And Your Bird Can Swing: Meet the Yankees’ Latest Budding SuperstarJim McIsaac/Getty Images
“It blows my mind that he doesn’t get more love,” said Yankees pro scouting manager Will Kuntz when I brought up Greg Bird in September 2013, after the minor league first baseman’s slash line had warmed my stathead’s heart. In his first full professional season, the lefty had hit .288/.428/.511 with 20 home runs in 573 plate appearances despite playing home games in one of the toughest hitter’s parks in the South Atlantic League. (On the road, Bird hit .328/.470/.608.) Park-adjusted metrics pegged it as the best offensive performance by anyone with at least 400 PA in A-ball that year, beating out big-time prospects like Josh Bell, Joey Gallo, and Carlos Correa. And Bird didn’t turn 21 until after the season, which meant he’d spent the summer comfortably below the league-average age of 21.6. Only 15 percent of his plate appearances came against pitchers who were younger than he was.
Some team executives tend to pump up their own players, either out of a conscious attempt to inflate their value or an unconscious outgrowth of the endowment effect. Kuntz, who left the Yankees last year to become the director of player relations for Major League Soccer, has no such incentives now, but he still raves about Bird. “Best plate discipline I’d ever seen in the minors,” Kuntz recalls. “Knew the strike zone better than the umpires.” Kuntz put a future 501 on Bird when he saw him in 2013, projecting him as an average major leaguer. He might have been even more bullish if he’d been given a glimpse of the power Bird has displayed since his big league debut on August 13, and especially since a shin fracture ended Mark Teixeira’s season at the end of last month.
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Bird’s game-winning three-run shot in the 10th inning in Toronto on Tuesday made him the 24th player since 1914 to hit at least 10 home runs in his first 34 career games. The previous 23 include legends like Albert Pujols, Willie McCovey, and Orlando Cepeda, as well as less accomplished players whose early home run prowess still proved real, like Adam Dunn, Chris Davis, and Jose Abreu. But the list also includes plenty of players who fizzled after fluky starts, two of whom are familiar to Yankees fans: Kevin Maas and Shane Spencer, whose 13- and 11-homer introductions made them sensations in 1990 and 1998. Maas and Spencer lasted only four and six seasons beyond their debut years, respectively, and neither did much else to stand out, save for airmailing the throw that set up Derek Jeter’s famous flip play.
But two crucial factors distinguish Bird from Maas and Spencer: draft round and debut age. Maas was a 22nd-round pick, Spencer a 28th-rounder. Bird was drafted in the fifth round in 2011, and even that undersells him: The Yankees gave the University of Arkansas commit a $1.1 million bonus, more than eight times the recommended slot value. Only Bell, a Scott Boras advisee who was so set on attending the University of Texas that he sent a letter to the Major League Scouting Bureau telling teams not to draft him, outdid his draft slot by a higher percentage that year, signing with Pittsburgh for a second-round-record $5 million. “We paid [Bird] like we really liked him,” Yankees assistant GM Billy Eppler says. More importantly, Maas was 25 in his debut season and Spencer was 26. The 6-foot-3 Bird, who was drafted as a catcher but moved almost immediately because of health concerns and his height, is still 22. The earlier a player makes it to the majors, the better his long-term outlook.
Eight of Bird’s homers have come with runners on base, and six have put the Yankees ahead, yielding an unshabby .357/.439/.857 line in 66 PA with men on. And his three biggest games by Win Probability Added — all of which the Yankees won by one or two runs — came against wild-card/division-race rivals Toronto and Minnesota, an efficient way to endear oneself to a ring-crazy crowd. While that’s too small a sample to anoint him the new Captain Clutch, it supports his reputation for rarely getting rattled. Bird seems focus-tested and tailored to appeal to the get-off-my-lawn subset of any baseball fan base: He doesn’t use Twitter, doesn’t visibly celebrate, and gives interviews with Mauer-esque politeness, polish, and hair product. He drives an F-150 and likes fishing, but he says his favorite activity is to “come back to the field.” He’s the Yankee you can bring home to dinner with that special someone in your life who likes their sports served without the messy emotions.
Bird gives himself a good chance to go deep with a swing that leads to a lot of elevation. The rookie’s ground ball pull rate puts him in the 80th percentile among hitters with at least 100 plate appearances, and he’s already been shifted against in 39 percent of his trips to the plate. But the shift is less of a threat to him than it is to other lefty sluggers, because only 28.6 percent of Bird’s batted balls have been on the ground, continuing a trend of extreme grounder avoidance throughout his career in the minors. If Bird had enough at-bats to qualify, only Lucas Duda would have a lower ground ball rate among 2015 big leaguers. “I like to stay inside of the ball,” Bird says. “I don’t want the barrel to get out ahead of my hands, necessarily, and I guess that produces more fly balls.”
Bird doesn’t show that pronounced pull tendency on his balls in the air; he’s hit only 28 percent of his liners and flies toward right field, which puts him in the 46th percentile. He’s yet to get a gift from Yankee Stadium’s short right-field fence, and he’s not trying to aim for the easy target. “It’s a hard enough game to be worrying about, ‘Oh, I gotta hit it there for this field, I gotta hit it there for this field,’” Bird says. “I just try and hit it, and hit it hard.” Thus far, he’s hit it harder than almost everyone else. Among batters who’ve put at least 60 balls in play this season, the top of Statcast’s exit velocity rankings read Giancarlo Stanton (97.7 mph), Bird (94.2), and Miguel Sano (94.0). “We’ve always seen him strike the ball extremely hard,” Eppler says. “A lot of times when you start talking about exit velocity, it rewards guys that have a very good approach, because the balls that they’re putting in play, because of their discipline levels, tend to be balls that are more in their area of impact.” Bird’s strength wasn’t lost on the Yankees’ scouts. “On the floor, guys were putting 60 raw power on him, and we’ve had up to 75 raw power on him,” Eppler says.
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Bird is tied with Davis for the AL home run lead in September, joining Joc Pederson, Maikel Franco, Sano, and Kyle Schwarber among rookies who’ve had eight-homer months in an unprecedented year for young talent. That’s a fivesome straight out of Sesame Street: The four non-Yankees have all been top-20 prospects on one of Baseball America’s preseason rankings, but Bird never made a top 100 list at Baseball America, Baseball Prospectus, MLB.com, or FanGraphs. After Bird’s breakout 2013, only one of seven Baseball America staffers put him in his personal top 150. Even after his MVP performance in the Arizona Fall League, only a pair of prominent prospect rankers bumped him up this spring: Minor League Ball’s John Sickels had him 58th, and ESPN’s Keith Law had him 80th. