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Jay Bruce and the early hitter peak

Jay Bruce has been basically the same player since his age 23 season, bucking conventional aging curves.

Joe Robbins

I can’t really explain it, but I’ve always loved me some Jay Bruce. Bruce’s pie-face photo was my first ever twitter avatar and I’ve been a content fantasy owner in my primary keeper league since he debuted in 2008..

But I expected more by this point.

Sure, Bruce is a pretty good hitter. For four straight seasons he’s hovered around a 120 wRC+, indicating he’s hit about 20 percent better than a league average batter. He’s also been worth 14.3 wins above replacement (fWAR) in his 794 career games, or about 2.7 wins above replacement per 150 games. He’s also a lefty slugger who remains league-average against southpaws, a valuable breed.

He’s basically plateaued as a slightly above average player, all things considered, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that.

However, Bruce hasn’t improved since his age-23 season in 2010. He’s been the same guy in net terms ever since, which is a little odd given that hitters tend to peak around his current age, 26. (It’s worth noting that his 2010 looks more like an outlier when using fWAR, but his defense that season was given an outlier grade compared to the rest of his profile. His batting value has been fairly consistent.)

Season Age wRC+ wOBA Batting+BsR Fielding
2010 23 124 0.365 16.2 19.6
2011 24 118 0.349 14.4 -0.4
2012 25 119 0.352 11.1 -4.7
2013 26 117 0.345 10.2 0.4
His home run per fly ball rate has remained strong (and even improved), while his loss in fly balls has been due to a larger amount of line drives rather than groundballs, so his batted ball profile isn’t really the problem. In fact, the line drives have helped improve his batting average on balls in play and his batting average, albeit at the expense of some isolated slugging.

You could, however, quickly point to a declining walk rate and growing strikeout rate as the culprits behind his stagnation.
Season Age K% BB% Swing% Z-Swing% Z-Contact%
2010 23 23.7 10.1 73.2 47 86
2011 24 23.8 10.7 72.8 48.7 85.2
2012 25 24.5 9.8 75.8 47.8 84.7
2013 26 28 7.6 77.6 50.8 77.6
What’s odd is that his change in plate discipline outcomes hasn’t been the result of swinging at more pitches outside of the zone or even hitting those pitches less. Instead, Bruce has upped his zone-swing rate while seeing his zone-contact rate drop. This has had additional impact as the rate of pitches he’s been thrown in the zone has jumped from 40.2% to 44.5%.

Interestingly, he’s traded less contact for harder contact.
Season Age LD% LD/GB Distance FB% FB Distance HR/FB
2010 23 20.1 167.34 43.7 296.56 15.3
2011 24 16.8 165.76 46.7 286.75 16
2012 25 20.2 177.66 44.4 292.42 18.7
2013 26 25.8 189.37 37.7 295.76 18.5
Bruce is among the league leaders in batted ball distance as well as HR/FB, hence why he remains near the top-20 in terms of isolated slugging. However, the trade-off is curious and makes one wonder if Bruce can figure out how to get the best of both worlds moving forward – his 2010 discipline profile with his 2013 batted ball profile could make for a top slugger rather than just an above-average one.

We know how hitters generally age, and it actually indicates that power tends to peak earlier while walks peak later and strikeouts are a "you are what you are" proposition around this age.

It’s difficult to tell how Bruce will age moving forward given that he’s basically bucked the aging curves and been similarly productive through his age 23 to age 26 seasons. With four affordable seasons left on his deal – Bruce needs to produce about three wins a year for the team to ‘profit’ – it isn’t of much concern to the Cincinnati Reds in financial terms.

But with the team’s window to compete open right now, a more appreciable peak certainly wouldn’t hurt.

(A late-season surge wouldn’t hurt my second place fantasy team, either).

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs unless otherwise cited.

Blake Murphy is a writer at Beyond The Box Score, a news editor at The Score, and a contributing writer just about everywhere else. You can follow him on Twitter at @Blake MurphyODC.

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