In 2016, catcher Gary Sanchez packed a season’s worth of production into the final two months of the campaign, recording more than three wins during that brief period. Last year, it was Aaron Judge who broke out — to such a degree that he nearly won the AL MVP, in fact. Sanchez wasn’t half-bad himself, building on his rookie season with four more wins.
At this time a year ago, though, neither Sanchez nor Judge was the story of Yankees camp. Rather, it was Greg Bird. In Grapefruit League play last spring, Bird hit eight home runs and posted a 1.654 OPS over 51 at-bats. He appeared poised to build upon 178 promising plate appearances as a rookie when he slashed .261/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) in 2015. But after missing all of 2016 with a labrum tear, the first half of Bird’s 2017 season was again derailed — in this case by a foot injury.
The first baseman’s numbers were ultimately pretty ugly, as he slashed just .190/.288/.422 in 170 PAs.
Upon his return from injury, however, Bird managed to show some life. In 29 second-half games, he recorded a .253/.316/.575 slash line and 126 wRC+. And his underlying batted-ball tendencies are even more encouraging.
The next stage of the air-ball revolution is not just about “up” but another direction.
Getting the batted ball up is the first step. After elevating, though, the next stage of the air-ball revolution — of the quest for maximum batted-ball efficiency — is pulling those air balls. Common sense dictates why that is: not only are MLB ballparks shallower down the lines, but batters typically have the most power in that direction.
The data support that line of reason, as well. Consider the following batted-ball data from last season:
|Field||AVG||SLG||wRC+||% of batted balls|
Among all hitters to post at least 100 plate appearances in 2017, Bird had the ninth-lowest ground-ball rate, a figure that was in line with his minor-league record.
And out of 396 hitters to put at least 50 batted balls in the air last season, Bird ranked within the top quarter (60th overall) by pull percentage at 36.5%.
So Bird is avoiding ground balls at an elite rate and pulling more of his line drives and fly balls than most major-league hitters. That’s a promising combination: AL batters slugged 1.307 with a 398 wRC+ on pulled air balls last year. It’s particularly good in light of the right-field dimensions of Yankee Stadium, which make it one of the most favorable parks for left-handed pull power. According to FanGraphs’ park factor splits, the adjusted HR factor for left-handed batters is the highest at Yankee Stadium (128) of all major-league parks — six points over the next two favorable parks (Baltimore, Milwaukee).
Some actual footage of this ideal fit: a 344-foot Bird fly ball that went for home run last season:
While we’ll have to see if Bird can hit lefties — or if he’s even allowed to face them much — the Yankees ranked only 14th in baseball with 72 home runs by lefties against right-handed pitching. As powerful as Giancarlo Stanton, Judge and Sanchez are — a trio of bats we project to combine for 127 home runs this coming year, one short of the Giants’ team total last season — they are all right-handed. Bird is the Yankees’ top left-handed power threat and he projects to be a good one. (If you’re curious, the single-season team home-run record is 264 set by the 1997 Seattle Mariners.)
Depth Charts forecasts a .253/.342/.493 slash line, 120 wRC+, and 31 homers for Bird in 588 plate appearances. Coupled with adequate first-base defense that’s good for a 2.1 WAR projection. Not bad, but with health, I think Bird is a good bet to exceed those solid projections. Bird had our attention last spring when he was the star of the Grapefruit League. He showed promise down the stretch when he returned to health. He should have our attention again.