As a Baby Bomber, Greg Bird is considered part of the young foundation of the Yankees’ lineup, alongside Aaron Judge, Gleyber Torres, Gary Sanchez, and now Miguel Andujar. In the wake of his tantalizing 46-game, 11-homer late-2015 debut, the Yankees have waited out his seemingly endless string of injuries, yet despite a clean bill of health, he’s been curiously unproductive — the majors’ worst regular in August, in fact. The 25-year-old slugger’s hold on the starting first base job might be summed up with this clip from Tuesday night’s game:
Greg Bird has probably caught thousands of baseballs at first base over the course of his baseball career. This was not one of them. pic.twitter.com/2yP7pNDUuS
— Cespedes Family BBQ (@CespedesBBQ) August 28, 2018
“It’s not what you want,” as Bird’s former manager Joe Girardi would say, but that dropped throw aside — it did not figure in the scoring of the Yankees’ 5-4 win over the White Sox — defense hasn’t been Bird’s primary problem. At a time when the Yankees have been without Judge, Sanchez, and Didi Gregorius due to injuries, Bird is in an 0-for-21 slide since homering in his first plate appearance against the Blue Jays on August 19, and hitting .114/.186/.228 with two homers in 86 plate appearances in August. His 10 wRC+ for the month is the lowest of 177 qualified hitters in that span. And that’s after I suggested it was fair to quibble with including him on the first-base list in my Replacement Level Killers series just prior to the July 31 deadline. Overall, he’s hitting .196/.284/.384 (80 wRC+) this year, and through 640 PA over his three-season major-league career, he’s at .213/.302/.435 for a 97 wRC+. That’s not going to cut it.
Bird’s short career has been one of extremes:
A fifth-round pick in 2011 out of a Colorado high school, Bird rocketed from Double-A to Triple-A to the majors in 2015, filling in for the injured Mark Teixeira and emerging as the first baseman of the future by recording a .261/.343/.529 with 11 homers, a 137 wRC+, and 1.1 WAR. Alas, he lost all of 2016 to a torn labrum in his right (throwing) shoulder, then spent 2017 battling pain in his right ankle that resulted in midseason surgery. He returned in late August and hit .253/.316/.575 with eight homers in 98 PA, a big step up from the .100/.250/.200 he had hit in 72 PA through May 1. Further problems with his right ankle, caused by a bone spur that required surgery, sidelined him until mid-May of this season, while the Yankees muddled through with Tyler Austin and Neil Walker as a rather ineffective platoon at first base.
Despite Bird’s low batting average — the result, in part, of a pull-heavy approach (47.0% this year) that’s vulnerable to infield shifts — he appeared to be getting it together, hitting .233/.325/.455 for a 109 wRC+ through the end of July. Then this month’s nightmare, and a stretch of watching newcomer Luke Voit, a 27-year-old, righty-swinging rookie, start four games out of five while going 8-for-15 with three homers, just the shot in the arm the Yankees’ offense needed.
Drafted as a catcher in the 22nd round in 2013, the beefy (6-foot-3, 225-pound), boyish-looking Voit was acquired from the Cardinals on July 29 in exchange for pitchers Giovanny Gallegos and Chasen Shreve, a move that allowed the team to send the 26-year-old Austin to Minnesota along with 19-year-old pitching prospect Luis Rijo in exchange for Lance Lynn. After the July 31 trade deadline, Eric Longenhagen and Kiley McDaniel rated him as a 40 FV prospect while describing him thusly: “Low-OBP first baseman with power. Solid 1B/DH depth behind injury-prone big leaguers.” While he may be more suspect than prospect, thus far, he’s hit .265/.328/.469 for a 113 wRC+ though 177 major-league plate appearances. For the moment, he’s a solid alternative to Bird.
Even with Voit’s mini-hot streak, the Yankees entered Wednesday with their first basemen having combined for an 84 wRC+ (26th in the majors) and -0.1 WAR (23rd):
Bird has claimed that he’s fully healthy, and the Yankees haven’t given his job away yet. Manager Aaron Boone believes Bird’s problem after so many injuries is stamina and that his at-bats are trending in the right direction. Hitting coach Marcus Thames recently said this:
“His work’s been good. We’ve just got to get the results in the game. Just got to have more consistent at-bats. He’ll show you spurts where he’s barreling the ball up good and then he’ll lose it. So we’ve just got to keep working and you’ve got to keep giving him trips to the plate and hopefully he can turn this thing around, because we’ve got to have him.”
Via Statcast, Bird’s average exit velocity of 86.7 mph is in just the 25th percentile among the 294 hitters with at least 150 batted-ball events. That average is a full 3.0 mph below his limited run last year and 6.3 mph below his 2015 stint. To Boone’s point, it has deteriorated as the season has gone on:
Bird has gone from stinging the ball to… not stinging it. While he’s generally getting elevation and distance, he’s lacking in oomph. His infield fly-ball rates have been at 13.3% and 12.5% in July and August. Those are basically automatic outs.
One thing that stands out in Bird’s pitch splits is the extent to which he has failed to do damage when putting fastballs into play. In 114 PA ending with four-seamers, he’s hit .188/.298/.365 for a 95 wRC+, while in 53 PA against sinkers, he’s hit .182/.283/.341 for an 83 wRC+. Generally, you don’t get to be a first-division regular at an offense-first position without punishing fastballs consistently along the way; Bird had wRC+ marks of 165 and 109 against the four-seamers and sinkers in 2015, but he hasn’t been able to replicate that. He has especially struggled against pitches 95 mph and higher to the point that his Statcast wOBA against them is the fifth-worst of 227 players with at least 200 such pitches faced:
Bird’s xwOBA is the 16th-worst among the same group, and his wOBA-xwOBA differential is the 19th-worst. None of this is where he should be.
(Aside: that’s four A’s among the bottom 15. High velocity may be that team’s kryptonite.)
Fortunately for Bird, even in the absence of so many big bats, his teammates have been picking up the slack. Aided by a soft schedule in which they’ve played just three games against teams .500 or better since being swept by the Red Sox from August 2 to 5, the Yankees have gone 16-6 in their last 22 games, whittling Boston’s division lead from 9.5 games to 6.5. They’ve scored 5.19 runs per game in August, just a whisker below their season rate. All of that is buying the scuffling first baseman some time, but if he doesn’t start producing soon, Bird’s opportunity may fly out the window.
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. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.