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Jay Bruce is (probably) fine

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The slugger is sporting an ugly batting average and plenty of strikeouts, but his peripherals paint a prettier picture.

MLB: Seattle Mariners at Kansas City Royals Jay Biggerstaff-USA TODAY Sports

It was a minor miracle that Jay Bruce made it through the whole offseason and spring training without losing his roster spot. Coming off of an ineffective and injury-plagued 2018, the newly 32-year-old was largely considered to be well past his prime and mere salary relief in the Robinson Canó/Edwin Díaz blockbuster. Consider it a pleasant surprise, then, that Bruce has been pretty productive through the first few weeks of the season, putting up a 119 wRC+ through his first 77 turns at bat with an absolutely hilarious .176/.260/.559 slash line.

.176/.260/.559. His pinch-hit, go-ahead single last night brought him up to a whopping four non-dinger hits. I can’t remember the last line I saw that was even remotely as ridiculous and unsustainable-looking. It hasn’t helped that Bruce’s strikeouts have jumped alarmingly high, with his 32.5% strikeout rate being the worst of his career by over five full percentage points. The walks have still been there somewhat, hovering around 9%, but it’s entirely understandable to consider this brand of offensive production nothing more than an utter fluke. There’s definitely some regression on the horizon - nobody, and I mean nobody, puts up a .111 BABIP all season - but Bruce appears to be fully healthy once again, and has notably changed his swing to the point where at least some of this power outburst could be sustainable.

Since we’ve had Statcast publicly available, Bruce has put up easily the highest average exit velocity and launch angle of his career this season - his launch angle in particular is six full degrees higher than last year, at 27.3­°. His batted balls look like how you’d expect, with his fly ball rate of 65.9% (!) leading the league by double digits. This helps explain the comically low BABIP: home runs aren’t counted as balls in play, and fly balls have by far the lowest mark of any other type of batted ball - so far in 2019, balls hit in the air have a BABIP of just .087. What’s encouraging, though, is that despite taking “elevate and celebrate” to new heights, Bruce has only hit one infield pop-up all season, good for an IFFB% of just 3.4%. His barrel rate per batted ball - in which “barrel” can be briefly described as a perfect marriage of exit velocity and launch angle - is 20.9%, in the 96th percentile league-wide. He also isn’t relying solely on pull power, as evidenced by this oppo blast in Kansas City last week:

Although his strikeouts have markedly jumped, Bruce’s plate discipline is still pretty solid. His Z-Swing% minus O-Swing% of 51.9% is both the best of his career and second-best on the team behind Dylan Moore (!!). His Z-Swing of 83.3% is also the highest on the team by a considerable margin, and second in all of baseball behind the Rays’ Brandon Lowe. In other words, Bruce has done a pretty good job of controlling the zone; he’s swinging at the majority of strikes that are thrown at him, and leaving pitches out of the zone mostly alone.

Unfortunately, his contact has suffered a bit - his whiff rate of 16.9% is far and away the worst in his twelve years of big-league ball. Both his Z-Contact% and O-Contact% have also dropped around five points from last year. Interestingly, Bruce has swung at the first pitch in almost half of his plate appearances; nearly fifteen points higher than last year, and still double digits above his career mark. This astounding mark, coupled with the decline in contact across the board, suggests to me that he may be cheating on a first-pitch fastball. Two of his eight homers (your reminder that Jay Bruce still has more home runs this year than the Detroit Tigers) have come on the first pitch, and three have been off of a four-seamer, so it’s worked to an extent! Unfortunately, this has been accompanied by a sky-high first pitch strike rate of around 67% - and battling back from 0-1 isn’t always the easiest thing to do.

Jay Bruce has been a fascinating hitter throughout the first month of the season. It would be wishful thinking to assume that his .382 ISO and 27.6% HR/FB will hold up over the next month or so - let alone the whole season - but he appears to have made legitimate changes to his approach. After a hip injury last season sapped most of his famous power, it’s back with a vengeance so far in 2019 (Another fun fact: in 2018, Bruce hit nine dingers in 361 plate appearances. He has eight in 77 to open the year). He’ll almost certainly continue running a well-below-average BABIP if he keeps on elevating like he has, but given his barrel rate and average exit velo of just over 90 miles per hour, one should expect a few more hits to start falling in. A healthy, power-hitting Bruce is still a potent offensive weapon despite the dip in contact, and he’s still deserving of playing time even if his average is currently pretty ugly.