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stephen bruno daytonaSeveral weeks ago I offered readers the opportunity to nominate players for the Prospects Progress treatment via the comments, the Message Board, or Twitter. The most requested player, somewhat surprisingly I thought, was Josh Vitters. The second most requested was even more surprising. To conclude this winter’s Prospect Progress series, here is the write-up for that player: Stephen Bruno.

It turns out that Bruno is currently one of the toughest players to analyze in the farm system. Normally I wouldn’t touch a stat sheet with this much risk and… well, strangeness… but the readers did request it. So, here we go.

But first, one more time, the disclaimer. The goal here is not to re-rank the prospects (that comes soon) or to assess the strengths and weaknesses of farm as a whole (that also comes soon). The goal for this series is to take each prospect individually, study the progress made so far, and see what we can learn about the future for that player.

Stephen Bruno, 2B/INF
Born: November 17, 1990
Acquired: The Cubs selected Bruno in the 7th round in 2012 out of the University of Virginia.

Season Summary

Right off the bat we have a serious sample size problem. Bruno was injured in early May and missed the rest of the season (Tommy John surgery). He only appeared in 19 games (mostly as a second baseman) and amassed just 78 plate appearances. He certainly made the most of his limited time, though. His stats are, in places, flatly ridiculous.

Let’s start with the slash line: .362/.436/.478. With a SLG of .478 you almost don’t notice that his ISO is just .116, but that lack of power is adequately explained by his build. At 5’9″ and 175 pounds, Bruno isn’t exactly a guy who projects to hit for a ton of power anyway. The OBP of .436, though, more than makes up for any lack in the slugging department.

Of course, .478 isn’t exactly low. And when we dive into his hit distribution we start to see how he was able to reach that number. Bruno had eight extra base hits in 2013 (of 25 total hits), all of them doubles. His professional career features just three home runs in 292 PA, but he also has 27 doubles and 3 triples.

For 2014 he walked at a reasonable 6.4% rate, and struck out at a slightly concerning 20.5% clip. Normally I wouldn’t like to see a strikeout rate that high in High A out of a guy who does not project as a significant power threat, but thanks to the sample size concerns I’m content to give that a pass.

Add it all up and we have a wOBA of .424 and a wRC+ of 167. Those are very good numbers for a second baseman. In fact, once you get past the Big Four, those are some of the best numbers we’ve talked about this winter. I’m not sure we’ve really accomplished anything, though, because the strangeness is really just beginning. At this stage I think the best question we can try to answer is this one.

Do Those Numbers Mean Anything?

There is no easy answer to that.

The first red flag is the sample size for the 2013 numbers. We can, however, mitigate that to some degree by including his 2012 campaign with Boise. In 67 games (292 PA) after being drafted that summer, Bruno hit .361/.442/.496 for a wOBA of .441 and a wRC+ 171. Those numbers are very similar to the line he put up in limited time against much tougher competition in Daytona.

That suggests, strongly in fact, that Bruno was not being challenged in High A. As a college draftee we would expect him to breeze through Short Season A as he did in 2012, but normally there should be more sign of a decline when jumping from short season ball to High A, particularly when that High A league is the Florida State League, a circuit known for being tough on hitters. Moving from a wRC+ of 171 in 2012 to a wRC+ of 167 in 2013 is not much a change. When we account for the sample size issues in 2013, I don’t think that change is even significant.

And then we have his 2013 BABIP: .472. If you’re having trouble wrapping your head around that number, you aren’t alone. In 2012 his BABIP was .431. That is almost equally unfathomable. Given that his other numbers are so consistent between 2012 and 2013, I’m inclined to believe that Bruno’s .472 is no less legitimate than his other numbers and may not simply be a  statistical aberration.

Before we pursue that surprising conclusion, though, let’s run through a quick refresher on BABIP.

BABIP (Batting Average on Balls In Play) is a useful but often misunderstood statistic. One of the most common uses of BABIP is to control for the amount of good or bad luck a player has enjoyed at the plate in a given season. Every player has an average, or normal, BABIP that we can find by looking at their average over a couple of seasons. While there is a range in which we can expect most BABIPs to fall, every player has their own normal BABIP. Even if we compare two pretty good hitters, we find a fairly sizable difference in their relative BABIPs.

If in a particular season we see a player has a BABIP much higher than his normal BABIP then we can say with some confidence that the player has been lucky. Likewise, if we see a BABIP much lower than normal we can expect that the player has had a run of bad luck and that we can expect his overall numbers to trend generally upwards.

