Tuesday, March 16, 2010

Beer Leaguers: Red Menace Ale and Jay Bruce

You know what’s missing in baseball these days? Great nicknames. The 19th century through 1930s proved to be the strongest eras for nicknames in baseball history, with Old Hoss, King, The Crab, The Peerless Leader, Prince Hal, Bambino, The Iron Horse, Dizzy, and Schnozz being among the greatest titles bestowed upon stars, names that immediately recall an image of the player and how he was regarded. It’s long been lamented that writers and players today just don’t have what it takes to come up with original and descriptive monikers for their favorite (or least favorite) players. So this weekend, as The Common Man popped the cap off of a Hale’s Ale Red Menace Big Amber Ale, he knew that he had found the perfect nickname. After all, it’s practically a crime that no one has been hung with The Red Menace before now. But who to bestow it upon?

Of course, the recipient needs to be a Red. Cincinnati has had several players in its history that would qualify. Ted Kluszewski would have been an excellent choice back in the day, particularly given his imposing size and the era in which he played. Frank Robinson, with his all-around excellence also would have been a good choice. Pete Rose’s aggressive style might have earned it, if The Common Man didn’t hate him so much. Johnny Bench, Joe Morgan, and Tony Perez were all productive enough, if not actively menacing. George Foster, in the late 70s, would have been the guy. But let’s look to the beer for guidance.

Red Menace promises much more than it can deliver. In a short, fat, brown bottle, it appears stronger than its taller competitors. The imposing bust of Lenin on the front suggests the deadly seriousness of the former Soviet Union prior to the creation of Yakov Smirnoff. Hale’s website promises a taste that is “big…full flavored, and hoppy.” While the beer starts out strong, the hops flavor is actually pretty light, and the flavor peters out pretty quick. Really, there’s a lot of noise, but not a lot of signal in the beer, as it gives a strong first impression before becoming a wallflower. Alas, Red Menace does not live up to its name, becoming no more potent than Red Mild Annoyance, which is not as catchy a title.

Which is why The Common Man is forced to bestow this nickname on Jay Bruce. At 6’3” and 225 lbs, he definitely looks the part (especially if he’d grow a Lenin-goatee). Bruce came up in late May of 2008 and immediately made an impact. He went 3-for-3 in his debut, with a double, 2 RBI, 2 runs, 2 walks, and a stolen base. After his first seven games, he was hitting a ridiculous .577/.667/1.038 with three homers, 12 runs scored, and 7 RBI. But, of course, that was unsustainable. By the end of the year, Bruce had dropped to .254/.314/.453. Last year, Bruce struggled even more. He hit just .207/.283/.441 in the first half before righting his ship in the days after the All Star Game. Sadly, diving for a ball in the outfield, Bruce would break a bone in his right wrist and miss two months. It's safe to say that, thusfar, Bruce's most glorious and memorable moments on a major league field were his first few; and in this way, he is exactly like our beer in question.

However, there's good news for Red fans that, sadly, does not apply to Red Menace Ale. Jay Bruce is going to get better. Actually, he's going to get a lot better. Despite his struggles, Bruce was excellent for a 21 year old in 2008. And despite the precipitous drop in batting average, Bruce upped his HR% (4.7 to 5.7), BB% (7.3 to 9.8) and dropped his K% (24.3 to 19.4). As a result, Bruce dropped his K/BB ratio from 3.33 to just under 2.0. Even with his struggle to get on base, Bruce upped his OPS from .767 to .773. So why did he struggle so much in 2009? Bruce posted a freakishly low .221 BA on balls in play, 78 points below the league average. Among players with more than 300 plate appearances, Bruce's BAbip was dead last in the National League (and tied with Andruw Jones and Carlos Quentin for 2nd worst in MLB, behind Ken Griffey). Frankly, that's just not sustainable. The year before, Bruce hit .296 on balls in play, and his drop in singles and doubles artificially dipped his BA, OBP, and SLG to levels that don't accurately reflect his ability going forward. As a fun exercise, let's pretend that Bruce had just been marginally unlucky in 2009, and his BAbip had only dropped 30 points off its 2008 level, rather than 75, so that he hit roughly .266 on balls in play. To do that, we need to raise Bruce's non-HR hit count from 55 to 66 (putting Bruce's BAbip actually at .265). And if we do that, essentially giving Bruce 11 more times on base, his BA and OBP rise to a much more palateable .255 and .332 respectively. SLG, of course, would be harder to figure out, given that some of those hits would probably be doubles, but let's just give Bruce 11 singles. His SLG, already an impressive .470 would jump to .501.

Bruce still has significant platoon issues (848 OPS vs. RHP, ..597 vs. LHP) and is still young and developing. There's a chance that he'll never learn to hit lefties or that his development slows, and that he won't be the force that everyone predicted back in 2008, when he was the consensus #1 prospect in baseball. Tom Tango's Marcel system has him down for a .797 OPS. Baseballprojection.com has predicted an .890 OPS out of the young sluger. But if TCM were a betting Common Man, given the natural maturation process, additional exposure to NL pitchers, a fully recovered wrist, and even a moderate amount luck in 2010, TCM would say that Jay Bruce is poised for a huge season, somewhere in the mid-.950s, as he learns to control the strikezone even better and continues to drive the ball effectively. Jay Bruce, The Common Man dubs thee The Red Menace. Now go out and earn it.