By Chris Kubak
A week after it was first reported, the Mets made the move official: Jay Bruce is once again a New York Met. Five months after trading him to Cleveland for minor league pitcher Ryder Ryan, the lefty slugger is set to spend the next three years in Queens and will reportedly earn $39MM worth of guaranteed money along the way. For the investment, the Mets are banking on Bruce to provide some pop to a lineup that badly needs to produce if the team is to have any chance of competing for a Wild Card spot in 2018, and some protection in the batting order for the likes of Yoenis Cespesdes and Michael Conforto. It’s a move that makes a lot of sense for the Mets, a team that has been hamstrung in their ability to spend over the last several years, and at least some sense for Bruce given the success he has experienced during his playing for the Metropolitans.
But consider this: given the current state of the market, has there ever been a free agent who’s so closely matched his value as Jay Bruce? When you look at the money that has been spent, along with the projected contracts for the players still unsigned, chances are you will be hard pressed to produce an alternate answer. I’m sure if you go back several seasons you could find one. So far this offseason, Bruce has a stranglehold on the title, and the reasons why become clearer when you look at the details.
Ten full seasons into his career, it's not hard to figure out what exactly you get when you employ a player like Bruce. He's the type of player that is generally going to hit for a lower average and wind up with a lower on-base percentage. His BABIP also tends towards the lower side at .283 for his career, which is not out of the ordinary for a power hitter like him. Overall his career statistics have been pretty consistent, and has percentages that you can almost set a watch to. He has reached 30 home runs five times in his career, is usually good for a 22-24% strikeout rate and 9% walk rate, and in his better moments can provide an offensive output anywhere between 10-25% above league average. While he has had the luxury of playing in Great American Ballpark for the vast majority of his career, leaving Cincinnati has not appeared to hurt his offense as he posted his best season at the plate since 2013 while splitting time between New York and Cleveland.
In a piece on Fangraphs that appeared last week Travis Sawchik wrote about Bruce, his increased fly-ball rate, and the work that hitting coach Kevin Long has contributed to the Mets hitting the ball in the air more often. Indeed, the Mets did post the second-lowest ground ball rate in the league in 2017. While Bruce has always been a fly-ball hitter, his increased proclivity for getting the ball in the air was one of the factors that helped drive his minor resurgence last season. The heightened amount of attention surrounding the idea of launch angle has helped many players over the past few seasons, and you can count Bruce among them. Compared to what he posted in 2015 and 2016, he saw a sizable increase in his average launch angle in 2017, jumping from 14.9 and 14.6 up to 18.2.
A few weeks ago, the Mets they were on a course to start the season with an outfield of Cespesdes, Conforto (once he returns from injury), Juan Lagares, and Brandon Nimmo. It could have been a serviceable group on it's own, with Lagares possibly earning a large portion of the available playing time. When you throw Bruce's name into the ring the combination seems a lot more appealing, with Lagares and Nimmo occupying bench roles. What you lose on defense by slotting Bruce in the lineup over a player like Lagares you can at more than account for with his production at the plate. The additional power threat he provides can also potentially have a trickle-down effect on the hitters around him in the lineup. It's a big step up over Lagares, who with the exception of his 2014 season has produced at a level 20% less than the league average. If you close your eyes and squint at the numbers, in some regards he is very similar to Jay Bruce at the plate...albeit with less plate discipline and minus the power. He would make a logical fourth outfielder in a ballpark that has a lot of ground to cover, but at this point in his career it’s not easy to foresee a scenario where he would earn 400+ PA's per season like he did during his first three years in the league.
In many ways, it’s hard to quantify exactly what Jay Bruce is on defense. We know he’s not a Gold Glove caliber player, and we know in the outfield he’s not going to set the world on fire. But all of the defensive metrics are very mixed when it comes to his past performances. He has been worth as much as +16 Defensive Runs Saved in a season (twice, in fact) and as low as -11 DRS. His UZR/150 has been as high as 18.2 and as low as -8.8. With the Mets, his numbers have been on the higher side overall, totaling +12 DRS in 1,151.2 Inn, with positive UZR marks as well. We can say that he has at least a recent limited track record of decent play in RF, which is more than some free agent outfielders can boast.
By comparison, or most of his career Lagares has put up sparkling defensive numbers, totaling 54 DRS from 2013-2014 and being worth 34.1 and 25.3 UZR/150 during those two years. He is the epitome of a Gold Glove caliber outfielder (having won the award in 2014), though his efforts have been hampered over the past two seasons by the injuries have eaten into his playing time as well as by the way his offense has sagged. So what do you get when you compare the runs created and the defensive runs saved for both Bruce and Lagares?
Given all of these considerations, even if Bruce doesn’t save a single run during his first stint with the Mets he is still worth a net +10 runs over Lagares’ absolute best three seasons ago. Given his age, the length of the contract, and his requisite skill set, there is a fairly minimal chance that the Mets end up underwater in this deal, even if they keep Bruce for the duration of the deal. MLB Trade Rumors rated Bruce as the 14th free agent available going into this offseason, and third among FA outfielders behind J.D. Martinez and Lorenzo Cain. Just as a lark, I thought I would compare the two of them alongside Bruce the same way I did for Juan Lagares. The results I got back were a little surprising:
It's certainly both flawed argument and an imperfect exercise, but you can't help but but be intrigued by the outcome. Martinez, for all of his defensive flaws (of which there are many) is one of the predominant and most cerebral hitters in all of MLB. He's also younger by five months, though comes with a lot less mileage having made his MLB debut three full seasons after Bruce. But if the word on the street is to be believed, Martinez is looking for a 5-6 year deal that would pay him somewhere between $25-30MM per year...more than double what Bruce signed for. Cain on the other hand plays a more premium defensive position in CF, and according to the defensive metrics 2017 was arguably the worst of his career thus far. He's also a year older than Bruce is, but could command quite a bit more on the open market. MLB Trade Rumors offered a prediction of 4-years/$70MM when the offseason began, though there are some who believe that the AAV could end up being higher than that. Bruce is not the same caliber player as either Martinez or Cain, but compared to what the other two may be asking for, all of a sudden 3/$39MM begins to sound like a solid value signing.
That's not to say that there is no risk involved with the move. If Bruce returns to the malaise of 2014-2015, where he posted wRC+ figures of 79 and 93 respectively, then the re-addition might feel more like a boat anchor. However, the Mets are betting that this will not occur. If Bruce can continue to produce at a level equivalent to or greater than what he did during his first turn in New York, there is a lot of value present in this deal for both the team and the player. Viewed in that light, it's hard to look at the move and not feel pretty good about it.
Spanning an entire continent, lifelong fans Chris Kubak and Tom Baird take you on a magical, sabermetrically enhanced journey through Major League Baseball.