Greg Bird Is Back and Might Save the Day

Hey, remember this guy?

It was Greg Bird, not Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez, who was the talk of Yankees camp while producing eight home runs and a 1.654 OPS over 51 at-bats. It was Bird who seemed poised to build upon a promising 178-plate-appearance sample as a rookie in 2015 (.261/.343/.529 slash line and 137 wRC+) after missing all of 2016 with a labrum tear.

But after a slow start this spring, Bird hit the DL and missed 103 games due to foot and ankle injuries. He returned to the Yankees lineup on Saturday, though, reaching base three times in his return and then adding a two-run, pinch-hit single in his second game back. Yankees manager Joe Girarid told the NY Post that he likes what he’s seen from Bird since his return:

“Really good, very patient. Really good eye, which is what we’re used to seeing from Greg,” Girardi said. “I think he can have a big impact…

“If he can swing like he was in spring training and like he did in 2015, he could be a big addition.”

Yes, the batting eye looked just fine in Bird’s first game back.

The Yankees entered play Wednesday four games back of the Red Sox. Bird might just be the impact bat the club needs. After bolstering their bullpen and rotation during the period leading up to the trade deadline, the Yankees’ offense has been middling in August. The club ranks 10th in the AL in wRC+ (96) and ninth in weighted runs above average (-2.5) for the month. Meanwhile, the Yankees rank fourth in the AL in ERA- (85) in August and third in pitching WAR for the year (87).

Yankees first basemen have combined for a collective slash line of .243/.326/.396 to date this season, producing a 92 wRC+ that ranks 13th among American League clubs. Bird has a chance to make an impact and fill a void down the stretch.

He could become a platoon option with, say, Chase Headley, but the Yankees would like to see Bird assert himself. Perhaps the potential of a Bird breakout is why the Yankees didn’t acquire what seemed to be a natural B chip in the Sonny Gray Trade, namely Yonder Alonso.

Like Alonso, Bird is a fly-ball machine.

Unlike Alonso, Bird has always been launching balls into the air.

As a minor leaguer, Bird has a 0.67 GB/FB ratio. In his brief major-league experience, he’s been even more prone to keeping balls off the infield turf, with a 0.54 mark. To place this into context, only nine major leaguers have ratios of 0.67 or more extreme this season. Here are their names: Cody Bellinger, Brandon Belt, Matt Carpenter, Joey Gallo, Curtis Granderson, Logan Morrison, Mike Napoli, Kyle Seager, and Justin Turner.

Among that group, only Napoli has failed to produce an above-average batting line this season. In fact, only Napoli and Seager have recorded worse than a 110 wRC+.

In his minor-league career, 10.9% of his fly balls have been infield pop ups, but 10.1% have gone for home runs. And not only has Bird gained power as he’s matured, but he’s also traded in some favorable pitching environments in the Yankees’ minor-league system for AL’s top home-run environment at the major-league level.

The next evolution will be for Bird to pull the ball like he has in the minor leagues to take advantage of the ridiculously short right-field wall at Yankee Stadium II. At six minor-league stops, Bird produced pull rates of 44% or better, but his MLB mark to date is 38%.

We’ll have to see where Bird’s timing is, if he has his legs under him. ZiPS forecasts a modest 90 wRC+ for the rest of the season (57 plate appearances). But Bird is a good bet to exceed that forecast. It wasn’t too long ago — in March of 2015 — that Yankees GM Brian Cashman praised Bird, saying he was “by far the best hitter (among prospects) in the organization.”

Since that time, Judge and Sanchez have arrived and the next Yankees’ core ETA has accelerated. But Bird was always expected to be a part of it and here he is.

Bird has always had an excellent batting eye, and that remains in tact. He’s kept his strikeouts at manageable rates. He’s always hit fly balls and his power has grown with age. The key is now to simply stay on the field. If he can, the Yankees could have another homegrown impact bat down the stretch and into the future.

We hoped you liked reading Greg Bird Is Back and Might Save the Day by Travis Sawchik!

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A Cleveland native, FanGraphs writer Travis Sawchik is the author of the New York Times bestselling book, Big Data Baseball. He also contributes to The Athletic Cleveland, and has written for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, among other outlets. Follow him on Twitter @Travis_Sawchik.

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Is there any information on how minor league infield popup rates are calculated?