Blake Murphy at Beyond the Boxscore wrote an article about Cincinnati Reds outfielder Jay Bruce earlier this week, noting that while Bruce is a very productive hitter, he's bucked general assumptions about aging curves and seems to be the same player at age 26 that he was at age 23. Quoting Murphy, Bruce has "basically plateaued as a slightly above average player, all things considered, and there’s certainly nothing wrong with that. However, Bruce hasn’t improved since his age-23 season in 2010. He’s been the same guy in net terms ever since, which is a little odd given that hitters tend to peak around his current age, 26.
That got me thinking about Bruce, so let's look at how the Reds outfielder profiled as a prospect and where he stands thus far in historical context.
Jay Bruce was drafted by the Reds in the first round in 2005, 12th overall, out of high school in Beaumont, Texas. He impressed scouts with his left-handed power potential and all-around tools that reminded them of Andy Van Slyke and Larry Walker. There was some concern about his willingness to chase pitches outside the strike zone, but scouts felt he had the aptitude to adjust. His pro debut was decent: .270/.331/.500 in 37 games in the Gulf Coast League, followed by .257/.358/.457 in 17 games in the Pioneer League. I gave him a Grade B in the 2006 book, noting his power potential but the need to make some strike zone adjustments.
Moved up to Low-A Dayton for 2006, Bruce hit .291/.355/.516 with 42 doubles, 16 homers, 19 steals, 44 walks, and 106 strikeouts in 444 at-bats. Scouts also praised his throwing arm and outfield defense. His statistical performance was very strong (OPS +26 percent), but scouts reported that his swing got long at times and there was some concern about what his batting average would look like at higher levels. I gave him a Grade A- in the 2007 book, writing that he was "one of the most complete prospects around" and that I felt his flaws were fixable. He ranked Number Nine on my Top 50 hitters list.
Bruce began 2007 with High-A Sarasota, hitting .325/.379/.586 in 67 games. Promoted to Double-A Chattanooga, he remained hot with a .333/.405/.652 line in 16 games, then moved up to Triple-A Louisville and didn't skip a beat, hitting .305/.358/.567 in 50 contests. He combined for 46 doubles and 26 homers, with a 47/135 BB/K in 521 at-bats.
Scouting reports indicated that his strike zone judgment was an issue, but that his bat speed was so good that it didn't matter much against minor league pitching. After seeing him play, I wrote that he might struggle "in the majors, at least at first, but in the long run I am very optimistic about his bat" and that the plate discipline thing didn't concern me too much. I gave him a Grade A and ranked him Number One on my hitting prospect list.
2008 was split between devastating Triple-A pitching (.364/.393/.630 in 49 games) and the majors (.254/.314/.453 in 108 games). He hit 21 homers for the Reds but struggled with his plate discipline and contact a bit. In 2009 he hit .223/.303/.470 in 101 games, but in 2010 he took a big step to becoming a complete hitter with a .281/.353/.493 mark, with 25 homers, 5.0 WAR.
But there he stuck. He hit .256/.341/.474 with 32 homers, 118 OPS+ in 2011, then .252/.327/.514 with 34 homers, 118 OPS+ in 2012, then .268/.324/.484 with 24 homers, 114 OPS+ thus far in 2013. His WAR values have been 2.9, 2.1, and 2.6 this year. He's a solid player, but he's not a star and hasn't live up to his early promise. I thought he had MVP potential a few years ago, but that hasn't happened.
Looking for historical comps, I went back to Comparable players using Sim Scores through age 23. At that time, his most comparables through age 23 were Willie Horton, Reggie Jackson, Pete Incaviglia, Barry Bonds, Dick Kokos, Curt Blefary, Adam Dunn, Jeff Burroughs, Harold Baines, and Darryl Strawberry. The weakest guy on the list was Kokos, who was actually a good player but didn't last long.
Through age 25, the list now consists of Jackson, Carlos Quentin, Tom Brunansky, Jack Clark, Strawberry, Burroughs, Horton, Dunn, Bonds, Boog Powell, and Baines. It is very interesting that two additional years doesn't change the comparables by very much.
However, with a more detailed look we can throw some of these guys out. Jackson played in low-offense era and while his raw numbers are very similar to Bruce's at the same stage, Bruce's career OPS+ of 113 is much lower than Jackson's through age 25 of 147. Discard Reggie as a comp. Clark and Strawberry were also considerably more productive when context is considered. Looked at in this manner, Baines (116 OPS+ through age 25) and Brunansky (108) are closest to Bruce in OPS+ terms.
Baines became a borderline Hall of Famer but his path was not linear. He had an outstanding year at age 25, but was then merely decent from age 26 through 29, much as Bruce is now. Baines' defense collapsed and he was a full-time DH by age 28, but his bat suddenly exploded again at age 30, carrying him through as a strong hitter until age 40.
Brunansky was a solid player but faded quickly after age 30 and never fully lived up to his potential. His best season was at age 21. and like Bruce he did not age along a typical curve.
Also note that Bruce, Baines and Brunansky all start with the letter B!
Through his career, Jay Bruce is currently a .258/.329/.483 hitter with 158 homers, an OPS+ of 113, and a career WAR of 14.8. He's a good solid player but yes, he's bucked the "normal" age/production peak and hasn't improved from where he was a few years ago. Will he follow the Brunansky precedent and gradually fade out? Or will he do what Baines did and discover new life at age 30 and beyond?
I don't know, but let's throw a spitball against the wall and say he splits the difference. Brunansky played 1800 games, 7169 PA, with a .245/.327/.434 line, 106 OPS+, 23.3 WAR. Baines played 2830 games, 11092 PA, with a .289/.356/.465 line, 121 OPS+, 38.4 WAR. Using a completely dubious and unscientific method of hitting the halfway mark between those two outcomes, Bruce would end up at 2315 games, 9130 PA, .267/.342/,450, 117 OPS+, 30.85 WAR.
And you know, as clumsily derived as it may be, that projection actually sounds plausible. The SLG looks low, but not impossible at all if conditions in the game continue to move in the direction of pitchers. It would require Bruce to play another 1519 games, 10 more seasons of full-time play, but he's been pretty durable and that doesn't seem impossible either. He has 14.8 WAR thus far in his career. Gathering another 16 points of WAR over a decade is certainly doable and would likely underestimate what Bruce could do, given that he's unlikely to end up as a full-time DH for half his career as Baines did.
Anyway, as stated that's a cludgy projection and not to be taken too seriously. The bottom line is that the example of Bruce (and Brunansky, and Baines) should remind us that age/development/production curves and age relative to league are trends and general guidelines, not hard-and-fast rules.