Greg Bird Takes Flight To Colorado

Greg Bird hasn’t been right since 2015. The Rockies haven’t gotten acceptable production from their first basemen since 2014. This could be the start of a beautiful relationship — or it could amount to nothing, as most minor league deals do. We’re about to find out, as the Rockies announced on Thursday that they’ve signed Bird to a minor league contract with an invitation to spring training.

Bird, who’s still just 28 years old, is coming off a more miserable 2020 than most of us. Bad luck in the injury department, a constant throughout his major league career, continued to dog him to the point that he didn’t take a single competitive plate appearance for either of the two organizations with whom he signed minor league deals. Cast adrift by the Yankees in November 2019 — we’ll get to the saga that led there — he initially signed with the Rangers last February, and after getting called up from the alternate training site in late July, before he could play a single game, he strained his right calf. After a 10-day stint on the Injured List, he was designated for assignment and elected free agency. Upon signing with the Phillies in mid-September, he came up positive for COVID-19 during his intake testing, and never even made it to the alternate site.

That Bird has landed with the Rockies makes sense given his area ties. He’s a graduate of Grandview High School in Aurora, Colorado, where he caught Kevin Gausman, who was a year ahead of him. Shortly after earning the Gatorade Player of the Year award for Colorado in 2011, Bird was drafted by the Yankees in the fifth round, and soon moved to first base. His major league career, which began on August 13, 2015, started with great promise, for soon after arriving, he became a lineup regular once Mark Teixeira suffered a season-ending fracture after fouling a ball off his right leg. Bird, 22 at the time, proceeded to launch a flurry of home runs — 11 in 178 plate appearances while batting .261/.343/.529 (137 wRC+), making him the clear heir apparent as the 36-year-old Teixeira limped into the final season of his eight-year contract.

Unfortunately, the story unravels from there. Bird missed all of 2016 after undergoing surgery on his right (throwing) shoulder to repair a torn labrum, the recurrence of an injury he’d suffered the previous May. Towards the end of a promising spring in 2017, he fouled a ball off his right ankle and played through it, going on the DL on May 2 after starting the season in a 6-for-60 skid, then undergoing surgery to remove the os trigonum bone in his ankle, which sidelined him until late August. Though his final numbers were dreadful (.190/.288/.422, 87 wRC+), he hit a respectable .253/.316/.575 with eight homers in 98 PA upon returning, and then .244/.426/.512 with three homers in 54 PA during the postseason, highlighted by an upper-deck solo homer off Andrew Miller that provided the only run in Game 3 of the Division Series. Greg Bird was back, baby!

Alas, not for long. A bone spur in his right ankle cost him all of April 2018, and then most of May. Bird scuffled, and on July 29, the Yankees traded for Luke Voit, who swung the hottest bat in the AL over the season’s final two months. Bird, an afterthought in September, finished at .199/.286/.386. While he began the 2019 season as the Yankees’ regular first baseman and even homered on Opening Day, he played in just 10 games before a left plantar fascia tear ended his season; he was DFA’d and released in November 2019, and you know the rest.

At this point, Bird owns a career .211/.301/.424 (96 wRC+) line in parts of four seasons but just 700 total PA. He’s hit 32 homers — some of them on the shorter side, admittedly — while compiling a healthy 10.6% walk rate, though he’s struck out 27% of the time, a byproduct of his tendency to go into deep counts. He elevates the ball consistently; his 31.8% groundball rate and 19.7 degree average launch angle both place him in the second percentile among all hitters with at least 500 PA over the past six seasons. He pulls it consistently (45.7%), and so he’s vulnerable to infield shifts, as his .244 career BABIP suggests, but he finds the barrel regularly; his 11.2% rate places him in the 91st percentile, and he was at 10.6% in 2018, his last season with significant playing time. His .495 xwOBA when pulling the ball similarly places him within the top 10 percentile of lefties, though the two guys at .494 in that span during the Statcast era, Ryan Howard and Max Muncy, speak to the range of career paths beyond that single figure.

