Jay Bruce averaged 2.7 fWAR over his first six years in the majors and an impressive 3.5 from 2010 to 2013. However, he was unequivocally awful last year, slashing .217/.281/.373 with a 79 wRC+ and -1.1 fWAR. What happened? How does a guy go from averaging 32 homers a year for three years with decent on-base numbers to being one of the worst in the game?
We can point to a couple major culprits here, the most obvious of which is random variation. Bruce's career BABIP is a solid .293, but last year he was all the way down at .269, taking away a dozen or so hits. His HR/FB, at 15.3%, tied for the lowest value in his career as well. As bad as Bruce was, we can't absolve him of blame for his numbers. A major factor in his lack of power was his tendency to hit far more ground balls in 2014: at 1.33 GB/FB, he was 43% above his career average of 0.93. For a power hitter, rolling over on a lot of pitches can spell doom. And roll over Bruce did, as evidenced by his spray chart (2013 above 2014):
Pulling the ball weakly goes hand-in-hand with hitting over it frequently, and Bruce started drifting into Ryan Howard dead-pull land last season. His average ground ball went 18.75 degrees towards right field, up from 16.59 in 2013. (For comparison, Howard was all the way at 20.96 degrees.)
Bruce also seems to have lost much of his power stroke, his ISO falling from a career-high .263 in 2012 to .216 and .156 the last two years. Steamer projects a modest rebound to .201, to go along with a 106 wRC+ and 1.4 fWAR, but that's nowhere close to his glory days.
Some may point to Joey Votto's absence from the Reds lineup for the entire second half as playing a part in Bruce's decline, but keep in mind that Bruce missed most of May with a torn meniscus and put up only a 98 wRC+ in the first half (53 in the second). So while it's true that Bruce performed worse without Votto in the lineup, he wasn't exactly tearing up the league with him there, and even if he had that correlation is a pretty flimsy basis upon which to make any conclusions about causality.
The aforementioned knee injury could have affected Bruce's season, but that seems unlikely as June was by far his best month (145 wRC+, .891 OPS). Last season was a disaster for the Reds in many ways, from Bruce's play to Votto's injury to Billy Hamilton's non-awesomeness on the basepaths. Todd Frazier and Devin Mesoraco's emergence as borderline stars were some of the few bright spots. The silver lining for the Reds in Bruce's play is that his contract is extremely affordable: $12 million next year, $12.5 million in 2016, and a $13 million club option for 2017. If Bruce puts up even half of his former value (averaging about 1.5 WAR), he'll be a decent value, and Cincinnati has the added benefit of being able to retain him for cheap if he returns to somewhat near his peak production. He'll be 28 next season – certainly young enough to recover and be a solid regular for years to come. I'd say the Steamer estimation (1.4 fWAR) is a pretty good read on Bruce, as he'll benefit from some regression on balls in play and hopefully stay healthier than before.
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Steven Silverman is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score and a student at Carnegie Mellon University. He also writes for Batting Leadoff. You can follow him on Twitter at @Silver_Stats or email him at Steven@SilverStats.com.