It’s hard to think of Greg Bird as a rookie. He made his debut in the second half of 2015, and exceeded the technical rookie status that same season. He missed all of 2016, however, and only played 48 games down the stretch last season. His 61 g ames so far in 2018 have him at 155 for his career, pretty much one full “season” worth in the big leagues. He’s not a rookie in the technical sense, but only has one real season under his belt.
Evaluators touted Bird as the vanguard of the Baby Bombers movement, while some even described as the best hitter in a burgeoning minor league system. Injury and talent have left him behind Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and the younger Gleyber Torres and Miguel Andujar in the pecking order. More than that, however, he hasn’t shown an ability to play at the level expected of a major league first baseman. He’s even become more and more a platoon bat, something that the team was expressly against when he made his debut.
A lot of Bird’s struggles can be chalked up to his injury history and incomplete playing time, of course. One needs to only look at Neil Walker and Lance Lynn to see the impact that a full season of spring training and constant repetition has, and what happens to players who miss that. Unfortunately for Bird though, there are some deeper process problems with him as a player.
It makes sense to begin with the most basic building block of offensive power: hitting the ball hard. Exit velocity and barrel percentage are nifty new ways of telling us things we already knew in evaluating players. If a batter makes consistent, elite-level hard contact, they’ll be rewarded with more hits, especially more extra-base hits. It’s why those who doubted Giancarlo Stanton early in his Bronx tenure were being silly, and why most people are optimistic that Gary Sanchez will be just fine when he returns. Both players make all-world types of contact. If they do that often enough, the ball will travel the way we know it can.
The problem with Bird, however, is that he doesn’t make elite-level hard contact. Of all players with at least 100 batted ball events, he ranks in the 40th percentile of average exit velocity, right along luminaries like Kevin Pillar and Martin Prado. Also concerning is the angle the ball at which the ball jumps off the bat.
The optimal launch angle for a hitter is between 20-35 degrees. Bird’s batted balls tend to coalesce around 20, but the thing about averaging 20 degrees is about half your balls will be below that, where good things almost never happen. Pair that with a less than stellar 89 mph average exit velocity, and one can expect Bird’s batted ball results to have this as mediocre baseline.
What you get are a lot of easy fly outs, and the occasional double. Bird’s not exactly fleet of foot, so we probably won’t see much of that from him with this profile. Now compare that to the baseline profile of someone like Aaron Judge:
Judge hits the ball much harder than Bird, and even though his average launch angle is lower, he still has a much better average or baseline of performance. Of course Judge is quickly becoming the crown jewel of the Yankees’ player development, so I don’t expect Bird to be as good as he is. It does, however, illustrate a fundamental difference between the two players’ careers thus far; Judge just puts himself in better situations for positive offensive results.
What makes Bird’s struggles with velocity and launch angle curious is that he doesn’t have a problem making contact in a general sense. He has an overall contact rate of 76.9%, virtually equal to the league median of 77.6%. He chases more pitches out of the zone now than he did last year, but at the same rate as his excellent 2015 debut. In short, Bird’s able to get the bat on the ball, just not in the way you want.
Contact rate generally stabilizes pretty early for a player. It’s an inherent part of their process and approach at the plate. Exit velocity and launch angles, however, can be improved and optimized throughout a player’s career. Didi Gregorius, Josh Donaldson and JD Martinez have all evaluated how they hit the ball, and made the tweaks and changes necessary to take them all from the 25th man on a major league roster to bonafide stars. Bird is only 25, there’s lots of time for him to adapt and improve. At one “full” year in the bigs, though, it’s hard to say he’s lived up to expectations.