Yankees Free (Greg) Bird

With their offense sputtering, the Yankees called up first baseman Greg Bird from Triple-A last week in an attempt to potentially help matters. Bird is strictly a first baseman, meaning he’s unlikely to see regular playing time with Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez holding down first base and DH, respectively. However, with 16 games without an off-day on their schedule, the Yankees will surely want to spell both Teixeria and A-Rod, especially since both have been slumping of late.

If his 2015 numbers are any indication, Bird has little left to prove in the minor leagues. He hit .277/.356/.469 between Double-A and Triple-A this season, including a .319/.372/.534 performance over his last month in the minors. Bird’s combination of power, walks and manageable strikeout numbers have made him a potent hitter in the high minors this year, as evidenced by his 139 wRC+.

Those manageable strikeout numbers are a new feature for Bird. Prior to this season, the 6-foot-3 slugger had some trouble putting the ball in play on a regular basis. His strikeout rates were consistently higher than his league’s average (roughly 20%) since the Yankees drafted him in the fifth round back in 2011, but he’s managed to hack a few percentage points off of his strikeout rate this year.

Bird1

Statistically, there isn’t much to dislike about Bird. He draws walks, doesn’t strikeout often, and also hits for power. Really nothing to complain about there, especially coming from a 22-year-old in the high minors.

Unsurprisingly, KATOH loves the guy. My system pegs him for an impressive 5.5 WAR through age 28, which would have made him the 51st prospect on KATOH’s preseason list. This forecast is up slightly from the 5.2 WAR yielded by his 2014 numbers.

Let’s get to the comps. Using league-adjusted, regressed stats, along with age, I calculated the Mahalanobis Distance between Bird’s performance this year and every season in Double-A and Triple-A since 1990 in which a batter recorded at least 400 plate appearances. Below, you’ll find a list of historical players whose performances were nearest and dearest to Bird’s, ranked from most to least similar.

Rank Mah Dist Name PA thru 28 WAR thru 28
1 0.39 Troy Hughes 0 0.0
2 0.50 Lonnie Chisenhall* 1,449 3.8
3 0.50 David Murphy 1,557 5.6
4 0.54 Troy Tulowitzki 3,689 27.9
5 0.57 Chase Utley 2,419 23.8
6 0.62 Neil Walker 2,823 13.1
7 0.64 Chris O’Brien* 0 0.0
8 0.65 Edwin Encarnacion 3,078 7.4
9 0.71 Elijah Dukes 970 2.3
10 0.72 Cody Haerther 0 0.0
11 0.78 Moises Sierra* 449 0.0
12 0.79 Bob Zambrano 0 0.0
13 0.79 Aaron Guiel 0 0.0
14 0.80 Pokey Reese 2,275 4.7
15 0.80 Jeff Inglin 0 0.0
16 0.82 Michael Almanzar* 0 0.0
17 0.84 Craig Monroe 1,646 4.2
18 0.85 Daniel Paolini* 0 0.0
19 0.86 Jeff Mathis 1,360 0.0
20 0.92 Brett Roneberg 0 0.0

*Hitters who have yet to play their age-28 seasons.

As usual, there are plenty of flops in the bunch, but it’s the successes that give us a sense of Bird’s upside. And there are a plethora of good hitters on this list. Among Bird’s comps are a couple of borderline Hall of Famers in Utley and Tulowitzki, and several other dangerous hitters in guys like Murphy, Walker, Encarnacion and Monroe.

Now that I’ve expended hundreds of words talking up Bird’s offense, it’s probably about time to touch on the less encouraging half of his game: his defense. Originally drafted as a catcher, Bird was forced to move to move out from behind the plate following a back injury, and he’s played first base exclusively ever since. Bird’s position on the low end of the defensive spectrum limits his value, but as far as first baseman go, he shouldn’t be bad at all. According to Baseball Prospectus’ minor league FRAA, Bird’s first-base defense has improved from poor to at least average since he moved to the position full-time in 2013.

Bird2

So that’s the word on Greg Bird. There’s an awful lot to like offensively, and he likely won’t be a defensive liability at first base. Troy Tulowitzki, Chase Utley and Edwin Encarnacion all turn up in his Mahalanobis comps, which puts Bird in some mighty fine company. Whether he develops into that type of hitter down the road remains to be seen. But for the 2015 Yankees, he’ll serve as their ninth or tenth position player. He’ll make for a solid alternative on the days Teixeira or A-Rod need a breather, and a potent pinch-hitter on the days they don’t.

It’s very possible that playing everyday in Triple-A would better serve Bird’s development than sitting on the bench four out of every five games. But the Yankees are in the thick of a pennant race with a clear need for a backup first baseman, and everything about Bird’s profile suggests he can help the Yankees win now. And as they say, a Bird in the hand is worth two in the bush. Yeah, I know. Sorry.

We hoped you liked reading Yankees Free (Greg) Bird by Chris Mitchell!

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Chris works in economic development by day, but spends most of his nights thinking about baseball. He writes for Pinstripe Pundits, FanGraphs and The Hardball Times. He's also on the twitter machine: @_chris_mitchell None of the views expressed in his articles reflect those of his daytime employer.

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Patrick L
Guest
Patrick L

Chris,

Your series of prospect projections are my favorite thing that Fangraphs does.

I was wondering if you had ever taken a retrospective look at which players have underperformed/overperformed their Maha projections – i.e. 12 months into his service time, taking a weighted average of the slash lines of the 20 players most like him, has Greg Bird performed better or worse than we might have expected?

Prospect projections are an inexact science, as you’re aware, so I think there’d be great interest in outliers in your dataset with the greatest gap between what we expect and what we end up seeing in the big leagues. Or is there something intuitively wrong about using Maha distance to establish a baseline for future performance?