Jay Bruce & Blue Jays- An Unpopular But Wise Choice vs Michael Saunders

Jays From the Couch looks at whether trading for Jay Bruce is a way for Blue Jays to avoid risk in 2016.

 

I wrote a breakout piece about Michael Saunders last month, and I believe that a healthy 2016 season played for the Blue Jays in the AL East could have resulted in a 3+ WAR season. I like the trends in Saunders’ batted ball peripherals in the past few years he played in Seattle, but his missing the vast majority of the past two seasons is a significant and legitimate issue and risk. I am completely fine with Saunders being the Jays starting LF and expect a more than serviceable performance if he stays healthy. However, it appears that Mssr.’s Atkins and Shapiro decided to go in another direction by trying to acquire Jay Bruce, which has focused my analytical attention in a new direction.

It appears that many Jays fans and commentators are perplexed by this supposed “deal,” though it is difficult to assess a deal when it hasn’t happened and we don’t know the fullness of the details. However, I’ve seen and had discussions with Jays fans who think that even a straight up exchange of Saunders for Bruce would be a horrible trade. I have a different take and think that the move would be a reasonable one.

Mark Shapiro has frequently discussed concepts like “risk mitigation” within the context of baseball operations, and I think this potential acquisition would be a good example. Jay Bruce has displayed that he has the skill of staying healthy and playing a lot of MLB games each season. This most definitively has not been a skill of Michael Saunders, and my optimism regarding his 2016 included a lot of “if” qualifiers. What are the chances that Saunders would stay healthy in 2016?

I don’t think anyone can know with any reasonable degree of certainty, but based upon track record, I do believe that Jay Bruce’s chances of playing reliably in LF are considerably higher. In addition, despite all of the Maple Leaf love from my Canadian friends, the reality remains that Dalton Pompey has yet to put up a complete offensive season above A+ ball. Sure, he finished strong last year in New Hampshire and then at his second go around at Buffalo, but do the Jays really want to rely that much on a 23 year old with just 275 AA  and 351 AAA plate appearances over the past two seasons? If Saunders were to go down injured and Pompey played and struggled again at the MLB level or either Pillar and/or Bautista also get injured, then that could leave the Jays in significant trouble. In my opinion, Jay Bruce would mitigate roster risk significantly and increases depth on the margin due to his reliability to stay on the field. Those are not sexy concepts for fans, but they can be extremely important none the less.

When I look at Jay Bruce and his much maligned performance the past 2 seasons with the Reds, there is no question his overall performance has been very disappointing. However, I think 2015 displayed some signs for optimism within his batting peripherals. Would you be surprised to read that many of his peripherals in 2015 were comparable to what they were in 2010, which was his best offensive season? Bruce slashed .281/.353/.493 in 2010 vs .226/.294/.434 in 2015, so you wouldn’t be crazy for thinking I am smoking something based upon my characterization. Surely I must be seeing something else…..right?

I took a look at Fangraph’s page for Jay Bruce’s advanced batting statistics, and I see reason for optimism for his 2016 season. His basic batted ball stats are similar to those in 2010, with line drive, ground ball and fly ball rates roughly the same. His 2015 popup rate was almost half of what he posted in 2010, which is obviously a positive on the margin. His other batted ball statistics are also comparable over the two seasons, with a slightly lower, but still impressive hard contact rate of 35.4% in 2015 vs 37.3% in 2010. To put those rates into perspective, Josh Donaldson’s hard contact rates in 2014 and 2015 were 34.6% and 37.1%. Bruce replaced some weak contact with medium contact in 2015 vs 2010, so overall his contact stats are comparable, in my opinion.

Eno Sarris of Fangraphs published an analysis in November looking at Bruce’s batted balls in 2014 and 2015. Bruce’s line drive rate was a bit down in 2015 but it was where his line drives that were hit, as Sarris references in his piece, that is different.

To me there are two competing issues surrounding Bruce’s stats over the past two years that he has struggled. First, he used to murder fastballs and that simply didn’t happen in 2014 and 2015. Second, his BABIP was really down in 2014 and 2015, at .269 and .251 respectively. That .251 BABIP needs to be put into perspective, as a sustained BABIP below .260 or lower is considered level at which a player is considered to just be bad at hitting. Otherwise, such a low figure can be considered bad luck and ripe for reversion. His trouble with the fastball was reflected in a dip in his hard contract rate in 2014, as it fell to 32.9% the lowest level as a full time MLB starter. Even with a bad leg, hitting the ball much weaker, hitting way more ground balls and fewer line drives in 2014, his BABIP was higher at .269.  However, in 2015 he seemed to make some adjustments and hit sliders and changeups much better and partially offset his continued struggles with fastballs. This was reflected by his improvement in hard contact % back to 35.4%, which lagged only his big 2010 and 2012 seasons.

