The Yankees made a small move for a big name over the weekend by signing outfielder/first baseman Jay Bruce to a minor league deal. Should Bruce make the Yankees main roster, he would earn $1.35 million guaranteed plus bonuses that start after reaching 400 plate appearances. Four years ago, Jay Bruce would have been a great name to see playing in the Bronx. In 2021, the move is mostly a low risk signing that has potential for high reward.
Jay Bruce played the first eight seasons of his career with the Cincinnati Reds before bouncing around the league the last few years. Known for his power, Bruce has only failed to hit at least 20 home runs in a season twice (not including the 60 game, 2020 season).
For his career, Bruce has an isolated power number of .224 and a slugging percentage of .469. Taking his 2019 and 2020 ISO/SLG numbers combined, it looks even better with an ISO of .298 and a SLG of .510. He definitely hasn’t lost any power over the last two seasons. In fact, he seems to have added power. How did Jay Bruce, a player outside the “Overton Window” for what most players’ prime years would be, add power to an already power-focused batting profile? The basic answer is pretty simple. He starting elevating the ball more and hitting it harder.
Up until 2019, Bruce had a career fly ball percentage of 42.7% and a hard hit percentage of 35.2%. Since the start of the 2019 season, Bruce has amped us those numbers to 52.1% and 42.6% for fly ball and hard hit percentage respectively. Again, it’s pretty simple to understand why Bruce’s power numbers have been at superstar levels the past two years. Hit the ball higher and hit the ball harder. Power is what has kept Bruce around the league this long and if he continues the trend of hitting for more power like he has done since 2019, we could be seeing a lot of “Bruce Bombs” in 2021.
If you’re looking for batting average or on base percentage, turn away now
Jay Bruce may have figured out how to hit for more power but the adjustment was not without its casualties to other parts of his game.
For most of his career, Bruce was somewhere around .250 in batting average with about a .320 on base percentage. After the 2018 season, the changes to Bruce’s batted ball profile ravaged those numbers. His BABIP prior to 2019 was .282 but since then it has been .199. That makes some sense because you can hit fly balls as hard as you can, but if the launch angle isn’t right it just becomes a can of corn in the outfield. That specific type of contact is not good for BABIP.
It should also be noted that home runs do not factor into BABIP calculations so the basic narrative to take away from Bruce’s BABIP number is that if he’s not hitting home runs then he is unlikely to be getting a hit at all. Bruce’s AVG and OBP the last two seasons combined is .212 and .259. He may give you a .510 SLG but that means his OPS is only .769. That’s still decent but not what you would hope for from a player with that power.
In order to combat the .199 BABIP, he’s going to need to improve his walk rate. His strikeout rate of 24.3% the last two years is fine considering his power profile but the 6% BB/PA will not be enough to get his AVG and OBP up to something more respectable. From 2008 to 2018, Bruce had a walk rate of 9.2%. He’s had two seasons to refine his contact profile. Now he needs to work with hitting coaches to rediscover his patience at the plate. Taking his hit total since the start of 2019 and assuming his walk rate was the same as it was for him from 2008 to 2018, Bruce would have had an OBP of .289. That is still pretty bad but that would have given him a .798 OPS.
We also can assume that playing in Yankee Stadium for half his games would make his contact profile play even better over the course of a 162 game season. His average will likely never see .250 again without a significant amount of luck from the BABIP gods but if he can get back to taking his walks, even with a .300 OBP his OPS could still be in .800s.
Jay Bruce signing a minor league deal without a guarantee isn’t a move that will impress many people. However, this could turn into an under the radar clutch signing by Brian Cashman. In my opinion, Bruce is exactly the type of player that gets rejuvenated simply when he starts playing in the Bronx. Now he just has to make the roster, find the at-bats, and make good on that prediction. Stay tuned.