Bruce lets his bat do the talking
Rookie kick-starts Major League career with week to remember
By Mark Sheldon / MLB.com
CINCINNATI -- Jay Bruce just had the best week of his Major League career -- correction: the only week of his Major League career. The Reds obviously hope there are many, many more.
Already a premier prospect, Bruce has seamlessly morphed into an uber rookie in center field. However, the mild-mannered, unassuming 21-year-old has politely and calmly withstood the attention, the lights, the cameras, the questions and the litany of requests for his time.
"Right now, I'm just trying to ride the wave and be successful and enjoy the wins," Bruce said on Sunday, politely and evenly.
A leading candidate for National League Player of the Week, Bruce has already enjoyed a six-game stretch that many established veterans would love to have for the first time. He enters Monday's game at Philadelphia batting .591 (13-for-22) with a pair of two-hit games, two three-hit games and a four-hit game.
"Some guys are fast. Some guys are tall and can jump high. He gets up every day and can hit," said fellow Reds rookie and shortstop Paul Janish. "I've played with him for a long time and have never seen him struggle for more than two or three games in a row."
The first big league homer for Bruce came on Saturday vs. the Braves, and it was a walk-off winner in extra innings. Homer No. 2 came on Sunday as Cincinnati swept three games from Atlanta.
Through Sunday, the Reds have a 5-1 record since Bruce was promoted from Triple-A Louisville on Tuesday.
"I thought it was definitely possible," Louisville manager Rick Sweet said. "I have taken some heat for comparing him to some people in the game, but the kid is special. He can handle anything that comes his way. He'll go through stretches like this one his whole career. He'll go through bad stretches, too. It hasn't gone to his head because he's well-grounded."
Takes care of business
Attention is nothing new to Bruce. But even if he's used to being in the spotlight, Bruce never tried to seek it. He grew up in a family with his father Joe, mother Martha and two older sisters -- Amy and Kellan. Kellan is developmentally disabled and requires her own amount of quality attention, which Bruce always kept in perspective.
"Before he bought a car for himself, he bought his sisters and parents houses with his signing bonus money [$1.8 million]," said agent Matt Sosnick, who represents Bruce, Freddy Sanchez, Dontrelle Willis and former Red Josh Hamilton, among others. "That's the kind of guy he is. You hope the guys you represent are responsible people and will make it."
As he dominated the game at West Brook High School (Texas) to become a first-round pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft, Bruce initially chose high-profile super-agent Scott Boras, who has a reputation for difficult negotiating tactics and prolonged time before signings. Bruce eventually decided to switch to a smaller agency and went with Sosnick.
"Some guys are wired to not only be successful, but thoughtful and responsible," Sosnick said. "He cares a lot about people. He feels like he's been on such a roll with karma on his side, he doesn't want to fool with it and acts as evenly as possible."
His hitting has the masses pursuing Bruce, but he prefers to let his bat do the talking -- whether it's been in high school, the Minors or the Majors.
"It doesn't do any good to flaunt or brag or act out or anything like that," Bruce said. "Nobody likes that. It's the way I was raised. If you're doing it, you don't have to talk about it. I take care of my business. As soon as it's going great, it can turn the other way quick. I'm just fortunate to be here helping out. It's a blast winning."
After he was selected as the 12th overall pick in the 2005 Draft, Bruce moved quickly. In just under three seasons, he amassed 1,341 Minor League at-bats, but only 184 of them came at the Triple-A level. He was moved up from Double-A to Triple-A after just 16 games. The move was need-based for Louisville and was supposed to be a temporary one.
Bruce was too good to get sent back down.
"Obviously, there's a lot of hype with him and a lot of pressure, whether he felt it or not. It doesn't look like he really did," Janish said. "Everyone said, 'This kid could really hit.' It turned out he could really hit. I've played with him for a year and a half, and to me, this is just what it's like to play with him. What you see is what you get. He's a little farther ahead of the scale, not only talent-wise, but maturity-wise, too. He's handled it pretty well. He's got a good head on his shoulders, which obviously under the circumstances is going to bode well."
This past winter, as the Reds sought top-end starting pitching to improve the rotation, Bruce's name was often in the cross-hairs of multiple teams looking to land the consensus top prospect in all of professional baseball.
Cincinnati's front office, then led by former general manager Wayne Krivsky, avoided any temptations to improve the club's chances to win immediately. The Reds knew they had something too good to trade away. Instead, the club dealt Hamilton to the Rangers after a breakout rookie year for young starter Edinson Volquez. That trade was easier for the organization to make because it knew Bruce was just around the corner.
