The 2017 playoffs were stressful. Those 13 games were full of tension, but there are certain identifiable moments that stand above the others. The Yankees entering the bottom of the first inning of the Wild Card Game against the Twins, down by three, with Luis Severino already knocked out was enough to cause heart palpitations. Brett Gardner’s 12-pitch at-bat against the Indians’ Cody Allen in the ninth inning of game five of the ALDS felt like an eternity. But it was Game 3 of the ALDS that took years from every Yankee fan’s life.
On the brink of elimination, the Yankees battled through six and a half scoreless innings to face the seemingly un-hittable Andrew Miller in the bottom of the seventh. Greg Bird stepped to the plate and stared down an unfavorable matchup, knowing that the southpaw was notoriously tough on lefty hitters. Then, Bird turned on a 1-1, 96-mph fastball and sent the Bronx into a frenzy. Even without a World Series ring last year, that home run still holds up as an iconic Yankee playoff moment.
That version of Bird feels like a distant memory now. After starting the year with another stint on the disabled list, Bird returned to the lineup, but never to form. After 305 plate appearances, he’s batting .195/.285/.383 with 11 HR which amounts to an 80 wRC+ and a whopping 0.0 WAR. His shortcomings at the plate this year are well known, so there’s no need to belabor the point. His 2018 campaign has been bad.
Since that heroic October night, Greg Bird The Hero has been replaced by Luke Voit, a name many fans across baseball wouldn’t have known in 2017. Voit has been nothing short of incredible. Since his trade to the Yankees from the Cardinals, Voit is batting .320/.394/.649 which amounts to a 173 wRC+ and 1.2 WAR. He’s even stepped up in the big games, putting on a hitting clinic against the Red Sox’ David Price, going 4-4 with 2 HR during the Yankees 10-1 rout of their division rivals.
Voit’s success has seemed to appear out of thin air. In 70 games across two seasons with the Cardinals, the first baseman hit for a .739 OPS with just 5 HR, compared to a 1.044 OPS and 10 HR in his 30 games with the Yankees. Though it may seem trite, Luke Voit’s success story feels like a “some guys can just play in New York” situation. That idea is backed up by the energy and personality he has injected into the clubhouse in his short time with the team. From his home run crow hop to the directness of his post-game commentary, it’s clear that he is enjoying himself in pinstripes.
As one rises, another falls. Yankee fans’ patience with Greg Bird was dwindling and as the season went on, he was written off as a lost cause. While the emergence of a new folk hero and human embodiment of a rally monkey in Voit was a welcomed breath of fresh air for the team, it essentially put the nail in the coffin for Bird. His playing time has dropped significantly as Aaron Boone continues to go with Voit’s hot bat.
The plan for Bird moving forward is a little unclear. There’s reason to believe that his downtick in performance is an issue of fatigue. With his multiple surgeries finally catching up with him, he may simply need an offseason to rest his body, clear his mind, and come into spring training fresh. But the Yankees are in win-now mode. So, what becomes of Bird down the stretch in 2018?
With three regular season series remaining, Bird doesn’t have a lot of time to argue his case for playing time in the Wild Card Game and (hopefully) beyond. Boone will surely stick with Voit for now, subbing in Neil Walker when facing particularly tough righty pitchers. Walker’s stats aren’t much better than Bird’s on the year, but he might be a better hitter at the moment. He proved that with his timely three-run home run to take the lead against the Red Sox on Tuesday night.
Bird’s defense is far superior to both Voit’s and Walker’s, so it’s likely that he’ll see some time at first in the coming weeks, especially if either of his usurpers starts to struggle at the plate. Otherwise, we may only see him used as a pinch-hitter. His career pinch-hitting stats aren’t astounding (2-12, 3 RBI, 1 BB, 3 K), but it’s a small sample size which is largely irrelevant when it comes to high-pressure playoff at-bats.
He’ll be battling another lefty in Brett Gardner for pinch-hitting time. Gardner has recently found himself as the odd man out in the outfield but remains a strong option for Boone off the bench. A Gardner at-bat is usually a tough one —evidenced by the aforementioned 12-pitch ALDS at-bat— and he comes with the added benefit of excellent speed on the bases, a place where Bird struggles.
Bird is in a precarious position during this late spell of September baseball. Should the Yankees lock up home field advantage in the Wild Card Game with a few games to spare, he could see some more at-bats to try to right the ship before the playoffs and secure Boone’s trust in him as a go-to off the bench. As a Bird defender who fondly remembers that ALDS home run off Miller, it’s hard not to hold out hope for some big moments this October. But until then, the Luke Voit train sure is a fun ride.