If you’re still a Greg Bird fan at this point, I tip my hat to you and your tenacity. For the uninitiated, it’s simply been too long since Bird was a credible big leaguer for a semi-extended period of time (2015), and even his last gasp of glory (his homer off of Andrew Miller in Game Three of the 2017 ALDS) seems like a distant memory.
Now, Bird has landed on the injured list yet again with a left plantar fascia tear, after bursting out of the gate with a .171/.293/.257 line (54 wRC+) over 41 plate appearances. He may yet still have potential, but that’s the only thing keeping him on this team, and that may not be the case for too long.
In Bird’s absence, the Yankees have called up longtime farmhand Mike Ford from the RailRiders to share first base and designated hitter duties with the indomitable Luke Voit. Ford, who is four months older than Bird, has never enjoyed the prospect status that Bird has, toiling in relative obscurity while putting up quietly impressive minor league numbers.
At first glance, Ford and Bird may look similar. They’re both left-handed hitting first basemen who run like fire hydrants and are nothing special with the glove. Yet Ford differs from Bird in two important ways that should help him avoid completely falling apart. First, he has much stronger plate discipline, and second, he has far less drastic platoon splits. These traits should provide Ford with a higher floor than Bird, and ensure that the Yankees don’t have a black hole at first base or designated hitter.
So, about Ford’s plate discipline — he has a lot of it. No, I’m not just talking about his walk rate; Ford’s career 13.4% walk rate in the minors, while impressive, pales slightly in comparison to Bird’s 15.2% mark. Where Ford truly sets himself apart is his avoidance of strikeouts. The Princeton graduate has struck out in only 14% of his minor league plate appearances, a world apart from Bird’s 20.5%.
Though Ford’s time in the majors has been extremely short, his MLB plate discipline numbers are much stronger than Bird’s, too. Over 32 plate appearances, Ford has swung at pitches outside of the strike zone just 19% of the time, while whiffing in just 5.6% of his swings. In comparison, Bird’s career marks are 26% and 11.3%, respectively. In sum, Ford is far better than Bird at laying off balls, avoiding strikeouts, and making contact.
What’s more, Ford has much less drastic platoon splits than Bird. In the minors, Bird struggled to hit same-handed pitching, posting an OPS of just .704 against southpaws in 2014 and .733 in 2015. For what it’s worth, Bird’s platoon splits have strangely reversed in the major leagues, as he owns a .202/.290/.408 line (87 wRC+) against right-handers while hitting for a 120 wRC+ against lefties.
In comparison, Ford’s platoon splits have generally been much more even. In 2017, Ford ran an OPS of .888 against right-handers and .842 against southpaws. The year before, his OPS was .907 against righties and .836 against lefties. Admittedly, last year Ford did poorly against lefties, posting only a .667 OPS against them. Looking at the bigger picture, however, it’s safe to say that Ford has done better against same-handed pitching than Bird has.
Essentially, Ford has both better plate discipline and platoon splits than Bird does. These traits should help him produce more consistently; his plate discipline should allow him to take his walks even when his hits aren’t falling and avoid going on strikeout streaks. His competence against same-handed pitching should allow Boone to plug him into the lineup even against lefties. At the very least, Ford should be able to avoid the black hole that Greg Bird has recently been for the Yankees. That’s really all we’re asking for here.