The Yankees’ young core of talent has been percolating for years. Gary Sanchez’s name has been known for almost a decade. Aaron Judge was drafted back in 2013. Luis Severino was signed as an amateur free agent in 2011.
Greg Bird was once a part of that youth movement. Members of the Yankee organization went so far as to call Bird that most talented hitter in the system. Bird’s rookie season in 2015 was a success, but the memory of his initial call-up has faded. Bird has turned in consecutive lost seasons, and after a miserable 2018 that saw him usurped by the indomitable Luke Voit, his future is cloudy.
2018 Statistics: 82 games, 311 plate appearances, .199/.286/.386, 11 home runs, 38 RBI, 23 runs, 16 doubles, 28 extra-base hits, -0.6 WAR, 81 wRC+
Contract Status: 1st-year Arbitration Eligible; Free Agent after 2021
After his first, wonderful taste of the big leagues in which he hit .261/.343/.529, it’s been all downhill for Bird. He missed the entirety of the 2016 season after undergoing shoulder surgery. He struggled with a foot injury and ineffectiveness through much of 2017, but a strong finish inspired hope he was figuring things out.
Instead, Bird still never seemed right in 2018. He did battle injuries yet again, and it’s fair to question whether Bird really has ever gotten a fair shot at full health. Regardless, 2018 was another year in which Bird just didn’t produce when he was on the field.
42 first basemen recorded at least 300 plate appearances this season. Bird finished 40th in terms of batting average. He finished 38th in wRC+. Only John Hicks and Joe Mauer hit fewer home runs. Bird’s offensive production at an offense-first position was simply untenable.
Of course, Brian Cashman swiped Voit from the Cardinals at the trade deadline, and Voit’s miraculous performance down the stretch relegated Bird to a footnote. Bird recorded only 42 plate appearances in the season’s final six weeks, posting a 23 wRC+ over that span. That limp to the finish line left Bird out of consideration for the Yankees’ postseason roster.
There was no question by the end of the year that Bird didn’t have a place in the Yankees’ playoff run, but imagine telling a Yankee fan prior to the season that the Yankees would win 100 games, reach the divisional round, and that Bird wouldn’t even make the roster. That fall from grace was enough to qualify Bird was one of our biggest disappointments of the season.
As I noted in our biggest disappointments piece, Bird’s failed season was disappointing not just because of his awful numbers, but the poor process that brought about those numbers. Had Bird exhibited positive overall signs as a hitter, indications that he was just getting unlucky, perhaps his season wouldn’t feel like such a downer. Yet every indication was that Bird was generating the results he deserved.
Bird’s chase rate this year was a career high, as was his groundball rate. His lessened plate discipline led to a higher strikeout rate and lower walk rate than last year. The lower incidence of balls in the air surely helped sap his power.
There are no silver linings here, but the one trend that could help explain Bird’s performance is the Yankees’ at times inexplicable handling of his injuries. Bird underwent surgery on his ankle in late March and missed two months. This was the same ankle that caused Bird problems throughout 2017, and Bird admitted to playing through pain in spring training.
It’s unclear why Bird and the Yankees didn’t opt for surgery earlier, allowing Bird to recover in the offseason and show up in the spring ready to play. Given Bird’s play all year, it’s possible he never truly recovered from surgery. Maybe Bird is just an injury-prone player who will always be hampered by something, but at this point, it doesn’t seem as though he has been put in the best position to succeed from a health standpoint.
Even so, Bird’s season can only be marked as a failure, as a demonstrative step back. It’s a step back that he surely can rebound from, but after two straight bad seasons, the odds are looking slimmer than ever. There’s no telling what the Yankees will decide to do at first base going forward.