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Friday, April 18, 2014

Jay Bruce Changed His Approach Last Year

Photo credit: Trev Stair
On the heels of yesterday's (rather inconclusive ) post about Matt Adams, I decided to take a closer look at Jay Bruce's career splits.  My main question was how much a batter's splits on how often they hit balls to left, right, and center vary over their career.  I choose the left-handed Bruce because most teams employ the split against him, as he's known as a pull hitter.  He also talks about the importance of using the entire field in interviews, so it's something he's apparently working on.  Here he is, for example, talking about Devin Mesoraco:
"He understands that staying to the big part of the field and really taking what the pitcher gives him is something that's going to beneficial for him," said Jay Bruce. "It's not so much a feast-or-famine thing when you're cutting down the area of the field you use."
First, here are the percent of batted balls that Bruce hit to left, right, and center field (courtesy of FanGraphs):
2014's sample size is insanely low.  I almost didn't include it, but it does provide some insight into why Bruce has struggled so far this year.  In terms of any future prediction, however, I'm ignoring it.

For most of Bruce's career, he's been pretty constant, with a slight trend toward more balls hit to center field and fewer hit to left (his opposite field).  Last year, however, he made a pretty dramatic change.  He hit far fewer balls to his pull side, and far more to left and center field.  In other words, as he referenced, he was using the entire field, not just right field.  It may be a coincidence, but last year he posted the second-highest BABIP of his career (0.322; career 0.294).

Enter Blake Murphy's article this morning.  He reported that:
1) Balls thrown to the outside of the plate are hit to the opposite field more often, and:
2) Pull hitters often hit balls in the air to the opposite field, not on the ground, negating the concern with pitching lefties outside when deploying the infield shift.

So, I went to Baseball Savant to compare Bruce's 2012 and 2013 seasons.  First, here are all of his ground balls and line drives between the two seasons:

Jay Bruce: Line Drives & Ground Balls in 2012 & 2013

The increase in balls hit to left field last season is pretty dramatic--even after we eliminate all of his fly balls.  Bruce was definitely hitting more balls to his opposite field last year.

Now, let's look at what he did on pitches inside and outside.  Here is Bruce on balls thrown to him on the inside half of the plate (zones 3, 6, 9, 12, & 14 at Baseball Savant).

Jay Bruce - Line Drives & Ground Balls on Inside Pitches

Not a big difference.  Pitch Bruce inside and he'll try to pull the ball.  That's more or less what would be expected, because he's a power hitter.

Ok, now, what if you pitch him outside?

Jay Bruce - Ground Balls & Line Drives on Outside Pitches

Wow.  In 2012, if you pitched Bruce outside, he often (usually?) would still hit it to his pull side.  In 2013, however, he started going the other way with the pitch far more often.  And look at the results: he got 75 hits on balls on the outside half of the plate last season, including six home runs (3 were opposite-field).  If you're spraying the ball all over the field, you become far tougher to defend, and you're likely to pick up more hits.

Despite his success, it is worth noting that of his hits to left field in 2013, only eight were on ground balls (and one of those was an infield hit).  All the rest were on line drives, which may or may not be defendable by infielders.  And, as you can see, he's just not making outs on ground balls to third, either (probably because teams are usually shifting on him).  Therefore, if I'm defending Jay Bruce, it makes sense to play your outfield "honest," but you can probably still deploy the shift against him and succeed most of the time.

Now, so far this year, Bruce is struggling.  When he's making contact, he's hitting almost everything to right field.  If he can get back to what he did in 2013 and use the entire field, especially on outside pitches, he stands to see him performance increase.  That's something I'll be watching to see him do in the coming month.

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