiting gloves.

It wasn’t until he joined the Mets in a mid-season trade in 2016 that he began to adjust back. He began meeting with Mets hitting coach Kevin Long to adapt his approach at the plate. Long was largely responsible for turning Canó and Daniel Murphy into stars in New York. With Bruce, Long simply wanted Jay to lean into his strengths and start launching the ball over the shift. He told Travis Sawchik about these adjustments in a piece for The Athletic:

“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.”

To help cement this new approach, Long started using the net drill with Bruce, the same drill that transformed Canó. The results speak for themselves. Bruce raised his average launch angle from 14.9 degrees in 2015 to 21.4 degrees last year. And instead of pulling the ball on the ground like he had been in Cincinnati, he began elevating his batted balls over the shift.

Unfortunately, he wasn’t able to put all these changes into full use last year. Early in the season, he was hampered by a nagging back issue which led to a hip problem that sidelined him for two months. Prior to hitting the disabled injured list in June, he really struggled to hit for power. But once he returned in August fully healed, he showed off what could have been. He posted a 128 wRC+ in 32 games to end the season and his trademark power was back.

With so many peripheral connections to the Mariners, it seemed inevitable that Bruce would eventually join the organization one way or another. He’ll likely rekindle his friendship with Ken Griffey this spring when The Kid makes his annual appearance in spring training and he’ll hopefully continue to utilize the same drill that transformed Robinson Canó into superstar. He’ll have plenty of competition for playing time with Edwin Encarnacion, Ryon Healy, and Dan Vogelbach all occupying a similar space on the roster. But if those adjustments he made with the Mets stick, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Bruce carve out a productive space in the lineup this season.