That thinking does not always apply to the minors, though, in part because we can’t establish a normal BABIP for most prospects with a high degree of confidence. League average numbers are not as much of a help when it comes to BABIP; we really need that individual baseline figure to allow us to interpret the season to season variations. As minor league players are continuing to practice and improve their swing and approach at the plate, and as they move up the system and face increasingly better defenses and pitching, their normal BABIP value often becomes hard to pin down.

The most common use of BABIP, then, really does not work in a case like Bruno.

What we can do at the minor league level, though, is use BABIP to tell us a little about the individual hitter.

What sort of a hitter would successfully get a hit in over 40% of the cases in which they put the ball in play?

A speedster? Actually, no. The most famous speedster in recent Cubs’ history was Tony Campana, but Campana only posted a BABIP over .400 in one minor league season, and that was just before his call up to Chicago. He only posted it for 129 PA, and in hindsight it was unsustainable.

If not a fast guy, what about a slugger? One of the best sluggers to come through the farm system in, well, history really, is Javier Baez. Baez does not have a BABIP anywhere close to .400, let alone .431 (or .472). This is partly because Baez launches some of his hits out of play. Home runs, while they are still hits, don’t actually factor into BABIP since they are by definition not in play. But then, we already knew that Bruno was not a significant power threat.

If Bruno was showing other signs of being a great speed guy I could suspect he was hammering balls through the defensively iffy infields in the low minors, but in his career he has stolen just four bases in twelve chances. Those are not the numbers of a guy with blazing speed.

By elimination, then, he’s drilling line drives into the outfield that are either falling for singles or getting into the gaps for doubles. Unfortunately, according to the only source I’m aware of that tracks line drive rates for minor league players, his career line drive percentage is under 20%.

And that’s about the point where I admit that I can’t determine what’s going on from the numbers and turn to what I can determine.  A line that consistent from short season A to High A and a BABIP that ludicrously high over a statistically significant career sample begs for an explanation, but the only one I have to offer is that he is a line drive hitter who has been feasting on pitching in the lower levels of the minors.  If other stats rule that out, I’m short on ideas.

Prognosis

I don’t think Bruno has anything left to prove in Daytona, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see him open the season there due to roster pressures. By the end of the season, though, I think he’ll be the starting second baseman for Tennessee. Regardless, if he can stay healthy all year we should start to get some solid answers to the lengthy list of questions raised by his career so far.

Whether we can explain that sky-high BABIP or not (and if I had to guess, I’d say the problem is the definition of ground ball used by Minor League Central and that Bruno is making a living smashing liners into the outfield), I still have Bruno right at the top of my breakout watch list for 2014. It remains to be seen if he can continue to hit at his current pace against tougher Double A pitching, but he has plenty of room to produce lesser numbers and still perform at a very high level.

Longer term, though, I’m not sure where he fits. A high on base hitter is a very welcome addition to the Cubs farm system, but right now OBP is about all he projects to bring to the table. He is not going to be a power threat like Baez, and he does not appear to be a stolen base threat like Alcantara, and he doesn’t have the exceptional defensive abilities of Barney. With those three guys potentially ahead of him, he will have a tough time finding opportunities at second base on the major league stage.

It is possible that he could play well enough at third base and in the outfield to profile as a super-utility guy, but the market for low-power right handed bats off the bench is not a large one. He would likely have to beat out a list that includes Logan Watkins (lefty, speed threat) and Christian Villanueva (more power) for that bench slot, and once again Bruno’s lack of supplemental skills works against him.

That isn’t to say he can’t make it. In a lot of ways, though, Bruno’s path to the majors looks very similar to that of Dan Vogelbach. If they are going to make it, they are both going to have to do it by hitting so well that their bats outweigh what they do not bring to the table. In the case of Bruno, that means he’ll need to continue to hit plenty of doubles and to reach base at a high rate. If he can keep up an OBP over .380 in Double A, I think he has a shot to push for a starting job at second base one day.

Hopefully this season we will see Bruno step up his aggressiveness on the base paths, improve his timing and his jumps, and emerge as a 20+ SB threat of the smart and opportunistic variety, if not the sort who thrives with raw speed. Even as a right handed hitter, his future looks brighter as a high OBP guy with 20+ SB potential than as just a high OBP guy. Given the sorts of surprises he has provided so far in his career though, I have no doubt that I will spend quite a few more evenings puzzling over his numbers and trying to make sense of it. I will be very happy when he reaches Double A so we can finally get some regular video of his at bats via MiLB.TV and can start to solve some of these riddles with film.

