When the New York Mets acquired slugging right fielder Jay Bruce from the Cincinnati Reds at last season’s trade deadline many assumed that New York would be receiving one of the best hitters in the game. At the time, Bruce was leading the National league in home runs (25) and RBIs (80) and had been tearing the cover off the ball during the previous several games, launching 6 homers and driving in 14 runs in the week prior to his trade.
However, what the Mets received was not what the Reds had advertised. Bruce slashed a meager .219/.294/.391/.685 with 8 home runs and 19 RBIs in 50 games with the team and earned his fare share of criticism from the fans – often being referred to as “Jay(son) Bay(ruce),” in reference to terrible, awful, no-good, very bad Met Jason Bay, as well as “Bruceless”. During that period of “Brucelessness”, Jay posted an 82 OPS+, 81 WRC+ and was worth -0.2 offensive wins above replacement (oWAR), putting him in the same category as players like Nolan Reimold, Ryan Raburn, and Jake Smolinski. To put that into context, those guys’ combined salaries are less than 20% of the $13 million Bruce will earn this year. Basically, per dollar, he was really, really bad.
Despite this overwhelming evidence that Jay Bruce was one of the worst qualified right fielders in the league last season, the Mets have several reasons to expect that the Beaumont, Texas native will return to form this season and be one of the team’s leading run producers.
1. Bruce is Streaky
This shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone as Jay Bruce is widely regarded as a “peak and valley hitter” who routinely fluctuates between periods of MVP quality play and complete invisibility. He has the ability to single-handedly carry his team for weeks at a time — as was reflected in his performance just before the deadline — but will inevitably fall back down to earth and then some. Here’s a graph of Bruce’s WRC+ by game from 2010 to 2016.
The deviation is staggering. On any given stretch of the season, Bruce has the ability to hit 100 points higher or lower than his career WRC+ and this pattern has been consistent since he entered the league.
Last season, the Mets caught Bruce at the end of a 10+ game hot streak in which he was posting around a 175 WRC+. From August 7th — 5 days after being acquired by the Mets — to September 4th, a stretch of 24 games, Bruce never once posted a WRC+ over 100. Following that, Bruce completely bottomed out and had one of the worst stretches of his career, going 3-for-39 (.077 BA) with 0 extra base hits, 0 RBIs, and 11Ks from September 5th to September 24th, when he hit a pinch-hit home run in a loss against the Phillies. From that point onward, Bruce had his second best stretch of the season, going 12-for-25 (.480 BA) with 5 extra base hits, 4 HRs, 8 RBIs, and only 1 strikeout. This is par for the course for Bruce — extreme hot steaks followed by extreme cold streaks — and there’s years of research to suggest that Bruce will indeed be able to follow this same pattern next season.
2. He’s Having a Good Spring
The sample size here is incredibly small but Jay Bruce has put together a very nice Spring up to this point. He is 3-9 with a lone RBI so far and has yet to hit a homerun but has looked much more comfortable at the plate, walking three times and only striking out once. This is a much-needed quality start for Bruce, as he entered the spring surrounded by trade rumors and questions about whether or not he would be the everyday right fielder.
“He came into this camp with a lot of talk that he was going to be the guy who was being traded,” Mets Manager Terry Collins said last week, “ So I wasn’t sure, being a veteran guy, being in his free agent year, how he would handle it. But he came in, and has handled it great.”
This praise is an important vote of confidence from Collins and from the Franchise and signals that both the team and Jay Bruce are expecting a strong 2017. If Bruce can keep this performance going for the remainder of the spring, there should be no question about whether or not he’ll see regular playing time.
3. He’s More Comfortable In New York
Despite what Bruce might tell the media, there is no doubt in my mind that being traded to New York had a serious negative effect on his life and his in-game performance. This is a guy that had played every single game of his career with the team that drafted him, had built up a reputation in the community, and raised a family in Cincinnati. Not to mention that moving from Beaumont, TX — with a population of just over 100,000 — to 296,000-person Cincy is a much easier transition to make than moving from Cincinnati to the largest city in the United States. Bruce went from playing for a slumping, small-market team in an area he was incredibly familiar with to a team deep in the middle of a playoff run in the largest and most notable sports city in the US. Couple that with the pressure to come in and make an immediate and sizeable impact, and you’ve got a disastrous cocktail of mental issues just waiting to happen. Bruce may be a professional athlete, which comes with the reasonable expectation of being equipped to handle changes like this, but he’s also a human being with a personal life and emotions. It reminds me a lot of Wilmer Flores in 2015 when he was nearly traded to the Brewers. He had played his entire baseball career with the team that took a chance on him, had built up a relationship with the team and the area, and was dedicated to playing his heart out for the franchise he loved. He was rightfully devastated upon hearing that he would no longer be with the team, and I’m sure Bruce experienced something similar — as most of us would.
Baseball is an incredibly mental game and as we’ve seen many times in the past, off-the-field issues can turn into on-the-field issues, which can completely derail a player’s season. It recently came to light that during his stint with the Mets last season, Bruce lived in 6 different hotels over the course of two months, and was separated from his wife and four-month-old son the entire time. “I felt like I was abandoning my family a little bit,” Bruce said last week. “It’s part of the job and we sign up for that, but it was hard leaving them.”
This man had zero stability, both in his living situation and with the Mets, and I have no doubt that it had an effect on his performance. With a new apartment under his belt, his wife and son alongside him, and a positive outlook on this season, Bruce should be in a much better place to take 2017 by storm. “We aren’t necessarily big-city people, and didn’t grow up in a big city,’’ says Bruce, “but we really like the city of New York. We talked about living in the suburbs, but we said, ‘No, screw that.’ We have a chance to enjoy one of the greatest cities in the world. Let’s experience it.’’ That’s exactly what I want to hear.
It’s still going to take a little while for fans of the blue and orange to get over the Bruce hangover from last season. Jay will need to work hard and produce early in the season to win back the favor of Mets fans who equate him with some of the worst acquisitions in team history like Jason Bay, but all signs have started to point towards Bruce having another strong season. His raw power and ability to carry a slumping offense should be of serious use to the Mets offense, which has had a tendency as of late to completely disappear from May to July. Trading Bruce this past offseason may have acquired the team a decent return and cleared an outfield logjam but by mid-season this year, the Mets organization will be glad they didn’t pull the trigger too early.