The Blue Jays and the Jay Bruce infatuation

Aug 16, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New York Mets outfielder Jay Bruce continues to be linked to the Toronto Blue Jays -USA TODAY Sports
Aug 16, 2016; Phoenix, AZ, USA; New York Mets outfielder Jay Bruce continues to be linked to the Toronto Blue Jays -USA TODAY Sports /

The Blue Jays have been linked to Jay Bruce .  Many writers question why.  Could the Jays be seeing something beyond the obvious?

The Jays have been linked to Jay Bruce since before the 2016 season, when a Michael Saunders – for – Bruce deal was only called off at the last minute for medical reasons.   Negotiations started again in the 2016 off-season, and the chances of the Mets dealing Bruce are said to have increased with their signing of Yoenis Cespedes.

Many writers have expressed concern with the idea of Bruce playing outfield full-time for the Blue Jays.  They point to his disastrous second half with the Mets in 2016, his declining defensive stats in right field (his UZR/150 of -8.8 in RF in 2016 was second only to J.D. Martinez for the worst in baseball), and a lack of available DH at-bats after the Kendrys Morales signing.

So why would the Jays be interested in a player like that?

In Jay’s Defense

Let’s start with Bruce’s defence.  His stats are pretty bad, granted.  But some scouts believe that, in Bruce’s case, the stats do not tell the whole story and that he is in fact an average to above-average fielder.  Bruce was clearly a plus fielder in his youth, before a 2014 knee surgery apparently limited his range.  His defensive decline since 2014 has related almost exclusively to a reduced ability to go back on deep balls.

This situation brings to mind another name familiar to Jays fans: Dexter Fowler.  Early in his career, Fowler played a shallow centre field.  It created problems with longer hits though, as Joe Maddon, recognizing this issue, decided to move Fowler about 17 feet deeper in 2016.  The results were significant – Fowler moved from a career average UZR/150 of -10 to a +1.0, essentially changing from terrible to marginally above average in a single year.

"of the 28 players with at least 3,000 innings in centre field since 2009, only Matt Kemp rated more poorly than Fowler did, at -9 runs saved per 1,000 innings. It’s not that Fowler doesn’t pass the eye test — he does — it’s that missed extra-base hits hurt more than missed singles."

Could Bruce benefit from a similar move in right field?

It is interesting (acknowledging all small sample size caveats) that after the trade to the Mets his defence improved from a UZR/150 of -17.6 to an exceptional +11.1.  Is it possible that the Mets better recognized Bruce’s limitations, and positioned him accordingly?  Or could it be that he is finally regaining confidence in his repaired meniscus from 2014?

Either way, could the Jays have reasons to be optimistic about Bruce’s 2017 defence?

The Park Factor

Bruce is to some extent a one-trick pony.  His lifetime line is .248/.313/.467, with a 24% strikeout percentage.  But Jay’s 141 HRs over the last five years is 14th best in baseball – just one HR ahead of some guy named Donaldson.  So what you are getting with Bruce is below-average batting average and on-base percentage, but above-average power.

Players with that profile are frequently helped by favourable parks.  Looking at FanGraphs’ park factors by handedness, it is interesting to note that the Yankees have the most friendly park in baseball for a left-handed hitter to hit home runs, and the Orioles are third.  The Jays are above average (at 103) and the Rays are average at 100.

Is it possible that the Jays feel that a move to the AL East could unlock even more of Bruce’s power potential?

Cherry Picking – A Tale of Two Seasons

Bruce had a very unusual 2016 season.  With the Reds, he had excellent offence (124 wRC+) but terrible defence (-17.6 UZR/150).  After being traded to the Mets, these numbers reversed – his offence was bad (81 wRC+) but his defence was very good (+11 UZR/150).

Suppose the Jays believe that, playing in favourable parks, he can match his Reds’ prowess in Toronto.  And further, suppose that they believe that Bruce can maintain his enhanced defence.  A 124 wRC+ and a +11 UZR/150 would translate, over 600 PAs, to a WAR of roughly 4.5.  That is about what Jose and Edwin did in 2015, and more than either player did in 2016.

This is of course blatant cherry-picking – taking the best of each of the half-seasons.  But the Jays have (presumably!) scouted Bruce extensively, and it is entirely possible that they have valid reasons to believe that they can achieve something close to both highs.

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The Bottom Line

A 4+ WAR right fielder is more than a little valuable.  In 2016, think George Springer, Nelson Cruz (almost) and Bryce Harper (not even almost).  But even if Bruce only produced half that value, he would still more than earn his $13 million salary for 2017.

To be honest, I am less optimistic about Bruce than this article might imply.  But I never predicted J.A. Happ to win 20 games, or Marco Estrada to be top-25 in ERA, or Aaron Sanchez to not only start but lead the American League in 2016 ERA.  If team Shapkins see something in Bruce, I am willing to go along for the ride.