Saturday, August 27, 2016

Closing the Book on the "Rebuild" and the Jay Bruce era

The "rebuild" is over. Largely panned, underwhelming at times, the rebuild era came to a close with the Jay Bruce trade. The Reds still have a ways to go, but they are now entering a new phase improving the competitiveness of the organization. They can still improve through the draft and free agency, but that feels more like "building" than "rebuilding."

Let's cut right to the quick. This offseason I wanted the Reds to dump Jay Bruce. I was done watching him flail at offspeed pitches. Done watching him struggle to post batting averages over .230 and OBPs over .300. Done watching him struggle to track down balls hit over his head in right field.

The life of an Major Leaguer is tough. You are constantly judged against your draft position, the label slapped on you when you enter the game, and the expectations of the fans. Injuries can strike, even if they don't force you off the field, they can still drag down your performance level on it. To top it all off, you are always playing for your job, as there is a wave of players trying to take your job.

If you even make the big leagues, you are an elite talent. If you are a star, then you have achieved a measure of greatness. But, the truth is, "greatness" is anti-gravity. It's not the norm. Mediocrity is the norm. Average is the norm. There are always demons fighting to drag you down to average: age, injury, self-doubt, anxiety, and your competition, to name just a few. Great players fight off gravity for as long as they can, but it always wins out in the end.

Gravity had its way with Jay Bruce in 2014 and 2015. That was the reality heading into the 2016 offseason. Gravity dragged him down from his lofty perch, a perch that came with weighty expectations.

I still remember Jay Bruce first announcing his arrival in professional baseball with a rifle shot. It was in the 2007 MLB Futures Game in San Francisco and Bruce ripped a bullet off the brick wall in right field in Pac Bell Park. I can still hear the explosive sound of it coming off the bat. It was a sound that only a lightning quick bat making perfectly timed contact with a speeding sphere of horsehide can make.

Since that time, Bruce's career ascended, including some big moments and a three All Star games. But, the reality was very different prior to the 2016 season.

I was of the mind that the Reds should basically dump Jay this past offseason. He was unlikely to hit enough to raise his trade value beyond the corresponding drop that would result from a half season reduction in team control. Dump him and turn the page. The Red didn't. The Reds waited. The Reds were probably right.

The Trade

On August 1, 2016, the Reds traded Bruce to the New York Mets for Dilson Herrera and Max Wotell. There's no way to know what they could have gotten for Bruce if they dealt him prior to the 2016 season. It might have been less, it definitely wouldn't have been more.

Dilson Herrera is the key piece of the trade. He's only 22 days, 5 months, and 24 days old, but somehow it seems like he's been around for a while. Herrera isn't big in stature (5-10, 205 lbs) or long on explosive tools, but his production is that of a bigger, louder player. It always seems to outpace his tools.

The Mets did Herrrera's development, trade value, and reputation no favors by rushing him to the majors in 2014 as an injury replacement for Daniel Murphy. Since then, Herrera has been somewhat lost in the shuffle, but that might have reduced his trade value enough to make him available to the Reds. Silver lining!

Herrera is an interesting hitter. He doesn't have great size and he uses a very quiet lower half at the plate, but he still manages to generate solid power. He's not a punch-and-judy hitter. Let's take a look at exhibit A, courtesy of on YouTube:

The modern trend in hitting is to embrace the idea of hitting as a movement pattern. Similar to the focus on the kinetic chain in pitching, hitters should sequence specific movements to generate and effectively sum the force they generate.

Herrera has a quiet lower half and his movements are smaller, but he still generates good force with a short, quick, simple swing. He does a nice job of loading up in his swing and syncing his arms with the rotational power of the hips. The real key to his hitting is in his ability to make consistent, hard contact. He has a good feel for hitting, driven by strong pitch recognition and hand-eye coordination, which allows him to consistently get the barrel of the bat on the ball.