Stephen Bruno picture via Bruno’s Twitter.

Wrap Up

And with that 2000 word behemoth, this winter’s Prospects Progress series comes to a close. I did not expect the longest article to be for the shortest guy, but hey, that’s the minors.

Now my focus will turn to deep diving into the Cubs farm system as a whole, setting up my organizational rankings, and preparing the next edition of the Bleacher Nation Top 40 Prospects List. I will also write up my annual high level survey of the Cubs organizational depth by position. It will be a few weeks before those articles start to emerge (and I am not sure in what order they will appear), but you should start to see them a week or two after spring training games begin.

If you can’t wait that long for more prospecty goodness, feel free to follow me on Twitter.

Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoyed this series.

[Brett: Luke rocks.]

  • TulaneCubs

    Late to the part, is there a 1 stop shop to all of the articles in this series?

    • TulaneCubs

      *Late to the party.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

      If you click on the Minor Leagues category, you’ll get them all (with other minor league stuff sprinkled in).

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

        Oh, or you could click on Luke’s name underneath the post title.

  • Forlines

    Slow clap for Luke. Great series, all around

  • dreese

    Brett where do you find these people? Luke, Great work! I cannot wait for more articles!

    • Sandberg

      I have to echo this. Wonderful job on this series, Luke!

      • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

        Thanks everyone.

        • Danny Ballgame

          Seriously Luke, really damn good reads all offseason long. Much obliged.

  • dAn

    It’s going to be tough to know what we have in Bruno until he hits AAA or so–a lot of college guys tear up the low minors but then stall out a bit at the upper levels (or at least are less dominant). I’m a Bruno fan, think he’s a bit underrated, and I’m holding out hope that he can maybe be a DeRosa type down the road.

  • Jon

    Is he Italian?

  • MightyBear

    Great work as usual Luke. Well done again.

  • Xruben31

    Another very helpful article. I thought I heard Bruno was one of the infielders switching to catcher any truth behind that?

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      He did spend some time behind the plate in camp last year… I don’t recall off hand if that was in the spring or in the fall instructional league, though.

      Either way, I don’t think anything came of it. Or, at least not yet anyway.

      • JacqueJones

        The fact that he had Tommy John probably kills any chance he would have had at catcher. His arm strength is probably not quite what you want at catcher anymore.

  • itzscott

    Sounds like we found our Wade Boggs.

    • cubsfan08

      Speaking of Boggs – always liked his approach. Anyway, figured i’d head over to fangraphs to check out some of his saber stats as I have never looked at them before…I can’t get over his HR output for 1987. Insane outlier. 24 hrs, bookend-ed by years of 8 and 5 hr’s apiece. Crazy if you ask me

      • cubsfan08

        Over an 18 year career – he his 20.3% of his HR’s in 1987…wtf

        • Norm

          1987 was an outlier for a lot of players….Andre Dawson included.

        • ssckelley

          A couple of factors that played into that season. For one it was a contract year for Boggs so he might have been looking to drive the ball more. But the biggest reason is MLB had a batch of tightly wound balls they used for 2/3rds of that season and home runs were up significantly. Andre Dawson had his career year of 49 home runs that year and many other players had their career years in home runs that season.

          • Edwin

            Plus most of the league was on speed.

          • cubsfan08

            1st off – Dawson was THE MAN – so that should explain some of it. 2nd, I thought his surge in production was due to a lesser knows metric: kGPOT

            He earned the first ever 1.000 in this metric. (in case you are curious…that’s “knee, Grass Preference Over Turf”

            • Edwin

              I’m actually a bigger fan kGPOT+, since it lets me compare players over different era’s better.

            • ssckelley

              I am sure it helped but balls were flying out of the ballparks at a very high rate that year due to how tight the balls were wound. Dawson had 17 more home runs than his previous high and the very next season he dropped down to 24. There was a 20% increase in home runs (700 extra home runs) that season with 20 players that had hit more than 30 homers, the next season that number dropped to 5 in 1988.

        • headscratchin

          Maybe he borrowed one of Sammy’s “practice” bats for that season??

          Terrible thing for me to say, because I’ve always seen Boggs as a high integrity class guy. Just going for the laugh.

          • FFP

            Boggs’ teammates may not have felt the same way (That was a 25 cabs team, and Boggs ideas of off the field fun were reportedly off-putting).

