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Jay Bruce and Balls in Play

Jay Bruce, along with Joey Votto, Edinson Volquez, Brandon Phillips, Johnny Cueto and others, forms the strong young core of the Cincinnati Reds.  Many analysts believed, coming into the 2009 season, that  a strong performance from this core could vault the Reds into contention.   Despite a 31-39 3rd-order record, the Reds are sitting at 34-36, only 4.5 games behind the division leading Cardinals, and 3.5 games behind the Wild Card leading Giants.  Jay Bruce's contribution to this team has certainly been significant.  His contributions total to 1.4 wins above replacement so far, which is roughly .5 wins above average, and over 600 plate appearances this production would total 3.1 wins. 

However, Bruce's reputation as a prospect was as an elite hitter.  Bruce's contributions this year have been almost completely with the glove, posting a +7.9 UZR in RF.  His hitting has been merely average, with his .332 wOBA resulting in an insignificant total runs below average.  Bruce put up a similar .328 wOBA in 452 PAs (180 more than his current 2009 total of 272).  Common to both of his lines is a low BABIP on fly balls and line drives.  Thanks to a 21.1% line drive rate, despite a LD BABIP lower than the NL average by 29 points and a FB BABIP lower than the NL average by a whopping 56 points (39% of the NL BABIP), Bruce still maintained a .298 BABIP.  Unfortunately for Bruce and the Reds, his line drive rate fell precipitously to 13.8% this year, and, unbelievably, so did his BABIPs on fly balls and line drive.  A ridiculously low .560 BABIP on LDs and and unfathomable .025 FB BABIP have led to an overall BABIP of .205 through June 22nd.

Just how big of an impact has this had on Bruce's raw production?  Last year, despite the roughly average BABIP, Bruce's batted ball profile suggests that he had 8 fewer hits than the average hitter with the same profile.  Even if we assume that all 8 of those hits were singles, that's almost a 4 run difference in production (8 * .47 = 3.76, to be exact).  However, fly balls and line drives have a high probability of being extra base hits.  Let's take a look at the data.

Split ABIP HIP 2B 3B 1B/H 2B/H 3B/H RV/H
Ground Balls 13279 3086 257 11 0.913 0.083 0.004 0.500
Fly Balls 10768 2139 801 127 0.566 0.374 0.059 0.620
Line Drives 5723 2977 973 79 0.647 0.327 0.027 0.590


Using this, we can estimate how many runs Bruce has lost to bad BIP breaks.  Hitter BABIP is a skill to a point, so we can't just assume that Bruce is going to be a league-average hitter with regards to balls in play.   However, with only 725 PAs to his 2 year career, we are operating on a small sample size (especially when considering BABIP) and should analyze that possibility, for both his unlucky 2008 and 2009.

2008 -1 -5 -2 -4.78 452 -6.35
2009 1 -10 -5 -8.65 276 -18.8
Career 0 -15 -7 -13.43 728 -11.07
__HIPvsAVG = hits in play vs. league average on batted ball type
RV = run value, RV/600 = run value per 600 PAs

This is a pretty significant impact, even given the small sample size.  Bruce's BABIP woes, however they're caused, have removed over a win from his value in 728 PAs.  In fact, considering Bruce's 0.5 WAR last year and 1.4 WAR this year, Bruce's results on balls in play are reducing his value by nearly a third to a half.  Personally, I would be interested in seeing some Hit F/X analysis on this issue, but I don't have access to the data.  Hopefully for Reds fans, it's merely a case of bad luck.  Despite Bruce's 2008 looking decent by overall BABIP, he still lost a lion's share of value from below average LD and FB BABIP.  His value going forward could depend on it improving, not to mention the Reds playoff chances.