“It’s been miserable. It’s honestly been the most embarrassing year of my life.” — Jay Bruce, August 31, 2014
“Overall, it’s still a pretty embarrassing season for me.” — Bruce, September 26, 2015
Why did Bruce feel the need to publicly profess job-related self-loathing despite pocketing $22 million from 2014 to 2015? Well, the past two seasons represent the nadir of the Cincinnati Reds’ right-fielder’s professional career. Bruce accumulated negative value (-0.8 Wins Above Replacement) over those years, with only Billy ‘Country Breakfast’ Butler having a lower WAR among the 117 players with 1,000 plate appearances over that stretch.
I can’t think of another Red in my lifetime with a more star-crossed career than Bruce. Perennially burdened by his status as a former first round pick, Bruce has been a near-constant source of scorn for Reds fans. Why is Jay Bruce so streaky? Why can’t Jay Bruce figure out a way to beat the shift? Jay Bruce should bunt more!
Then again, Bruce’s Shot Heard Round the ‘Nati is the most indelible moment for a generation of Reds fans. He personally snapped the franchise’s 15-year playoff drought.
Searching for consistency at this stage in his career may be a big ask, but, as I explained in February for Redleg Nation, the 29-year-old Bruce could get his groove back by accomplishing three specific things:
- Regaining command of the strike zone and walking more.
- Keeping the ball off the ground.
- Hope for some better batted-ball luck.
Through 15 games and 61 plate appearances in 2016, Bruce has checked off two of three improvement boxes. Though he only has one walk on the season, Bruce’s ground-ball rate (31.8 percent) would represent a career low (those pesky infield shifts lose their value when the ball is in the air) and Bruce’s .310 average on balls in play would be his highest since 2013, when he hit 30 home runs and registered 4.2 Wins Above Replacement. [Obligatory insertion of the Small Sample Size Song]
Unfortunately, there’s a cruel reality to Bruce’s inspired start: the better he plays, the more likely he is to be traded from the Reds, the only organization the native Texan has known since being selected 12th overall as a high school senior in the 2005 draft. That’s the cold, hard truth for a rebuilding/rebooting franchise and a player making $12.5 million this season. (The Reds hold a $13 million team option for 2017.) The team’s front office has already swung and missed twice in attempts to ship him out of town: Cincinnati came within a bout of cold feet from trading Bruce to the New York Mets on last season’s July 31 trade deadline, and only a failed physical from another player kept Bruce from becoming a Toronto Blue Jay in late February.
Bruce’s wife, Hannah, joined her husband in Goodyear, Arizona, the night the Reds were deep in negotiations to trade Bruce to the Blue Jays in what was reported as a three-team trade, with the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim also purportedly in the mix. (Hannah didn’t bother to unpack.) In addition, the couple is expecting their first child later this month.
Bruce’s performance to this point in 2016 only increases the probability that he will be forced to pack up with a newly-expanded family and move to an unfamiliar city. If he streaks downward, as he has been known to do, he’ll continue to incur the wrath of Reds fans. No matter how he plays this season, it seems like Jay Bruce can’t win.