            This sounds strange today, and ’87, it turns out, is not exactly a down year for Boggs’ BA or his other stats as hit all those home runs. But Boggs was openly (in the press and at the pahk) teased for not having (or worse, not being willing to use his) power. He was seen as selfishly hitting for his own average, not the team’s situational needs (We were very nasty to each other back then.)

            On a more civil and a 21st Century note, I really enjoyed the article. Thanks, Luke. Also its nice to hear someone remember Boggs well. And cubsfan08, nice pick-up–cool outlier.

            • FFP

              I was trying to say I always figured Boggs was pissed off proving a point in ’87, but the different baseball makes more sense, ss.

    • Jon

      Boggs’ stats don’t count because of high BABIP

      • Edwin

        That’s not the point of BABIP.

        • hansman

          That’s right.

          The point of BABIP is so that Sabermagicians can take any player they want and either say that player sucked or didn’t suck on a whim.

          It’s actually a ficticious number created at the end of the season after narratives start trickling in. When Sabermagicians feel that a certain player is putting the scouts to shame, they give him a high BABIP. When they feel that a certain player needs to have a group of fans irrationally hope they will rebound the following year, they give him a low BABIP.

          This is why there isn’t 1 answer as to what drives BABIP. It’s in the same family of stats such as WAR.

          • roz

            I wasn’t aware people could just give stats to players.

        • Norm

          I bet people thought Boggs was in rapid decline after his age 34 season in 1992 when he put up his worst season.
          But if someone were to know about BABIP back then they probably wouldn’t have been as pessimistic.

      • hansman

        Now you are figuring out BABIP!!!

        [img]http://www.mediabistro.com/fishbowlny/files/original/strawman.jpg[/img]

  • Norm

    College guy in low minors with a below average BB%, a not so impressive K%, no power, no speed, and ridiculous BABIP.
    I’m thinking non-prospect.

    • SenorGato

      I like to put a positive look on things – mostly due to my kind heart. A non prospect who is a better non-prospect than…Yeah, he sounds like a guy who can/will have a job in the minors so long as he wants to play ball. I mean in the end you still have to fill minor league rosters.

      I liked him coming out of Virginia for his competence on both sides and general style of play. If the Cubs have a shipment of pixie dust coming in at the end of the decade I could see someone like him popping up for a couple hundred quality PAs one year ala every Cardinals 2B in between Vina and Carpenter.

  • Isaac

    Fabulous stuff, Luke. Great work all series.

  • Napercal

    Fantastic series Luke. No offense to Brett, the material he has to work with is mostly bad news, but you give an old Cub fan reason for hope.

  • Fastball

    First Bruno knows how to be a situational hitter very well. He knows how to hit behind base runners and he knows how hit the ball up the middle. When you hit’em where they ain’t you get a lot of hits. It’s not luck that he has stats that are mind boggling. Where he fits? He fits at 2b. He should be at Knoxville this season. His job is to push his way through the system. The Alcantara’s off the world need to know another kid is right on his ass and that he better produce or else. Competition of this type is what will make the Cubs a real machine. You need to have it constantly. Plus 70% of all these sure things never play a game at the MLB level. So you stay loaded up with them. My opinion is if your good enough your day will come. I have no doubt that the guys we are talking about today only half at best will be the ones we are talking about tomorrow. So keep pushing Bruno you never know when your call will come.

  • waittilthisyear

    luke, thanks so much for all these prospect progress articles, highlight of the off-season (no slight to all the wonderful work you do brett).

  • nate1m

    Who’s holding him from AA?

    • JacqueJones

      Possibly Zeke Devoss who is right around the same quality of prospect, though he can play the OF too. I’d guess Bruno starts in AA and they find time for both players.

  • JacqueJones

    Maybe I missed something but I don’t see how Alou’s .306 BABIP is a “sizable difference” from Grace’s .309 BABIP. That is a pretty small difference, that could just as easily be related to the parks they played in in their careers as anything else. Assuming a .400 BABIP is not largely due to luck is pretty out there. It takes a while for BABIP to stabilize. The highest BABIP player in the league, trout, only has a .366 BABIP, so that’s probably the absolute ceiling of what we could expect from Bruno (and that would mean Bruno has uncanny bat control). So ya, Bruno has been very good in the early going but yes he has also been very lucky in the early going.

    • http://www.bleachernation.com Luke

      Looks like I grabbed the wrong two links there. I had several player profiles open as candidates to link there, and I apparently grabbed two similar ones.

