When the Yankees signed Jay Bruce to a minor league deal over the winter, they put the screws to their incumbent fifth outfielder, Mike Tauchman. Though the favorite to snag a bench spot entering camp, Tauchman would have to fend off the veteran Bruce, especially after a poor 2020 had thrown his future with the club into doubt.
Luke Voit’s injury provided a significant plot twist. The question no longer pertained to whether Tauchman or Bruce would make the team. No, now the question is: can Jay Bruce pass as the starting first baseman in the Bronx?
2020 Stats: 103 PA, .198/.252/.469, 6 HR, 14 RBI, 23.3 K%, 6.8 BB%, 83 wRC+, -0.1 fWAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Charts Projection: 224 PA, .231/.300/.469, 12 HR, 37 RBI, 24.3 K%, 7.9% BB%, 96 wRC+, 0.2 fWAR
Once a stalwart in the Cincinnati outfield, Bruce has bounced around the league in recent years. He landed with the Mets twice and was traded away from Queens on both occasions, once to Cleveland and once to Seattle. His last stop came in Philly, where he spent 2020 popping the occasional long ball but showing little else.
Bruce couldn’t keep his batting average above the Mendoza line with the Phillies, a feat he only narrowly accomplished the two years prior. He hasn’t run an overall batting line above league average — in terms of wRC+ — since 2017, when he hit a robust .254/.324/.508 for the Mets and Cleveland.
If Bruce could cobble together that kind of production while Voit rehabs his knee injury, the Yankees would surely feel thrilled. But Bruce hasn’t approached that level since 2017. He’s a ready-made first base replacement more in theory than in practice.
Bruce profiles as a pretty one-dimensional player. He can walk enough to keep his OBP in non-disaster territory, but mostly needs to yank a chunk of balls into the right-field seats to stay productive. The friendly dimensions of Yankee Stadium might allow for that, but he still has to thread the needle — hitting the ball hard enough often enough to avoid sinking the lineup with subpar production at a position with a high offensive standard.
Bruce does hit the ball with some authority, producing above-average expected figures per Statcast in each of the past four years. Yet his one-dimensionality cuts against him. At this point in his career, Bruce pulls the ball most of the time. Crucially, he pulls his grounders far more than the average player, making him a prime target for the shift.
And indeed, the shift appears to explain much of why Bruce’s solid contact hasn’t produced solid results over the last few seasons. Since 2016, Bruce has mashed to the tune of a .425 wOBA when opposing defenses left him unshifted. I haven’t controlled for game state or opposing pitcher here, meaning there certainly could be bias in the data, but that’s an eye-popping figure nonetheless. Compare it to his .316 wOBA while shifted, a mark that comes in 20 points lower than his expected wOBA. Not only does Bruce create less quality contact when shifted, the shift itself also appears to rob him of a few precious wOBA points.
If the Yankees could Jedi mind-trick opponents into not shifting Bruce when he’s up there, they might find themselves a useful hitter. They probably could squeeze quality play from Bruce if they could hide him from left-handers too, as the veteran has managed to keep a respectable line against righties even as he’s declined, including an .821 OPS in that split in the small sample of 2020.
Those avenues to production just might not exist. Defenses aren’t going to lay down when Bruce comes up; if they know where Bruce is going to hit the ball, they’ll put their fielders there. The Yankees also don’t have a reasonable way to stick Bruce on the bench against left-handers as long as Voit is out. The Yankees’ bench bats mainly consist of Brett Gardner, Mike Tauchman, and Tyler Wade, all lefty-swingers who come out on the lighter-hitting side of things.
Of course, even weighing all the factors that stand against Bruce, we must acknowledge that baseball is baseball. The Yankees may only need to count on him for a month or so to begin the season. Over such a short spurt, most anything is liable to happen in this fickle sport. Vernon Wells may have had a horrible 2013 for the Yankees, but he got off to a hot start. All Bruce needs to do is replicate the .911 OPS Wells put together that April and the Yankees will be satisfied.
The odds are against him, though. Bruce is a fine backup as he works through the latter stages of his career, but a look under the hood reveals little reason to think he can pick it as a first-division starter. The Yankees’ best hope is that Bruce can run into a few over the first month of the season, and that Voit can take over before the inevitable regression sets in.