The masses are encouraged by Bryce Harper’s spring. Everyone’s looking for a big bounceback season, so it seems like a good thing that Harper is second in spring-training home runs, with six. Well, Greg Bird is looking for a bounceback season of his own — not because he was bad in 2016, but because he wasn’t anything in 2016. Surgery’ll do that to a player. After Wednesday, Bird is right there with Harper, at six home runs. Let’s just continue to try to ignore that Peter O’Brien is ahead of both of them, with seven.
Out of sight usually means out of mind, as fandom goes, and Bird, for a while, was sort of a forgotten young Yankee, what with the group emergence of Gary Sanchez, Aaron Judge, Tyler Austin, and so on. It’s nothing Bird could help, but labrum surgery kept him from playing, and it was all he could ask for to have a successful spring. Suffice to say Bird is back in the picture. Suffice to say he’s generating at least as much enthusiasm as anybody else. Through 47 exhibition trips to the plate, Bird’s hitting .439, with a four-digit slugging percentage. He’s been the very best spring-training hitter, and while that’s not something anyone actually cares about, there is significance here. It would sure seem that Bird’s shoulder is fine.
There are risks that come with hitters needing shoulder surgery. I mean, there are also risks with wrist surgery, or hand surgery, but think about how Michael Brantley is still mostly an unknown in Cleveland. When Bird last played with the Yankees, he was able to do things like this:
Wednesday, against the Phillies, he did this:
I don’t have spring-training exit velocities, but in these cases I don’t really need them. A home run is a home run, and Bird has six of them already. It’s why Harper’s spring seems like such a positive — if he was hurt last season, he appears healthy again. Bird, too, appears healthy, allowing the Yankees a sigh of relief. They can assume that Bird is back on course, and when they last saw him, he was a sensation.
He wasn’t quite a Sanchez-level sensation, because those come around once every couple decades or so, but Bird slugged .529, with the talent to back it up. He also struck out a bunch, but considering it was Bird’s first-ever exposure to the major leagues, he more than handled himself. And, Bird debuted and got all his action in in 2015, before we were all so comfortable using Statcast information. Now it’s practically a requirement. As such, I want to repeat a little experiment I recently ran on the subject of Justin Smoak. The idea: I have corrected exit velocities, I have launch angles, and I have contact rates. I have what Bird did in his time with New York as a rookie. What hitters from the last two seasons have looked most similar? This table includes all the strongest, closest comparisons:
I want to emphasize this doesn’t prove anything. When I did this for Smoak, I was surprised by the results, and so were plenty of readers. Maybe I’m missing too much in this analysis. But just based on what Bird has done in his limited time, he’s swung the bat an awful lot like Lucas Duda. The top five comps are rounded out by David Wright, Freddie Freeman, Brandon Belt, and Trevor Story. The average wRC+ in the whole table is 121, which is lower than what Bird did, but he doesn’t appear like an outlier. If anyone is an outlier, it’s Mahtook.
Bird generated some strong, positive exit velocities. His contact rate was low, but still in the normal range. Where Bird is most extreme is in his fly-ball tendency, but that was nothing new. Between levels in 2015, his grounder rate was 30%. The year before, it was 31%. The year before that, it was 33%. Bird has a fly-ball swing, and fly balls have always come off of it. He’s perfectly built for his home stadium, and there’s still room to improve.
From the sounds of things, Bird’s shoulder was bothering him even when he was clobbering the ball as a rookie. If he’s now consistently able to swing freely, in the way that he wants, it makes sense his exit velocities could be better. His contact rate could be better, too, which we’d already expect just on account of maturity and experience. Bird, in his time, swung at a lower rate of pitches out of the zone than the average. He demonstrated fairly advanced judgment. The biggest obstacle now might simply be improving against same-handed pitchers.
I know people have pointed out that Bird’s rookie hot streak was out of step with his minor-league power numbers. It’s a fair point, but an incomplete one. For one thing, Bird didn’t fake his batted-ball speeds, which ranked among the better marks in the league. And then, while Yankee Stadium is obviously lefty-friendly, Bird’s minor-league environments were very much not. Charleston? Nope. Tampa? Nope. Trenton? Nope. Scranton/Wilkes-Barre? Nope. Bird, in the minors, would’ve had his power at least partially suppressed, and he’s still managed a minor-league OPS of .878 from the ages of 18 to 22. Yankee Stadium will probably grant Bird a few freebies, but his power is bigger than previously advertised.
It’s being more sensibly advertised now. Greg Bird is healthy again, and he’s back in the picture as a young Yankee regular. If he doesn’t get much better at all, he’s something like a younger Lucas Duda. And with a step forward somewhere, he becomes a franchise cornerstone. Not everyone is cut out to be an extreme fly-ball hitter. The profile fits Bird like a glove.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.