Posted by: Mike Cornelius | March 28, 2021

Butterflies And Batting Averages

Clinging to a leaf on a tree in West Africa, a butterfly beats its wings, disturbing in a barely measurable way the air around the flying insect. But that tiny perturbation is the first in a long and meandering causal chain, and three weeks later a Category 4 hurricane roars through the Lesser Antilles, leaving widespread devastation in its wake. The butterfly effect is by far the best-known metaphorical example of chaos theory, even if it is generally used inaccurately. As set forth by mathematician Edward Lorenz, the butterfly effect was meant to illustrate the inherent unpredictability of certain systems, while books and movies like to use the metaphor as proof that the smallest causal effect can be found if one only knows where to look. But as a symbol of the impact of random events, the butterfly effect is often on full display as Spring Training comes to an end and major league teams make final preparations for Opening Day. Any fan doubting that should consider what is now the certainty that Jay Bruce will be wearing pinstripes in the Bronx next Thursday.

A few days short of his 34th birthday, Bruce is the kind of ballplayer who once would have weighed multiple offers heading into this year’s Spring Training. A 13-year veteran, he broke into the big leagues with the Reds, and spent nine seasons in Cincinnati. The Reds traded Bruce to the Mets at the 2016 trade deadline, and since then he has served two stints in Queens, along with stops in Cleveland, Seattle, and Philadelphia. A left-handed hitting slugger, Bruce’s high-water mark for batting average was .281, and that came early in his career. His career average is a shade under .250, but he’s always shown plenty of power, with 318 home runs and a solid career OPS of .783, a number he bettered in 2019, the Great Game’s last full season. While he has never been a defensive standout, he can play either corner outfield spot or first base and would appear tailor-made for an American League club looking for a designated hitter who could occasionally backup the starter at one of those positions.

But with MLB front offices placing heavy emphasis on inexpensive young players, the combination of Bruce’s age and a recent decline in production at the plate left him as one of many thirty-something ballplayers scrounging for work through the winter. In the truncated 2020 season he batted an anemic .198 with the Phillies and hit just four home runs, or the equivalent of only eleven over a full 162-game schedule. As a result, Bruce remained unemployed until mid-February, when the Yankees signed him to a minor league deal with at least a theoretical chance to make the big club, assuming a strong performance at training camp.

The contract was essentially risk-free for New York, giving the club a chance to look at Bruce firsthand, knowing that on paper a left-handed power hitter should do well at Yankee Stadium. With Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier holding down the starting right and left field jobs, 2020 major league home run leader Luke Voit locked in at first base, and Giancarlo Stanton the day-to-day DH, the best Bruce could hope for was a reserve role. Even that became less likely when the Yankees finally re-signed Brett Gardner, their longest-tenured player who can fill in at all three outfield positions.

Then whatever slim chance Bruce had of making the 40-man roster appeared to slip away as February turned to March and he failed to make the most of his playing time in exhibition games. By last week, Bruce’s spring average was just .194, and his two home runs in thirteen games seemed unlikely to sway many minds. Bruce’s contract included an opt-out clause that ran until Thursday, so it was no surprise when manager Aaron Boone announced that Bruce would not play any more as of that date. While the deal also stipulated a 48-hour window for the team and the player to reach a deal, it was apparent that the brief dalliance between Bruce and the Yankees was over.

Enter the butterfly. All Spring first baseman Voit had been bothered by a sore knee. He treated it as an aggravation, continuing to play and make ready to defend his home run crown over a full season’s schedule as part of a bashing middle of the batting order with Judge and Stanton. But just as Bruce was packing up and heading home, Voit opted to have an MRI on the troublesome knee. Given what we now know was the result, had he done so earlier the Yankees would have had time to consider other free agent first baseman, or a trade, or possibly handling one of their minor league prospects differently. Or had Voit chosen to continue playing through the soreness, Bruce would likely have signed with another team, or even possibly retired, by the time the medical issue was forced.

There has been no reporting on why Voit decided to have his knee looked at just now, but his timing made all the difference to Bruce. The imaging showed a partially torn meniscus, and while surgery is not a mandatory response, Voit chose that route and its minimum month-long, and more realistically two to three month, recovery period. Faster than one can say, “Bronx Bombers,” the Yankees signed Bruce to a major league contract and announced him as the team’s starting first baseman for Thursday’s opener in the Bronx against Toronto.

In the Hollywood telling of this tale, the newest member of the Yankees’ major league roster starts the season on a slugging tear, so by the time Voit is ready to return fans are busy buying Bruce’s number 30 jersey and asking, “Luke who?” Or at the other end of the spectrum, he can’t hit a lick and is released even before Voit’s knee is healthy, with DJ LeMahieu moving from second over to first and Tyler Wade getting unexpected playing time. The outcome, almost certainly between those extremes, will likely not be set in motion by the random beat of a butterfly’s wings. Rather it will turn on whether Jay Bruce, given an improbable chance on the Great Game’s biggest stage by a fortunate confluence of events, can still hit major league pitching.


Responses

  1. I don’t know anything about any of the actors involved, but I very much enjoyed the read.

    Don

    >


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