"Josh Hamilton might win the Triple Crown this year, but Jay is better," Sosnick said. "I'll take it to the grave. I'll take my lumps from my [other] players for saying that. He's unequivocally the best player we've ever had in terms of talent and upside and the chance to be successful. He's a once-in-a-lifetime player for me."
By the time Bruce reached Spring Training before the season, it was a foregone conclusion he would be with the Reds at some point in 2008. He started out in a three-way competition with Norris Hopper and Ryan Freel. Once Corey Patterson was signed, however, Bruce's chances diminished and he was eventually sent down to Louisville for some seasoning and was told to work on his baserunning skills.
"He really wanted to start the year in the big leagues, but regardless of what kind of spring he would have had, I don't think that was going to happen," Janish said. "To an extent, it made him mad a little bit, which is good. He went to Louisville and did what he had to do."
If Bruce was ever mad, it didn't show. Whether it was in camp or back in the Minors, he always said he'd bide his time and not let things he couldn't control get to him.
After a mildly slow start, it didn't take long for Bruce to start pummeling International League pitching. Before the Reds summoned him last Monday, he batted .364 with 10 home runs and 37 RBIs.
Since being called up, Bruce hasn't stopped hitting.
Is there a flaw, or anything close to one?
Bruce hasn't showed an obvious weakness yet at the plate. Earlier in his pro career, reports said he had trouble with left-handed pitchers. But he's gotten his hits against southpaws, too, including three in one game vs. future Hall of Famer Tom Glavine.
"He struggled with lefties when he first came to me," Sweet said. "But the more left-handers he faced, the better his at-bats got. When he got to pitches 4-5-6-7, you could see better quality in his approach. The more he saw, the better. At this level, he was as good vs. left-handers as he was against right-handers."
Opposing pitchers' best friends in the coming days and weeks will be advance scouts and video. If Bruce does have a weakness, it will come out.
"It's not like [Bruce] has a lot of experience in the big leagues yet," said Braves starter Tim Hudson, who gave up Bruce's homer on Sunday. "I don't know what kind of scouting report you can really have. Once he's around for a little while, guys will have a little better book on him as to what he can handle and can't handle."
Confident, but not remotely cocky, Bruce anticipates the challenge. He's not afraid of anyone.
"That's the point of the game now. It's like cat-and-mouse," Bruce said. "They adjust, you adjust. It's really who adjusts quicker."
So far, it's been Bruce by a landslide.
Fans who have eagerly awaited Bruce's big league ascension have already embraced him. It might be unoriginal, but the chants of "Bruuuuuuce," have already become a Great American Ball Park staple. Even Bruce Springsteen could walk into the stadium and not feel as welcome.
Homers and base hits are certain, but even if he's remotely involved in a play, expect a "Bruuuuuce." It's happened when he's caught routine flies to the outfield and even when he scored easily on a wild pitch. It's something he's probably heard his whole life, right?
Wrong, he says.
"May 27, really and honestly," replied Bruce. "That was the first time they ever started doing it. I don't think you ever get used to it, but it's cool to see. I'm glad everybody is excited and people are here."
Bruce grew up idolizing Ken Griffey Jr., whose pursuit of 600 home runs has been overrun by a kid with 597 fewer homers and 20 fewer years of big league experience.
"He's having the time of his life," Griffey said. "From a guy that did it 20 years ago, it's definitely fun for me to see a kid smile day in and day out instead of struggling and putting his head down. Everyone knew he could hit. I think I was 1-for-17 when I hit the first home run. I pretty much proceeded to be terrible for about four games."
Bruce's teammates have patiently and politely answered questions seeking their reaction to the new rookie in their midst. It's likely to increase if the torrid pace continues, especially on the road.
Most of the questions will be directed at Bruce himself. Few expect any problems dealing with being the new "it player" in the Majors.
"I think the easiest thing to say is he just doesn't know any better," left fielder Adam Dunn said. "We're not going to treat him any different. He'll still go through the rookie stuff everyone has been through. It's not something that makes people feel uncomfortable. He definitely came and fit right in. That's what he's supposed to do."
Now that he's entering Week 2 of the rest of his Major League career, it's time to put the first best week ever behind him.
"That's stuff you can't even think about happening," Bruce said. "I expect to be successful. This week I've been a little more successful than the norm. I have to stay on an even keel and not get too high with the highs or too low with the lows. I feel like I belong. It's kind of time to get over the star-struck stuff. I'm part of the team now. I'm just trying to help them out as much as I can."