I don’t see any dramatic issues surrounding park factors, as Cincinnati is a great park for LHB power hitters and Milwaukee is right up there with Colorado for power hitters. However, as I covered in my Saunders piece, playing in Toronto and the AL East is also very LHB power hitter friendly, so the move is likely just a modest negative from a park factor perspective.

Ultimately, I see a 28 year old player still in his prime who had one bad year at age 26 likely due to injury, and then a pretty unlucky year at age 27. The issue with fastballs is definitely concerning now that it has stretched 2 seasons. However, I think a reasonable reversion in BABIP to a still low .280+ is likely to result in a base expected performance for Bruce in 2016 which would be similar to his 2012 season – which was a slash line of .252/.327/.514 and a 2.5 WAR. A very reliable WAR of 2+ for Bruce in 2016 would be a significant reduction in risk to the Jays roster in 2016, in my opinion.

My guess is that his ceiling is not as high as a Saunders/Pompey LF for the upcoming season, but that his floor is significantly higher. And for a team built to contend for a world championship in 2016, increasing the position’s expected value across the probability spectrum is a smart move.

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: John UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

 

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  • Martin Houde

    His K numbers are awful, he’s a career 109 OPS+, coming from two down years. Sure, the Jays lineup would help him, just like they helped Smoak. The Jays need to get on base for their sluggers already there, not another one. Bill James recently discussed it, in an article showing the growing number of high HR guys without 100 RBIs. Too many sluggers who hit for the fences, you actually reduce your chances to produce points, and while the HR solves many problems late in a close game, it’s a boom-or-bust that makes you lose many games as well. The Jays were not good in close games last year. They need more players to grind points in close situations. Bruce doesn’t fit that bill.

    • Arjonn

      Fwiw, while I didn’t like the proposed trade

      career K% Bruce 24.2 .Saunders 25.5.
      career OPS+ Bruce 109 Saunders 93
      career OBP Bruce .319 Saunders .301

      • Martin Houde

        Indeed, Saunders is not the OBP guy I would have liked. But he costs a lot less than Bruce, and he may benefit from the park (he comes from Safeco), while Bruce is already playing in a hitter-friendly park. You also would have less difficulty pushing Saunders away for Pompey/other outfielder if production, or lack thereof, is an issue.

        • Arjonn

          As I said elsewhere in this thread, I’d want CIN to eat some salary, in which case the effective salary difference would be reduced. Also, while I haven’t looked at their park-adjusted stats, I suspect Bruce’s are better than Saunders’. As a simplification, it comes down to the respective levels to which each is likely to bounce back – Bruce after two poor years following his knee injury, and Saunders from a year off following his.

    • jucojames

      Good point Martin regarding Bill James’ analysis – I actually wrote about it here http://jaysfromthecouch.com/baseballs-yoda-speaks-what-that-means-for-toronto-blue-jays-mlb/
      I agree that too many Bruce’s would be a problem, but at this point the other sluggers ex the Smokabello platoon are relatively high OBP guys. Even Bruce isn’t bad in that department. And as Arjonn points out, Saunders has not been much better so far in his career.

  • Arjonn

    It seems somewhat odd to say Bruce’s ceiling for 2016 is lower than Saunders / Pompey. If, two years after his knee injury, Bruce can return to his prior peak form, that makes his ceiling as high as 5 WAR. If, one year after his knee injury, Saunders can return to his prior peak form, that make his ceiling ~3 WAR.

    • jucojames

      I agree with you that Bruce’s ceiling could theoretically hit the 5 WAR level. Given the improvement in some of Saunders peripherals before he got hurt and the park effects of his move to Toronto/AL East, I think if he had some BABIP luck he could eclipse 5 WAR – obviously not a likely scenario but I do think his ceiling is a bit higher if healthy….better defense probably too which helps. Pompey is a total crapshoot for 2016 but it is easy to paint any sort of picture for an unproven prospect with talent. Should Pillar get hurt I don’t think it unreasonable to see Pompey approach some of Pillar’s defensive value with possible offensive upside, so 4-6 WAR would be reachable. Obviously, all in theory and not high probability stuff with any of these guys. I think the “fat” part of the probability spectrum lies with Bruce and is why I think the deal would be a reasonable one and reduce risk for the Jays this season.

      • Arjonn

        To assume a ~5 WAR ceiling for both Bruce and Saunders, we have to make quite different assumptions. Bruce has to return to a level he previously reached. Saunders has to reach a level he has never approached. And he has to do so despite having had a year less time to recover from a more serious knee operation.

        That said, I doubt either is likely to be a 5 WAR player this year. In terms of being able to stay on the field and produce at least at a decent level, say 2 WAR, I’d guess Bruce. More likely by enough to justify the difference in their salaries? Imo no, so I’d be looking for CIN to eat some $.

  • Maximilian Brandon

    Bruce would be great insurance for 2017 if Bautista walks. If Bautista somehow leaves this year, we might see Pompey sooner than expected. Let’s not forget we still have some great AAAA players ready to step in for a month or two;)