      I’ll get that corrected later today.

  • V23

    Luke- Great job! These pieces are full of good stats, information and thought.
    No offense to one of the other blog sites, but you blow his prospect analysis away in writing skill and contact.

    Keep up the good work!

    • V23

      *content

  • Spoda17

    I know I am just repeating above, but I really enjoy your articles Luke. Very nice work.

  • BWA

    Luke,

    Based on the depth of the far system I think it would be great to do a cubs top 50 prospects instead of 40. I’m sure there would still be his who don’t make the cut and our interesting prospects.

    • SenorGato

      Id love this just for the baseball discussion. Anything to get me away from stalled renovation news and Epstein whining about money.

      • Edwin

        I almost feel a little over-saturated, to be honest. I appreciate the hard work Luke puts in, but after about #20 on the rankings, they’re usually fringy enough prospects that I can’t get too excited about them.

        That’s just my two cents. If other people enjoy it, more power to them, and again, I think Luke does a fantastic job with this.

        • ssckelley

          But some of those fringy prospects turn into top prospects as they come up through the system. Like some of the players taken in last years draft Hanneman, Zastryzny, Skulina, and Frazier. They might only be top 20 but in the upcoming years could end up being top 10.

          On a side note there are also a couple of pitchers from the 2012 draft that I hope we hear more about, Ryan McNeil and Josh Conway. Both of them have been fighting through injuries.

          • Edwin

            They could, but then I’ll just read about them then.

        • http://www.bleachernation.com Brett

          I would take a rankings list up to 120, and I’d get into an argument about number 117 over number 118.

          • BWA

            I wonder if Brett Jackson would make that list…

  • 5412

    Hi,

    First of all thanks for all the series. I found myself looking forward to the next one each time you posted. It was fun and educational.

    My thoughts on Bruno.

    I can recall guys like Freddy Patek who was 5′ 9″ and they are very rare in MLB. If Bruno is good enough to bring similar stats to the major leagues, then he has to play 2B for the Cubs, he cannot move to shortstop, there will be no room.

    If Alcantara or some of the other 2b’s in the system look good, they may well have more versatility and move if they want to stay in the lineup. One thing you did not mention was his throwing arm. Guys like Juan Pierre or Campana are speedy outfielders but they have to throw it twice to get it back to the infield and other teams take extra bases on them regularly. I recall a case where Pierre was in LF and a guy tagged up and went from second to third on a fly ball that did not make the warning track.

    So there are really several questions I had in the write up, one being where does he play. Second – this is the time where we really need the scouts and folks who watch him every day. He could easily be a great contact hitter who has mastered the art of “hitting them where they ain’t!” There are some guys who just have terrific bat control and can hit to all fields regularly.

    One way to test that out is this. How has he hit with RISP or runners on base? If the numbers point in the right direction, you bat him second in the order. If he has a runner ahead of him on base, his field of opportunity just got wider; particularly if the runner is a stolen base threat/

    The stats point to the fact this kid could be a sleeper. If nothing else he could be another Bobby Hill who might end up with some trade value.

    Regards,
    5412

  • Bilbo161

    I’m not at all surprised that Bruno was a popular request. To me, an almost 5’8″ fan who never had the talent he is the perfect guy to pin my under 6′ hopes on. Everyone loves a good underdog story and Bruno is it for me. I get tired of guys continually being ruled out by scouts based entirely on their size or build. To me Bruno is a hit tool monster until he proves otherwise not visa versa. The same with Edwards as a TOR despite his slight build. To blazes with everyone who tries to convince me otherwise.

    Thanks Luke. Really enjoyed reading these progress reports the last two years.

  • ClevelandCubsFan

    What caused the injury, and to which arm?

    • Bilbo161

      Not sure what caused it but I think the left arm.

  • Adam4

    Great article… Was inspired to look up more info on Bruno and noticed he was HBP 20 times at Boise. All in all 24 times in 370 PA.

  • cubnut

    Is a move to catcher, or a Clevenger-type role, out of the question with the TJS?

  • Funn Dave

    I’ve got a simple answer to that question: no.

    • Funn Dave

      Just to be clear, I’m not saying that this article is unnecessary. I know there will be sycophants at my throat upon posting anything resembling criticism.

  • Diehardthefirst

    Luke- have you ever considered auditioning for ESPN , Mike and Mike, etc as analyst? You have a talent that could open some doors

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