The trade deadline has come and gone, but the New York Yankees didn’t make a move to fortify first base, the offensive position from which they have gotten the least production from this season. In fact, they even subtracted a bit by trading Triple-A first baseman Tyler Austin to Minnesota in the Lance Lynn trade.
Clearly, the Yankees have a lot of trust in the duo of Greg Bird and Neil Walker. If I told you in May that Bird and Walker would be the Yankees’ best and only options at first base for the push to the playoffs, I’m sure you would have expressed a bit of concern.
Yet the Yankees have been rewarded for the patience they have shown with Bird and Walker. Neither player had any sustained success in the first half, and had numerous prolonged slumps for different reasons. For Bird, he was injured until Memorial Day and struggled to take flight when he returned. As for Walker, a career .272/.341/.437 switch hitter who could play first, second or third base, he simply struggled taking on the role of a bench player after starting for the last eight years.
These players certainly had track records and the Yankees weren’t going to simply discard them for nothing, but things continued to look bleak through June. Walker compiled just two total hits in June, and while Bird had gotten his power back, he was still just hitting .204 on July 1. Though the Yankees thought about some replacements – they investigated the Mike Moustakas market and traded for Triple-A first baseman Luke Voit – Aaron Boone continued to sing the praises of Bird and Walker.
Finally, the Yankees are reaping the rewards for sticking with Bird and Walker. Though hundreds of fans were quick to call Bird a bust for his injury woes and Walker simply a veteran who had hit the wall, the infielders stepped up as two of the Yankees’ best hitters while the overall lineup slogged through a prolonged cold stretch.
For the month of July, Bird slashed .275/.351/.475 and collected 18 of his 26 overall RBIs in the month. Not to be outdone, Walker extended rallies from the bottom of the lineup, accumulating an incredible triple slash line of .370/.455/.500 in July. While one good month does not necessarily mean that Bird and Walker have truly turned the corner for sure, they have both made improvements in key weaknesses in their game.
The biggest knock on Bird, other than his propensity for injuries, is his struggles hitting left-handed pitching. He has historically had some big moments against southpaws, but hasn’t been as solid overall against lefties as he has been versus righties. He has just two home runs against lefties this year, but his walk and strikeout rates are better against lefties than versus righties. This shows that Bird is working quality at-bats against lefties, and not just selling out for power.
Meanwhile, Walker finally adapted to the role of a utility man. Over the month of July, he has played three different infield positions, served as a designated hitter, and even played two emergency innings in right field. He has also been jockeyed up and down the lineup. While this constant change seemed to throw Walker off a bit earlier in the year, he now looks like the Neil Walker that the Yankees thought they were getting. He works professional at-bats, has good contact and on-base rates, and is hitting to the opposite field a bit more. He still isn’t hitting for much power, but at least he’s hitting.
For the Yankees, getting Bird and Walker back on track couldn’t have come at a better time. Aaron Judge is out for at least the next three weeks, and who knows how strong he will be when he returns to the lineup. In the meantime, Bird and Walker are being counted on to provide length in the Yankees’ order. It just goes to show that players with the track records of Bird and Walker deserve the chance to break out of their slumps, and that usually, things will regress to the mean. For the Yankees, this means that two key players are back at full strength just in time for the stretch run.