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Jay Bruce’s struggles have no obvious explanation

Jay Bruce of the Mets strikes out against

Jay Bruce of the Mets strikes out against the Cubs at Citi Field on Thursday. Credit: Jim McIsaac

Jay Bruce took heat for his participation in another Mets flub Sunday, when the rightfielder did not call off second baseman Luis Guillorme on a routine-pop-up-turned-sacrifice-fly, pushing the team toward another loss.

Bruce’s other contribution got much less notice. He went 0-for-4 with a strikeout, dropping his average to .222, its lowest point since mid-April.

As Bruce endures what has been arguably the worst offensive year of his career, he and the Mets are searching for answers to a problem with no obvious ones, mere months into the biggest ($39 million) and longest (three years) contract the club gave out last winter.

Bruce has been worth -0.2 Wins Above Replacement, according to FanGraphs. The only Mets position players with a lower WAR this year are catcher Tomas Nido (-0.3) and infielder Jose Reyes (-0.6).

“I haven’t been good this year,” Bruce said. “There’s no ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Bruce’s issues seem to be coming from every angle: offense, defense, health.

In a Mets lineup that has underwhelmed — its 4.04 runs per game are better than only three NL teams, two of which (San Diego and Miami) are rebuilding — Bruce has offered little while playing a traditionally potent spot in the field.

Bruce’s average and OBP (.294) haven’t been lower in a full season since 2014, when a torn meniscus in his left knee had him in a bad spot all year. His slugging percentage (.341) is the worst of his career. He has 15 RBIs and only one more home run (three) than stolen bases (two).

Since the day Bruce last went deep — almost a month ago, May 7 in Cincinnati — his slash line is .181/.244/.236 with one RBI in 22 games.

Might health problems factor in this year as well? Bruce has dealt with lower back tightness in recent days and plantar fasciitis in his left foot in recent months. He said over the weekend that the foot issue has required continued treatment but “has been fine.”

“He’s healthy,” manager Mickey Callaway said. “He just can’t get things going, whether it’s at the plate or in the field. It just hasn’t come for him.”

The underlying numbers don’t offer obvious hints as to what is going on. Bruce’s swing and contact rates are about in line with years past. His hit speed is effectively the same and his launch angle has ticked upward. Bruce is hitting more line drives and fewer fly balls than he did in 2017.

It’s possible Bruce has been unlucky — his expected average (.262) and slugging percentage (.456) based on batted-ball data are higher than his actual numbers — but with the season hitting the one-third point last week, it’s getting harder to ignore the unproductive reality.

“All the stuff at the plate, we’ve been digging deep on it,” Callaway said. “He’s doing a great job with not chasing and all of his other rates are kind of in line with what he’s done in his career. The hits just haven’t been coming. He’s really trying to make sure he stays focused on the right things there.”

Callaway suggested that Bruce’s struggles at the plate have affected his defense, and Sunday’s oopsie is just one recent misplay example. Modern fielding metrics rate Bruce as a middling defender. Statcast, MLB’s movement-tracking technology, has found that Bruce is the slowest rightfielder in baseball.

That all puts Bruce in the middle of an interesting, looming question for the Mets: How will they keep Brandon Nimmo in the lineup when Yoenis Cespedes returns? Cespedes is scheduled to face live pitching Tuesday, and the Mets are considering bringing him back without a rehab assignment. They have said they hope to have him for their series against the Yankees this weekend.

Nimmo can play all three outfield spots, so the Mets will be able to move him around. But if their playing-time decision is merit-based, Bruce hasn’t put himself in a good spot.

“I expect so much more of myself,” Bruce said. “As frustrated as anyone is, I’m 1,000 times more frustrated than they could ever be.”

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