Jay Bruce currently has a wheel seat on the struggle bus. The Reds right fielder is slashing a putrid .176/.290/.396 (for a .685 OPS) with 30 strikeouts and 15 walks through 107 plate appearances this season. And before anyone hurls a “sample size” argument at my head, note that this is coming on the heels of a 2014 campaign where Bruce hit .217/.281/.373 (.654 OPS) and a career-low 18 home runs.
Needless to say, all of this is a far cry from the hype surrounding Bruce at the time of his initial big-league call-up back in May 2008. The then 21-year-old five-tool outfielder—touted as “the consensus top prospect in all of professional baseball”—started his major league career smacking fireballs out of the batter’s box; he reached base in his first six plate appearances and hit .552 through his first eight games with three homers and eight RBI. Reds fans, a future Nuxhall Way contributor included, were calling him “Jesus Bruce” and “Bruce Almighty” (an only slightly less-lame reference at the time), blasphemy be damned. The still-existent chants of “Bruuuuuucccccceeee” before every at-bat started almost immediately. He was barely old enough to buy his own $8 Miller Lite tallboy from the bleachers of Great American Ball Park, and yet his future as the franchise’s cornerstone was all but set in stone.
For a couple years, that hype felt prescient. After cooling off in 2008 and an underwhelming 2009 (that featured a broken wrist), Bruce registered what remains his best all-around statistical performance in 2010, slashing .281/.353/.493 (.846 OPS) with 25 home runs, 70 RBI, a 19.6 UZR, and a 5.1 WAR, earning him a six-year, $51-million extension in December of that year. That production remained relatively solid through 2013, racking up three straight seasons with an OPS above .800, 30-plus homers, at least 97 RBI, and a collective WAR of 9.7. There were, however, causes for concern. His batting average dipped to the .250-.260 range, with no consistent signs of rising above that. His strikeout rate climbed higher each year as his walk rate slowing decreased. He was hitting for power, but little else, and his defense took a step down, registering a negative UZR in 2011 and 2012. He was still clearly a productive, plus-talent player—a welcome jolt of power in the middle of the lineup—but he was wildly inconsistent and had fallen short of all the “best prospect in baseball” hoopla.
Then last season happened. His stats dropped across the board, his batting average flirting with the dreaded Mendoza Line. He hit less than 20 homers for the first time in his career, his strikeout rate reached a career high (27.3%), his walk rate hit a career low (8.1%), and he somehow managed to increase his O-Swing%—swinging at pitches outside the strike zone—while decreasing his Z-Swing%—swinging at pitches inside the strike zone—which is pretty friggin’ inconceivable. His UZR was -6.1, and for the first time in his seven professional seasons, he posted a negative WAR (-0.8).
The sneaky truth about Jay Bruce is that, statistically, he’s always been a pretty average player, performance wise. Even at his best (2010, 2012) he was simply above average, never great. He’s hung on to the coattails of that five-tool, top-prospect designation for a long time. Because he had the physical ability to hit the ball a mile and throw guys out on a rope from right field—because he showed those flashes—a lot of Reds fans and baseball prognosticators held out hope that all of those skills would eventually click into place, despite the fact that he never really proved as much on a consistent basis. How many years have we heard someone say, this is the season Bruce turns it on, or this is the year Bruce puts it all together? It hasn’t happened. And even worse, things are now angling in the opposite direction. After last year’s performance and his sluggish start to 2015, statistical evidence is drifting from this is who Bruce is territory to something resembling that of a bench player.
Sure, you can stake your claim to last year being an aberration, and fine, point out that it’s still early in the season, or that his frighteningly low BABIP numbers (.193) are historically unsustainable. But he’s still striking out at a ridiculously high rate, and it’s been over 100 at-bats this season; even if he trends up for the rest of the year, it will have to be at a level of consistent production he’s never once maintained for that long, and it would still just net out as above average at best.
Bruce’s contract earns him $12 million this year (which he’s spent most of hitting from the six-hole) and $12.5 million next year, with a $13 million team option in 2017. How drastically would Bruce have to improve over the next couple seasons to even sniff warranting that last-year option? At what point do the Reds have to stop accepting that this is who Bruce is and start looking for someone else to play right field?
Justin Williams is an associate editor at Cincinnati Magazine. You can follow him on Twitter at @Williams_Justin.