Shoulder injuries are not very fun. Shoulder injuries that lead to toiling in the heat of extended spring training in Tampa are even less fun. Greg Bird found himself in this unfortunate situation for a month after injuring his right shoulder in early May. I asked him what his field trip to extended spring was like after Saturday's 6-2 win over Harrisburg. Before he could answer, Brendan Ryan (who himself had just finished a bout of rehab in Tampa with Bird) interjected from a nearby locker with an exclamation of "Awful! The worst place ever!" All Bird could do was chuckle. Tampa is a brutal place to be this time of the year, and the beginnings of this summer have been a particularly steamy couple of months.
"It's tough," Bird said. "It's hot, it's the same thing every day, it doesn't really change. It's tough... I mean playing in it was probably one of the harder things in professional baseball [that I've experienced] so far. It's a grind." At long last, however, Bird is back with the Trenton Thunder and hitting like he's never left. In his first game back with the team, he singled against Binghamton. After a day off to rest the shoulder a bit more, Bird went 2-4 and drove in two runs on a single the other way with the bases loaded. Then on Sunday he added a double and a walk, and made a couple of pretty plays at first.
It's a return to form for one of the best first base prospects in all of baseball. His batting average had fallen badly before his injury. Part of it was some bad BABIP luck and part of it was a balky shoulder. While some feel that Bird will never hit for a high average, a batting average in the .230 range just isn't him. The big man from Colorado is often hailed as one of the most intelligent and cerebral hitters in the Minor Leagues for a reason. His impressive 15.5% walk-rate in 27 games at the Double-A level last year speaks to how he approaches hitting. Bird isn't a wild-swinging, power-only prospect. He's a student of the game who loves to talk hitting with any major leaguers he finds himself with.
"I just like watching good hitters," he responded when I asked if there are any hitters he models himself after. "People ask, ‘Oh who's your favorite player? Who's your favorite hitter?' I don't have one. I just like watching good hitters. They all do everything a little different. So I think you can learn a little bit from each guy. But we've got a lot of good ones here, on our big league team, and some that I've gotten to talk to, so it's been great to pick their brains and hearing what they do. You don't have to do everything everyone else says, but it's fun to hear what other guys have to say and if you like it, use it, and if not throw it out. But it's good to just hear it."
When he's on, Bird wields his maple MaxBat i13 like an artist's paintbrush. He can spray line drives just as easily as he can hammer home runs. The reigning Arizona Fall League MVP pushed his way onto the national prospect scene last year with a mixture of discipline and power that produced a .271/.376/.472 line, 63 walks and 14 homers in 441 plate appearances between Tampa and Trenton. That got people's attention for sure, but Bird became a name to watch to the causal prospect follower after this bomb in Arizona:
When I asked what advice he would give to little leaguers about hitting, he was very quick to respond with "Discipline."
He continued by saying; "I think discipline is something that's carried me a long way, and I think it's something that you develop early, and I think it's something that's kinda missing in kids coming up. With the scholarships and the draft, I feel like kids are throwing hard and hitting far. But there's not much emphasis on the little things in baseball right now, in my opinion, so I would say just that kind of thing. Discipline. Plate discipline, having an approach. Knowing what you're swinging at, don't hack on it."
It's that thoroughness that got him noticed when scouts came to a Colorado high school to take a look at Kevin Gausman. Bird was his catcher, and he quickly caught their eye. If he makes the Majors, it too will be what carries him there. Some, including the great former Thunder manager (and now Thunder Hall of Fame member) Tony Franklin believe that Bird is very close to being ready. If he doesn't get a cup of coffee in September, it won't be long before Bird ascends to the Bronx in 2016. Greg Bird is indeed the word.
Nicolas Stellini is a staff writer at Pinstripe Alley, where he writes about the Yankees and covers the Double-A Trenton Thunder. His national coverage can be found at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @StelliniTweets.