Several 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.
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.
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.
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.]