Jay Bruce aims to shed streaky past, find consistency for Reds
Jay Bruce woke up the morning of April 19 with a .191 batting average and no home runs in his previous nine games. He was off to a dreadfully slow start, a stark departure from his hot April start in 2011 (.301, four home runs, 11 RBIs).
That afternoon against the Cardinals, however, the Reds' rightfielder sprung to life. He had two hits, beginning an eight-game stretch in which he had six multi-hit games. He homered in each of his final four games of the month.
In fact, the lefthanded hitting Bruce was just getting started. Since May 15 he went 30-for-83 with nine doubles, seven home runs and 20 RBIs, raising his season average to .300 in the process.
Then the Reds traveled to New York for five games -- two against the Mets, three against the Yankees -- and Bruce flailed. He went 0-for-16 with 10 strikeouts before a ninth-inning single on Sunday saved him from an oh-fer during the extended stay in Gotham.
Welcome to life as one of baseball's streakiest hitters.
Last year, Bruce made his first National League All-Star team. He was one of only three NL players to win multiple Player of the Week awards. He hit 32 home runs and drove in 97 runs. But he wasn't satisfied with his performance as a whole.
"I hit .256 last year," Bruce said last Thursday. "That was embarrassing. Not just hitting .256, but I wasn't myself. I was capable of so much more. I could have helped my team so much more. I can honestly say I sold myself short a little bit."
The baseball season is too long to avoid a certain amount of streakiness. All players are subject to prolonged periods of success and droughts that persist longer than expected. But few players have caught fire -- and drastically cooled off -- quite like Bruce has at various points during his career.
Bruce made his major league debut on May 27, 2008, with three hits. He concluded his first week in the big leagues with a four-hit game, followed by three more multi-hit games, all of which he homered in.
He had comparable hot streaks in each of his five big league seasons:
Of his 32 home runs in 2011, 12 were hit in May, meaning the other 20 were distributed over the season's other five months. He was named the NL Player of the Week twice last season -- once in May, when he was also the league's Player of the Month, and once in August -- and has won the award four times in his career, showing just how spectacular his hot streaks can be.
"If he catches fire, it's really unlike much else I've ever seen," Cincinnati centerfielder Drew Stubbs said. "It seems like every swing he takes is on the barrel of the ball and goes for home runs or doubles. It's really fun to watch."
"The big thing in this game is just having confidence," Stubbs continued. "I don't know if confidence breeds success or vice versa. Maybe it's a give and take."
Bruce has his own theory, and there's a third factor at play.
"Preparation allows success," he said.
That's why Bruce -- for the first time in his career -- has stringently adhered to the same daily routine. That's not to say that he didn't previously work hard. But he didn't feel comfortable that he had a reliable plan in place to apply to each game. He consulted with hitting coach Brook Jacoby and first baseman Joey Votto, the two men with whom Bruce most often talks about hitting.
"I would get so hot just because I'm a good baseball player, but then I would come down really hard because of the inconsistency," Bruce said. "I didn't have the consistency in my swing."
He shed roughly 15 pounds this offseason and rededicated himself to using the middle and opposite fields after growing "too pull-happy" last season. Otherwise, he didn't elaborate on his routine, other than to say it should help quell his streakiness.
"My goal is to minimize those downswings and maximize the more positive times during the season," he said. "I definitely think my new approach and routine will help me do that."
At times, it's been wildly successful: So far in 2012, Bruce ranks fourth in the NL with 10 home runs, third with 22 extra-base hits and eighth with a .572 slugging percentage.
Votto said that Bruce's hot streaks in previous seasons wouldn't engender "that warm and fuzzy feeling that it would keep up" despite his high level of talent and immense potential. This year, however, Votto said, "[Bruce] has instilled a lot of confidence in his teammates and certainly in the coaching staff."
Indeed, Bruce's mini-slump in New York didn't come under ordinary circumstances. The opposing starting pitchers in three of the four games Bruce started were R.A. Dickey (knuckleballer), Andy Pettitte and CC Sabathia (tough lefties).
"Routine is really important," Votto said, referring to Bruce's new workout and hitting plan. "People don't give enough credit to how important it is to go out there on a daily basis. We talk about it all the time, how important it is to adjust on the fly, but it's an equally important component to have some rigidity to your approach and being set in your ways, almost."
Of course, players need to adjust to pitchers' changing tactics. But Votto's point remains valid. Players have the most success when they do so from a stable foundation. That's what Bruce is aiming to achieve in 2012.
It's easy to forget that Bruce just turned 25 on April 3. The former first-round pick debuted at 21, so he's a five-year starter who is still two years away from turning 27, which many believe is the usual peak for a baseball player. He's been very successful, even if his production has sometimes come in spurts. Bruce's 110 career home runs, for instance, lead all active players under the age of 26.
"I try not to put expectations on myself because I don't know what I can do," he said. "I know I'm capable of a lot. Yeah, I expect to be more consistent. And I expect to be one of the best hitters in the game. What I'm mainly focused on is just getting the most out of myself, whatever that is."