It seems like the general air surrounding Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce has been one of disappointment for a few seasons now. As a prospect, Bruce was heralded wildly for his immense power and a raw skill set that could blossom into that of a tier one superstar before the slugger even started getting age-related discounts on his car insurance. Bruce never really has put it all together like many prospect mavens and fans hoped he would, but maybe the well-rounded player he’s become is actually something much more notable than the “second fiddle to Joey Votto” tag he’s been dogged with.
Perhaps one of the reasons Bruce hasn’t really gotten his due yet is that despite nice enough home run totals, he hasn’t really had a season that establishes him as a true capital-S slugger yet. The young left-handed hitter has largely changed that in 2012, as he’s already tied his career high in homers with 32 and he’s slugging .552, a mark significantly better than the .474 career rate he had entering the season. Bruce also boasts an eyebrow-raising .286 ISO, the fourth best number in all of baseball. This is the season that puts Bruce among the most feared sluggers in the game, and just now in his age-25 season, he’s going to be in that category for a long time.
Bruce also hasn’t ever hit for average, and as a result he hasn’t been on base as much as the very best in the game tend to be. To say Bruce’s approach at the plate is a poor one would be short-sighted, though; he has consisted increased his walk rate since debuting four years ago and he’s now put together four straight seasons with a walk rate north of 10%. While his walk totals have been above average, they aren’t even on the same plane as his ridiculous teammate Votto’s, but they don’t need to be. Bruce walks and mashes enough now to make up for batting averages that are probably always going to be on the low side.
Rather than comparing Bruce to Votto or any other annual MVP candidates, let’s analyze him for what he’s become relative to his position as a right fielder. (Thanks once again to FanGraphs for having incredibly easy to use customizable leader boards). Of all qualifying right fielders in Major League Baseball, Bruce’s .373 wOBA sits firmly second behind only the monster bat of Miami star Giancarlo Stanton. Bruce’s wRC+ of 133 is also second to the Mammoth Marlin among all right fielders. As a hitter alone, Bruce has clearly established himself as one of the very best at his position and he’s only going to get better as he refines himself and hits his stride during his prime seasons.
But wait! There are more reasons to like Jay Bruce! Despite slightly negative reviews from UZR and Total Zone in 2012, Bruce has shown plenty of evidence in the past (including tremendously favorable 2009 and 2010 seasons) that fields his position in an above average manner. Bruce also has a plus arm, and he’ll continue to mature in the field just as he has at the plate. Bruce has also always shown the ability to be average or a little better on the basepaths, making him a terrifically balanced asset for the Reds.
Defensive metrics have a tendency to show extremely variable results in small sample sizes (small sample size in this case even relating to a full season), but you’ve probably heard a few of us belabor that point around here before. Bruce is by all means better than most of his right field counterparts afield, a competent baserunner, and a developing young hitter with a surplus of power and a pretty solid eye. Aside from the echelon in which his power potential will likely land him, Bruce doesn’t excel at any one skill in particular. I think a lot of us kind of assumed he would be the type of player who would put up 40 homers annually with a .300/.390/.570 sort of line, and while Bruce hasn’t become that kind of hitter, that doesn’t mean he isn’t extremely valuable.
The Reds have Bruce locked up through 2016 (and probably 2017 given that the club option for his age-30 season is only $13 million) and will only pay him $41 million over the next four seasons. Given that Bruce seems well on his way to being at least a 4 WAR right fielder (and that’s being conservative given his age) in each of those campaigns, the Reds could even be so lucky as to get twice that in production from him over the life of the contract. Jay Bruce’s mixed assortment of tricks doesn’t make him a superstar, but it does make him a member of the level just below that and one of the top handful (even a hand with a couple of missing fingers, mind you) of right fielders in the entire sport.