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What Mike Ford’s breakout means for the Yankees, Greg Bird

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The emergence of a new, reliable bench bat put the former “best hitter in the system” on eggshells

New York Yankees v Seattle Mariners Photo by Lindsey Wasson/Getty Images

Luke Voit should be back in the Yankee lineup Friday, returning one of the team’s most reliable bats over the past twelve calendar months. Voit’s emergence is an analytical victory; the Yankees gambled that his exit velocity and predisposition to hitting to right field would serve him well at Yankee Stadium, and Voit was blocked by a queue of hitters in St Louis. The gamble has paid off for the Yankees.

Meanwhile, in Voit’s absence there has been another quiet emergence at first base. Mike Ford is finally showing off the stick that led to such great performance at Triple-A Scranton, a 131 wRC+, over the past two years. We’re not going to talk about his home runs or batting average, though, we’re going to talk about his Statcast numbers, and we’ll come back to that in a moment.

The third piece in this first baseman triumvirate is our old friend Greg Bird, last seen rehabbing plantar fasciitis, an injury that has kept him out of all but ten games for the Yankees in 2019. It’s Bird’s fourth season in the big leagues, yet he’s only managed to be on the field for 186 games.

The emergence of Mike Ford puts Bird’s Yankee career in jeopardy, as the Yankees just don’t carry enough bench pieces with their perennial super-bullpen for players with hitting potential but no defensive versatility or game-breaking speed. As the Yankees go year-to-year with Bird, it’s entirely plausible they non-tender him and move forward with Voit and Ford as their first basemen.

The data would tend to support that conclusion, too. We’re obviously dealing with small sample sizes in Ford’s data, so we’re going to isolate the elements that stabilize the quickest: batted ball profile and plate discipline. Slugging or isolated power can fluctuate in small samples, but the core process stats tend to show true talent much faster. Exit velocity, for example, stabilizes right around 60 batted balls, and Ford’s at 83 after Tuesday’s win over Seattle.

Ford’s average exit velocity is 92.1 mph, higher than Bird’s career mark of 89 mph, and virtually identical to Bird’s 93 mph in his short stint of success all the way back in 2015. Max exit velocity, which I like to use as an indicator of a hitter’s ceiling, sees both players hitting their max at 110.2 mph.

Ford’s plate discipline also gives him the nod over Bird, with his 2019 K-BB% of 6.9% better than Bird’s career 16.4%, a mark actually two percentage points lower than his 2015 level. The building blocks of good hitters, and the things you should be looking at when you only have 120 or so plate appearances, all point towards Ford being at least an improvement over Bird’s floor, with perhaps an equivalent ceiling.

So where does this leave Bird? He becomes an obvious non-tender candidate, but he also still has three minor league option years, so the Yankees could stash him in Scranton until they figure out what to do with him. Neither he nor Ford offer much in the way of defense or baserunning, so the Yankees surely can’t carry both on the active roster even with next year’s expansion to 26 men.

Whatever the Yankees do with Bird, there are clear signals his time with New York is drawing to a close. He was the first of the Baby Bomber wave, famously advertised by Brian Cashman as the best bat in the system. We got a glimpse of what he could be when he came in to cover for Mark Teixeira four years ago, but the fact that his performance could be so easily replicated - and even surpassed - by a player like Mike Ford shows just how far Bird has fallen.