by Dave De Wit
Exactly one year ago today Jay Bruce had belted seven home runs to start the 2012 season. This season: one homer. The Cincinnati slugger’s sluggish start has many owners wondering why Bruce isn’t hitting home runs.
His problems lie in his batted ball profile, which is remarkably different so far this year compared to his career. The differences are partly due to the small, one-month sample size but also partly due to a reliable change in his game.
For starters he’s struggled to get the ball in the air, making home runs rather difficult. Entering 2013 Bruce’s career FB% was 43.7%, but this year it has dropped to 29.5%, the lowest single-month FB% since his rookie year. He has only managed to hit 23 total fly balls in 129 plate appearances this year. To make things worse, four of those 23 flies didn’t even leave the infield while just one of them left the park, good for a home run to fly ball rate of 4.3%.
Fortunately for Bruce and Bruce owners, fly ball rates don’t become reliable until roughly 250 plate appearances and HR/FB takes even longer, meaning he will almost certainly progress towards his career average and hit more balls in the air and more over the fence going forward.
Now that we know his home run skills haven’t actually changed, let’s take a look at what has changed for the better and for the worse—his line drive and strikeout rates.
Line drive rates stabilize at around 150 plate appearances, so his 29.5% LD% in 129 PA is fairly reliable. Considering his career LD% entering this season was 18.4%, this jump is significant and has helped his batting average on balls in play a great deal so far.
Currently, Bruce has an unsustainably high .390 BABIP. While that will come down, his newly found line drive stroke should help keep his BABIP up and lift his average up above his.256 career mark as it did in 2008 when his .334 BABIP helped him hit for a .281 average.
However, a lot of benefit that his line drive rate has on his average is negated by his horrible strikeout rate. Bruce is only hitting .261 right now with his super high BABIP and it’s because of his 31.8% K% (up from his 23.4% career mark). Since strikeout rates stabilize the same time line drive rates do, Bruce’s increased strikeouts are frighteningly trustworthy.
Whether or not you want to believe the reliability of these early peripherals, there is no need to worry about Bruce’s power. He’s going to get his home runs and, because of good Reds line-up, he will rack up the counting stats. We’re talking about a very streaky hitter here—he’s had long homerless streaks before and has followed them with huge multi-homer weeks.
If you own Bruce, stay the course. If you don’t own Bruce, he’s a pretty good buy-low candidate because the power is coming.