Herrera isn't a burner or absurdly athletic, but it feels like there's some real explosiveness to his swing. Here's a look at Herrera legging out an inside the park home run, courtesy of on YouTube:

The Reds are short of good, professional hitters and their rebuild did little to rectify that issue, but the last trade of their rebuild might have netted the best hitter of the bunch. Herrera should be spraying line drives to all fields of Great American Ballpark for the foreseeable future. Unfortunately, he doesn't fit the profile of a disciplined hitter, but his hit tool is strong. Overall, I'm excited about Dilson Herrera as a hitter and he's a nice return for Jay Bruce.

In a perfect world, Herrera and Jose Peraza will both reach their max projections and hold down the middle infield spots for years to come. Time will tell.

As for the other player in the trade, Max Wotell was drafted in the 3rd round of the 2015 draft out of Marvin Ridge High School in North Carolina.

He has some real funk to his mechanics. Intentionally or otherwise, deception might be his game.

He has one of the stranger wind-ups you'll see. He starts with his left foot in the middle of the rubber, but, to take his rocker step, he re-positions his foot on the rubber by moving it all the way to the third base side. It's a bizarre look and a large backward step towards third base with his plant foot.*

(*I'd have to wonder if his style is even legal, as he doesn't maintain consistent contact with the rubber, but pitchers get away with murder so we'll just move on.)

In massively re-positioning his back foot on the rubber, Wotell essentially closes himself off, all but ensuring a cross-fire delivery. So, it's not surprising that his stride foot lands closer to the first base side or that he falls off to the third base side on his follow-through. Unfortunately, while he closes himself off, I don't see a lot of coil or much differential between the lower and upper halves in his delivery. But, a video clip is worth ten thousand words, so here's a look at Wotell in action, courtesy of SkillshowVideos on YouTube:

A cross-fire delivery can add deception, but it can also reduce efficiency. If you consider motor sports, when a driver heads towards a curve he is trying to find the fastest way through it. Typically, the fast way through a curve is to take the straightest line. You try to "straighten out the curve." That is, you want to apply force in a straight line. The more you have to turn the steering wheel, the greater the loss of effective force. When you turn, the weight/balance of the car tips towards the front outside tire, where the stress, friction, and load are increased, resulting in less speed and less efficiency.

It's largely the same with pitching. You want to apply force in a straight line. The most efficient path for delivering the pitch is a straight line. If you are using a cross-fire delivery, then your momentum is not on a direct line to the plate. Rather you are working around or against your body, which creates inefficiency and results in a loss of force that would otherwise be applied to the ball. In addition, you are likely increasing the stress on your arm, which can increase your injury risk.

On the plus side, cross-fire deliveries can increase deception. If you want to see what it's like to hit against Wotell, then here's a look from the batter's point of view, courtesy of FanGraphs on YouTube, Good luck!:

That doesn't look like a comfortable At Bat for the hitter. Wotell is moving around on the rubber, working with a quick tempo, high effort delivery, and hides the ball pretty well. So, while his injury risk might be higher (minimal differential/lack of body coil, cross-fire delivery, high effort), he at least gains points in the deception department, which might help his performance level.

It's too early in his career to know much about his repertoire. He features a fastball, slider, and change-up combo. The fastball sits 89-91 and has touched 93. The hope is that 93 will become more of the norm when he fills out physically. He gets good marks for his slider and the change is a work in progress.

In short, Wotell seems like a lottery ticket. A very young, raw pitcher with some upside and a lot of risk. But, if you buy enough lottery tickets, one might pay off.

Final Thoughts

In my view, the Jay Bruce trade represents the end of the rebuild, as he was the final available trade piece. They simply don't have any expensive, aging veterans who no longer fit in with the organization's new position on the win-curve left to trade. From here on out, it's not a rebuild, but rather just a "build."

If the Bruce trade is the final move in the rebuild, it was a strong final move to what might otherwise have been a lackluster rebuild. Dilson Herrera can really hit. Wotell is a high risk, solid upside second piece that diversifies the risk and increases the number of avenues by which the Reds can "win" this trade. Given where Jay Bruce's value was prior to the season, that's a pretty nice return for the Reds.