So, the Phillies made a move to acquire Jay Bruce from the Seattle Mariners. It seems as though there’s a fair amount of fans that are scratching their head at the acquisition of a guy hitting .212 with a propensity to strike out but this version of the Phillies front office has been pretty good with building the team so there must be more to it. Yes, they need pitching – both starting and relief, but this move doesn’t necessarily preclude that.
One way to look at the Bruce acquisition is as a reaction to the recent Odubel Herrera news. It is extremely unclear what exactly will happen with the Phillies current center fielder and the team wasn’t exactly prepared to lose an everyday player. Roman Quinn is extremely unreliable and really struggled before he hit the IL (again). Nick Williams is having an awful season and maybe with more at-bats he could turn it around but it has always appeared that this Phillies front office doesn’t think a ton of him. And Scott Kingery may be more valuable somewhere else on the diamond.
The first odd aspect of bringing Bruce on is his position. Bruce has almost always been a right fielder and as everyone in the galaxy knows, that position on the Phillies is filled. He has started 1468 games as a major leaguer and 1375 of them have been in right field. It’s been suggested that Bruce will play left field for the Phils and Andrew McCutchen will play center on a more regular basis. Bruce has 85 total innings logged in left so it’s a fairly small sample size but in that time he’s committed one error and has a .944 fielding percentage. BaseballReference.com has him at -2 Defensive Runs Saved while playing in left. The team has been burned in the past by playing guys out of position and fans have to hope it won’t happen again.
The Phillies didn’t acquire him for his glove though; they acquired him for his bat. Throughout his career Jay has always been a mediocre hitter with a lot of pop. As mentioned, he’s only hitting .212 this year but he does have 14 home runs which instantly puts him as the new Phillies home run leader.
For a guy who has been such a power threat this year Bruce hasn’t walked a whole lot. His .283 on-base-percentage is about that of Maikel Franco (.284). Actually, his numbers this season are very similar to Franco’s except that Bruce has struck out considerably more, 53 times compared to Franco’s 10, and has hit more home runs, 14 to Maikel’s 8.
When you look at Jay Bruce’s traditional numbers this year nothing special stands out. Sure, he hits home runs but it’s at the cost of outs, mainly strikeouts, which account for 28.8% of his plate appearances. But when you dig a little deeper you start to find some value.
Jay Bruce hits the ball hard. He barrels up the ball at a fairly phenomenal rate; 17.5% of his batted ball events are barreled up. That’s ninth most in baseball. Those barreled-up balls are resulting in 44.7% of his balls in play being classified as “hard hit,” meaning they carry an exit velocity of 95+ miles per hour. That percentage will be second most on the Phillies, behind only Bryce Harper at 47.5%.
There’s no doubt Bruce has been a bit unlucky as well. His batting average on balls in play is .210 and that’s in the top five worst in all of baseball (again, Franco at .205 is worst in baseball). What’s most likely the reason for the low BABIP is that Bruce is hitting way too many fly balls; his 58.8% of fly balls is the highest in baseball. Conversely, his line drive percentage is among the worse at 17.5%.
This is probably what the Phillies see in Bruce. A bit more luck and a slight adjustment to his launch angle will dramatically affect his hitting. As is Bruce’s average launch angle is the highest in baseball at 25° and there’s a clear correlation in that number and his fly ball percentage. This, of course, is what’s also contributing to his home run success. However, with how hard he’s hitting the ball, his average home run distance is 404 feet, the home run totals shouldn’t be diminished by too much; there’s no extra points for a longer home run but if you can add significantly to your batting average that’s meaningful.
In fact, Bruce may have already made some adjustments. Over his last nine games Bruce has been on fire, hitting .333/.400/.700. He’s 10 for 30 with five doubles, two home runs and four walks. He’s cut his K% down to 17.5% mainly by cutting down on his whiff percentage by staying on the fourseam fastball. According to BrooksBaseball.com, for the 38 games to begin the season Bruce whiffed at 14% of the fourseam fastballs he saw and only put 18% in play but over his last nine he’s cut that whiff rate down to 2.33%(!) and is instead putting 23.26% in play. Not only that but when he put that fastball in play over those first 38 it was a groundball 5.56% of the time and a line drive only 2.56%. Recently however he’s lowered the ground ball rate to 2.33% and increased the line drive percentage to 4.65%. This has, of course, increased dramatically his BABIP from the .169 in the first 38 to a more normal for his barrel percentage .348.
Here’s a handy table dating back a little bit further than the above-referenced stats to illustrate some of the key differences:
Jay Bruce Comparative Stats
|FIRST 30 GAMES
|FIRST 30 GAMES
|Soft/Med/Hard Contact %
|Fourseam w/2 Strikes AB/K’s/BAA
The adjustment becomes really clear when you start to piece together these above numbers. The fastball is the most used pitched by pretty much every pitcher and Bruce was being taken advantage of by it. He was able to turn that around by staying on it and making a slight adjustment to his approach. He also appears to have maybe cut down on his swing a bit as evidenced by the increase in medium contact percentages and this no doubt results in a bit more controlled swing.
There’s also his numbers at what will now be his home park. Bruce absolutely kills it at Citizen’s Bank Park. He slashes .294/.354/.559 at CBP and has 10 home runs and 27 RBI’s in his 36 starts there. Now, that could be Phillies pitching or it could be the park but either way at least it’s something.
Here’s another little tidbit: Against Stephen Strasburg and Max Scherzer combined Bruce has 46 at-bats and is hitting .340 with an OPS of 1.190. These are two pitchers who absolutely kill the Phillies and whom they’ll most likely have to go through again several times this year..
While many Phillies fans may still be unsure of this move it’s clear what the front office is hoping for - if not fully expecting. If Bruce can continue to adjust and maintain even close to a semblance of what he’s been doing lately the possibility exists that this could be an upgrade from Odubel. Bruce’s Phillies tenure starts tonight so stay tuned and hope for the best.