The question is whether the 28-year-old Bird can match what the 22- or 25-year-old Bird was able to do after years of lower body injuries. A guy who can consistently elevate the ball in the thin air of Colorado would seem to have a shot, but ZiPS is hardly sold:

ZiPS Projection – Greg Bird
2021 .238 .331 .469 286 38 68 18 0 16 52 38 80 0 96 -1 0.4

Here’s the percentile breakdown:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Greg Bird
90% .248 .349 .539 282 41 70 20 1 20 60 42 65 0 117 1.2
80% .246 .343 .504 284 39 70 19 0 18 55 40 72 0 107 0.8
70% .242 .337 .484 285 39 69 18 0 17 54 39 75 0 101 0.6
60% .239 .334 .470 285 39 68 18 0 16 53 39 78 0 97 0.4
50% .238 .331 .469 286 38 68 18 0 16 52 38 80 0 96 0.4
40% .233 .325 .449 287 38 67 17 0 15 51 37 82 0 90 0.2
30% .233 .322 .448 288 37 67 17 0 15 50 36 84 0 89 0.1
20% .232 .319 .436 289 36 67 17 0 14 49 35 87 0 86 0.0
10% .227 .310 .412 291 36 66 15 0 13 46 33 92 0 78 -0.3

The forecast sees Bird as having only about a 30% chance of being average or better, but that’s a chance worth taking for the Rockies, who after trading Nolan Arenado are already set to spend the season as afterthoughts; their 0.1% playoff odds are the lowest in the National League. It would be inaccurate to say that they haven’t had a decent first baseman since 2011, Todd Helton’s last good season, but that’s only because it’s easy to forget Justin Morneau had a very solid season in ’14. Since then, the performances of Rockies first basemen have been downright brutal:

Rockies First Basemen, 2015-20
2015 674 17 5.5% .279 .321 .445 93 0.1
2016 677 18 8.9% .264 .332 .412 84 -1.4
2017 699 36 10.6% .267 .345 .489 103 0.9
2018 671 20 9.5% .232 .314 .405 81 -1.1
2019 704 23 8.4% .267 .331 .451 88 0.1
2020 243 7 4.5% .247 .281 .370 59 -0.6

That’s an 88 wRC+ and -2.0 WAR over a six-year span, both the lowest marks in the majors at the position. The next-worst wRC+ is the Angels’ 95 while the next-lowest WAR is the Rangers’ 1.6. This is just one of many jewels in general manager Jeff Bridich’s crown.

The most successful Rockies first baseman of the past six years on a rate basis was Morneau, who hit for a 104 wRC+ in 174 PA in 2015 but was sidelined by a concussion and a neck injury. On a cumulative basis, the closest thing to a success has been Mark Reynolds, whose totals of 1,118 PA and 45 home runs as a first baseman in 2016, ’17 and ’19 dwarf the rest of the field, but he managed a 100 wRC+ and all of 0.9 WAR over that span. Free agent busts Ian Desmond (627 PA, 92 wRC+, -0.1 WAR) and Daniel Murphy (544 PA, 84 wRC+, -0.5 WAR) contributed mightily to the problem, and the homegrown Ben Paulsen (358 PA, 79 wRC+, -0.5 WAR) and Ryan McMahon (208 PA, 67 wRC+, -0.4 WAR) failed to flower, to say the least.

With McMahon the likely successor to Arenado at third base, the Rockies have Josh Fuentes slated to play first, though Desmond could be part of the picture after opting out last year. Fuentes, a 27-year-old righty, hit a superficially shiny .306/.320/.439 in 104 PA last year, though that translates to just an 86 wRC+. He’s put up strong defensive metrics in limited duty, but even so, the Rockies are forecast to have the worst first base production in the majors again, with -1.1 WAR.

Bird is going to have to clearly outhit Fuentes to have a chance at winning the job. I don’t know that he can, but as somebody who saw a great deal of him during his rollercoaster ride with the Yankees, I’m hopeful, and the Rockies have nothing to lose other than another 95 or 100 games in finding out. At the very least, it’s worth hoping that Bird gets to be judged on his performance rather than suffering another bad break in a career that’s been all too full of them.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011, and a Hall of Fame voter since 2021. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe... and BlueSky

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David Klein
3 years ago

What an ugly fall after a hot start in his first 200 plate appearances, I remember there being debates on who was better he or Conforto and articles crowdsourcing scouts on who they’d choice and we all know how that turned out.