The Yankees’ struggles at first base have been well documented this season. Chris Carter has hit some home runs but done little else. Matt Holliday is a good hitter but shouldn’t be allowed to play the field regularly. Austin Romine? No thank you.
In fact, the Yankees have posted the worst production in baseball at first base. Last in wRC+ (58), last in wOBA (.260), tied for 29th in fWAR (-0.8, tied with the Mariners!). For a team with the “Bronx Bombers” moniker, it’s been surprising to see just how bad they’ve been at a position known for its prodigious power.
Enter Greg Bird. The 24-year-old went on the DL after just 19 games this season with a deep bone bruise he suffered in spring training. Bird posted a 137 wRC+ in his rookie season in 2015, and was essentially Ted Williams in spring training prior to his injury. He certainly didn’t hit well at the beginning of the year, but I’m willing to write that off because I believe he was hurt from Opening Day on.
Due to return soon, Bird couldn’t ask for a better situation for himself. The Yankees are first place in the AL East and nobody has stepped up at first base to keep him from that position, meaning Bird should be allowed to run with the first base assignment for the rest of the season.
The question is, how much of a boost to the AL’s second best offense would a healthy Greg Bird be? He doesn’t have enough of a track record to accurately project his production, but we can make some general, safe assumptions: first, that he’s a league average hitter overall, and second, that he’s league average for the position of first base, generally a more powerful hitting position.
Let’s say Bird is simply a league average hitter. What kind of impact would that have on the Yankees lineup? Major league hitters average a 0.3184 wOBA through 2017, so that’s the benchmark we’ll use.
wOBA, for those who don’t know, is a rate metric that attempts to coagulate a player’s entire offensive production by assigning linear weights to all possible outcomes of a plate appearance (a double is weighted more than a walk, etc). It’s generally superior to OPS because it properly assigns weights for offensive outcomes.
A 20-point change up or down in wOBA is generally worth about 10 runs over an entire season, therefore one-point change is worth about a half a run. Yankee first basemen have managed a .260 wOBA in 2017.
If Greg Bird were to be league average, and post a wOBA equal to .3184, that would represent a .0584 increase over what the team is currently managing. This leads to roughly 29 runs more over a full season than what the team is currently producing. Greg Bird’s not going to play a full season, but rather about half of June and (hopefully) the three months after that, for about 350 plate appearances if healthy. That means, league-average Greg Bird would produce (29 x (350/600)) = 16.92 runs more than the Yankees are currently scoring.
FanGraphs assesses that a win is worth about nine runs, so league-average Greg-Bird would be worth about two more wins for the Yankees than they could currently expect. That may not sound like a lot, but when a team is in a dogfight of a division, two wins can make a huge difference.
But what if Greg Bird posts a position-average wOBA? We know that first basemen are better hitters than league average, and in fact, in 2017 first basemen have managed a .3482 wOBA, and in 2016 they were good for a .3349 wOBA. For the sake of this analysis, let’s split the difference and say first basemen can manage a .340 wOBA.
Simple math means that a position-average Greg-Bird would be worth 40 more runs than current production over a full season. With the same 350 expected PAs, Bird would produce (40 * (350/600)) = 23.33 runs for the rest of the season. That works out to between 2-3 wins over the remainder of a season.
A central tenant of sabremetrics is that “you gain more from not being stupid than you do from being smart”. Simply put, the difference between bad and average is greater than the difference between average and good. The Yankees gain the most from Bird going from bad to a league-average hitter, and then there are diminishing returns as he approaches position-average.
All in all, a healthy, average Greg Bird would be a huge boost to the lineup, and the team doesn’t even need him to be all that good to be better than the entire season’s first base production. Get back soon Bird, and when you do, just be okay, and I think we’ll all be happy.
Stats courtesy of FanGraphs