Standing in front of his locker Wednesday afternoon, Jay Bruce fielded a question that has circulated throughout baseball talk shows and stat-heavy websites lately: What happened to you this past month?
The skin on Bruce's forehead creased as he weighed his response -- not because the answer was so difficult but because, to him, it seemed so simple. He's just hitting the ball better, he told the reporter.
He followed with a more substantial answer, but there exists a dichotomy between the way Bruce views his performance in May and the way many outsiders saw it. After leading the National League in home runs (12), RBIs (33) and slugging (.739) en route to NL Player of the Month honors, the 24-year-old felt vindicated.He knew he could be one of the league's best hitters; he just needed time. And after signing a six-year, $51 million contract in December, Bruce will have plenty more of it, as will Reds fans hoping to watch him continue to develop.
For those on the outside, though, Bruce's recent success seems like an anomaly. Sure, he had nice streaks in the past, but all of a sudden, the Reds' right fielder looked like a premier power hitter. While Bruce was confident he was due to break out, he also understands why his recent play has left eyebrows stretched high.
"I haven't ever done this -- in the Major Leagues," he said. "In the Minor Leagues, this was just how I went up. This was just what I did. I know the feeling pretty well, but not a lot of people have seen it."
Cincinnati's first-round pick in 2005, Bruce climbed through the organization as balls off his bat carried over the fence. He was named Baseball America's 2007 Minor League Player of the Year after hitting 26 home runs and jumping from high Class A to Triple-A, and he entered '08 as the league's No. 1 prospect.
When he was finally called up, in May 2008, Bruce's entrance was predictably coupled with plenty of hype. And, perhaps just as predictable, Bruce did not live up to those expectations, hitting just .240 his first two years.
Bruce improved significantly last season, but his power numbers were still a far cry from the lofty predictions scouts made when he was in the Minors. He hit 25 home runs in 2010 -- a career high, although probably not for long. In Wednesday's 4-3 win against the Brewers, Bruce hammered his NL-leading 17th homer. He is on pace for 48.
"Now he's starting to come into his potential," first baseman Joey Votto said. "If he hits the way he hit last year, that's a great year. That's fantastic. But he's not. He's going to do better than that."
This season, Bruce's locker was moved across the clubhouse so he could sit next to Votto. They were rookies together in '08, and Bruce talked about how, as if by osmosis, being around Votto has changed the way he prepares for at-bats.
Bruce described his own hitting style as simple: see ball, hit ball. Votto, on the other hand, is like a technician at the plate, Bruce said. Every at-bat, every pitcher, every situation -- Votto always seems prepared, and it's a big reason why he won the NL's Most Valuable Player Award last season.
The two don't really talk hitting much, and Votto downplayed his influence on Bruce's recent success. Bruce said he is still an instinctual hitter, but he is now trying to bring a more thought-out game plan into the batter's box.
"When it comes to pitch selection and stuff like that, I don't have an unbelievable eye," he said. "Sometimes it's good; sometimes it's not great. But when I know what they're going to pitch me, it's easy."
Others on the team provided different reasons for the right fielder's torrid streak. Hitting coach Brook Jacoby said Bruce is more aware that pitchers assume he will chase anything. Manager Dusty Baker said Bruce is keeping his head still and squaring pitches up better. Travis Wood, who was Bruce's roommate while the two played for the Gulf Coast League Reds in '05, said the "big ol' boy" simply found himself.
A couple of other intertwined themes also emerged when teammates talked about Bruce: experience and confidence. For all the early expectations of him becoming an immediate success, Bruce needed to learn from his own mistakes.
He says he is focused on trying not to chase bad pitches, although it is still a work in progress. He has swung at 29.7 percent of pitches out of the zone this year; his career average is 28.9 percent, according to FanGraphs.
Chasing or not, though, Bruce has always believed the power numbers would be there. Now he's just riding a hot streak, making the game more fun than normal. Baker, who hit .278 with 242 home runs in his 19-year career, knows the feeling.
"You can't wait to get to the ballpark," he said. "You're seeing the ball like a beach ball instead of a golf ball, and you're very confident. The main thing is just don't try to figure out when it's going to stop."
Then there's this: Bruce might have been playing the same way last year, but his body simply wouldn't let him hit balls out of the park. He missed about two months in 2009 after breaking his right wrist in mid-July, and Jacoby noted that experts believe hitters aren't back at full strength until a year after that injury.
Fifteen of Bruce's 25 home runs last season came after July.
Rolling those numbers over to this year, Bruce is hitting .310 with 32 home runs in his last 345 at-bats -- evidence that May fell right in line with what Bruce anticipates from himself, and what everyone else once did, too.
"I don't know how this sounds, but it didn't really surprise me. I've expected that," he said. "I don't put a number on anything, because I don't know what I'm capable of doing. But I know that I'm capable of being successful, and I know that I have the ability and talent and the mental capacity to be a really successful Major League baseball player."