Remember how the New York Yankees were supposed to be going through a short rebuild? Yea, I don’t either.
Behind the play of guys like Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Didi Gregorius, and Luis Severino, the Baby Bombers found themselves one win away from their first World Series appearance since 2009 this past year. And just in case you thought expectations could potentially get tempered, general manager Brian Cashman ramped them up by acquiring Giancarlo Stanton right before the Winter Meetings.
They’re also on the hunt for a third baseman and upgrades to the rotation, so they clearly see their window with this current group and are seemingly going for it with reckless abandon.
Much will be made about the tremendous power this lineup will have by featuring Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez, and rightfully so — it’s terrifying. You know who stands to be a crucial piece to this offense, though? First baseman Greg Bird.
An Envious Lineup Spot
Opposing pitchers are going to have a tough time navigating the Yankees’ lineup on a daily basis, no matter what first-year manager Aaron Boone decides to do. The depth of this group gives him so many potential permutations that he must be feeling giddy about it.
One possible outcome, though, could lead to Judge hitting second, Stanton third, and Sanchez settling into the fifth spot, with Bird finding himself in the middle of them all as the cleanup hitter, per Roster Resource. And something like that makes plenty of sense.
Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez all performed quite well against right-handed pitching in 2017, but them all hitting on the same side of the plate could make it easier for opposing managers to attack them with certain hurlers out of the bullpen. Inserting the left-handed hitting Bird would break up the righty sluggers, forcing teams to plan around that.
A Rough Year Overall, But a Solid Ending
It’s just about impossible to sugarcoat a season that yielded an 86 wRC+ and -0.4 fWAR. However, context is always important when discussing a player’s performance, and that couldn’t be more true with Bird.
Putting stock into Spring Training numbers is never a good thing, but there likely wasn’t one person not excited about Bird’s ceiling after watching him slash .451/.556/1.098 with more walks (12) than strikeouts (10) in 51 Grapefruit League at-bats. Unfortunately, his regular season got off to a horrendous start before getting shelved for most of the year with a right ankle bruise.
When he was finally activated off the disabled list, though, he was what the Yankees were hoping for. The below table splits his 2017 into two parts — his first 72 plate appearances in April and May, followed by the final 98 prior to the playoffs starting.
His hard-hit rate actually went from 42.1% to 33.3% during this time, which is the opposite of what we’d expect. However, it shouldn’t be shocking that Bird benefited from hitting more line drives — his fly-ball rate went from 59.5% to 47.8%, with the majority of that difference going straight to his line-drive rate (10.8% to 21.7%).
And after finishing the regular season off with a flourish such as this, it was more of the same during his first extensive run in the postseason. Sure, the strikeout rate climbed up to 31.5%, but it’s a lot more manageable when accompanied by a 22.2% walk rate, .268 ISO, .399 wOBA, and 151 wRC+.
Some Similar Peripherals
Comparing Bird’s regular-season peripherals from this past year to his 2015 rookie season can be tough since the overall stats are weighed down by that horrific start, but there are still some interesting things worth pointing out.
Outside of a drop in hard-hit rate (44.8% to 36.4%), there are a number of statistics that look similar to 2015, when he impressed to the tune of a .268 ISO, .372 wOBA, 137 wRC+, and 0.9 fWAR in just 178 plate appearances. The below table shows how his line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%), fly-ball rate (FB%), and pull rate (Pull%) have looked throughout his short big league career.
So if we’re speaking in generalities, Bird is still a similar kind of hitter when he puts the ball in play — that being a dude who likes to pull the ball a lot while getting it in the air most of the time.
Where the young left-handed hitter did see a noticeable improvement was his approach. His walk rate went from 10.7% (which was already great) to 11.2%, while he cut his strikeout rate down from 29.8% to a more palatable 24.7%. This improvement can be seen in his plate-discipline numbers, too.
Bird cut his chase rate down from 26.5% to 20.4%, along with getting slightly more aggressive in the strike zone (67.3% to 68.8%). The corresponding contact rates didn’t follow suit, but don’t forget about his terrible start. Plus, hitters need to be confident in the process, knowing that results will eventually come — which is what happened for Bird.
Allowing New York Flexibility
Although he hasn’t even sniffed a full season’s worth of plate appearances yet in a single year, the Yankees are clearly confident in his abilities. If there were major concerns, they probably wouldn’t have traded Chase Headley away and would be hotter on Todd Frazier‘s tail in free agency.
Frazier could very well still re-sign with the club, but having him plug a hole at third and potentially be a backup plan at first seemingly isn’t a priority for the front office.
This allows New York to pursue other options with the room they’ve created under the luxury tax threshold, which includes inquiries about players like Manny Machado, Evan Longoria, Gerrit Cole, and Chris Archer. And if Bird follows through on his promise in 2018, Cashman can focus on other potential areas of need when it comes to midseason pickups.
The Yankees have a very deep and powerful lineup on tap to take the field this season. A ton of attention will be on New York’s big three of Judge, Stanton, and Sanchez, but Bird is just as important — if not potentially more — to the overall performance of this offense.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at FanDuel Insider, numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s a lover of all baseball, especially the Mets.