It's not hard to figure why Cincinnati Reds rightfielder Jay Bruce is suddenly the star most predicted he would be. Bruce had a monster May: 12 home runs, 33 RBIs, .342 batting average. For much of the month, Bruce was the only player manning the fort between legitimacy and creeping irrelevance for the Reds in the NL Central.
All he did was ignore bad pitches.
How hard can that be? The strike zone is not a moving target, home plate is forever 17 inches across. It doesn't change from year to year. Umpires might have their own version of the zone. The shoulders-to-knees geometry is timeless. Also, to some, confounding.
This is Bruce's fourth season in the majors, and he's still just 24. At some point, either you figure out the game or you don't. Bruce isn't suggesting he has it figured out. He's not suggesting he doesn't, either.
"I plan on being a really good player for a long time,'' he says. "This is a step.''
It's not bluster. He has had his head deflated enough already that he knows how fickle the game can be. As a 21-year-old fresh from Triple-A in 2008, Bruce had a ridiculous 15 hits in his first 26 at-bats. He hung out on the plush leather sectional couches in the Reds clubhouse, with Ken Griffey Jr. and Adam Dunn, reading magazines about big, expensive vehicles. People told him how great he was.
How hard can this be?
Then he hit .223 in June. And .227 in August. He hit .190 against lefthanders. Mostly, he swung at bad pitches. Welcome to The Show, kid.
In 2009, he maintained the pattern. When Bruce connected, the Reds launched fireworks beyond the outfield walls. He hit 22 homers in 345 at-bats, to go along with the 21 he'd hit as a rookie. When Bruce missed, you could feel the breeze across the Ohio River: 110 strikeouts, .223 batting average. He still says now the best thing that happened to him in '09 was breaking his wrist in July and sitting for two months.
"It allowed me to catch my breath, get some perspective'' he says now.
Last year, he hit .281 with 25 homers and played superb defensively in rightfield. And yet, there was still a feeling locally that Bruce was not the player he should be. That changed in May.
Baseball people talk about "making adjustments'' and "trusting your approach.'' Reds manager Dusty Baker says Bruce is "seeing the ball like a beach ball instead of a golf ball.''
It's just another way of saying Bruce is evolving into the hitter most thought he would be. It has been as simple as swinging at good pitches. For hitters, it usually is.
"A gigantic difference in the pitches he's taking and the pitches he's swinging at,'' noted teammate and reigning NL MVP Joey Votto. "He's not forcing anything.''
Bruce has a broad, loopy, long-hitter's hack that has been abused on occasion by smart pitching. Let's throw him this fastball low and in, and watch him foul it off. The breaking stuff just off the plate looks good, until he pops it up.
"I chased pitches,'' Bruce explains. "I'm still chasing pitches, sometimes. That was the book: Throw me something I'll pop up or ground out. It's been evolving for me, though.'' Bruce says he's "learning to get out of my own way.
"I try to clear my mind and have a plan. When I take (balls) and they throw strikes, I'm in pretty good shape.''
Because he was a top draft pick and was so good immediately, Bruce has had a lot of people telling him how he should hit. Because he is conscientious, he wanted to please them all.
Shorten your stroke. Hit the ball to the opposite field. Watch more video. Be more of a technician, like Votto. "He was trying to be something he's not,'' Votto says.
"He pulls the ball," says Votto. "That's his strength. He felt a little pressure to drive the ball all over the field. He can do that, but his strength is hitting balls in the middle of the plate, that have some height to them. It's a maturation thing.''
Lately, Bruce has been listening to Bruce. It seems to be working.
"Swinging at the right pitches," he says. "Not missing mistakes. Not swinging at pitches (pitchers) want me to swing at. It's pretty anti-climactic."
Reds hitting coach Brook Jacoby says Bruce is hitting the good pitches he's getting: "Earlier, a fastball he should have handled, he was fouling back. Breaking balls he should have let come to him, he was going to get them.
"He has (hit well) before. You'd see bits and pieces. It's a matter of him being patient and putting the strike zone back together.''
Then Jacoby uttered the key to Bruce's ongoing education: "It's on him. He can learn (the game) or he can have trouble. It's not something magical.''
Bruce got a six-year, $51 million contract in the offseason, a move that raised eyebrows locally, from those who believed Bruce would either (a) become satisfied or (b) press. He has done neither. "The contract was big for him,'' says Votto. "It gave him peace of mind. 'I'm not going anywhere, I'm not going to be sent down.'''
He moved his locker cubicle across the room and next to Votto. The two haven't followed identical career paths, but fairly close. They've been friends awhile. It's an interesting match: Votto, modest, private, somewhat shy, Canadian; Bruce: open, candid and Texan, with all that being Texan implies.
As a hitter, Votto is a technician and, as he says, "very particular.'' About hitting and everything else. Bruce hits "by feel. I'm a see-ball, hit-ball guy.'' The two feed off each other's styles and personalities.
Until now, Votto's bat has carried the Reds. Now, it's Bruce's turn. For as long as he can keep it going. "The main thing is,'' says Baker, "don't figure out when it's going to stop. It's like surfing. Catch a good wave and ride it all the way to the beach.''
Bruce doesn't surf; he's from near Houston. He knows about riding waves, though. All he has to do is hit good pitches.