After another season mired in injury and disappointment, Greg Bird continues to stand out as one of the most perplexing players on the Yankees. Once a budding prospect considered by some as the cream of the crop among the Baby Bombers crew, three consecutive seasons riddled with injuries and ineffectiveness have resulted in plummeting expectations and mounting frustration.
Bird’s 135 OPS+ during his first big league season in 2015 seems like a lifetime ago. Sure, Bird has flashed brilliance, during his late-season surge in September of 2017, capped off by his .964 OPS in the ALCS, but since then, it’s been more DL visits and hitless outings. Things came to a head last year as Bird turned in an OPS+ of just 79 in 272 at-bats. For many, the sample size was enough to call for an end to the Bird experiment, especially after Luke Voit stormed onto the scene and stole his job. Now, Bird will have to fight for his role come spring.
When Bird begins gearing up for that fight, he may want to consider getting back to what made him such a promising player, and use that power pull swing to feast on Yankee Stadium’s lefty-friendly right field porch.
Bird was such a coveted piece of the Yankee puzzle because of his lefty bat, one that was supposed to bring balance to the righty-heavy Yankee lineup, not leave it in darkness. Anyway, Bird hasn’t been that, and in fact, he ventured even further away from that identity in the second half of last season. He struggled upon his return from the DL, and in his first full month back, hit to a .208 BABIP, while pulling almost 60 percent of his balls in play. Whether that rough stretch took Bird out of his pull-minded stroke at the plate or not, he seemed to change his approach as the season went on, and it didn’t fare well for him.
Perhaps looking to hit more to all fields, Bird’s percentage on balls in play hit to the opposite field increased by nine percent in the second half of the season, while his pull percentage dropped 16 percent. We saw a couple instances where a sneaky bunt from Bird helped him reach base, but the Yankees would prefer to see some balls sent out into the Judge’s Chambers in the right field seats. Bird’s opposite field mindset resulted in a 51 wRC+ over the second half of the season, compared to a 107 wRC+ in the first half. The sample sizes were just about identical, but the results were obviously not.
An explanation for Bird’s change in approach could be the strategy deployed against him, meaning more shifts. In 2017, Bird was shifted against 56.5 percent of the time, per StatCast. In 2018, that jumped to 78.6 percent. Bird seemed to take the bait from defenses last year, and it didn’t work out so well. Of course, he could go back to just hitting it over everyone’s heads to solve the shift problem.
It’s important to acknowledge Bird’s humanity in all of his struggles. He’s seen quick bursts of success in New York, but has also labored through multiple injuries, and even unfair scrutiny from Yankee executives who accused him of not wanting to play with the guys he came through the minor league ranks with. Bird likely hears all of this, and after struggling upon his return from another injury last year, may have tried a drastic change in his approach to avoid more scrutiny, only to churn himself further into a pile of quicksand. It may be best for Bird to get back to his roots, embrace the launch angle craze, and take aim towards the right field foul pole. Expectations will be down for Bird in 2019, and if he wants to surprise people, he should go back to what helped him surprise everyone back in 2015.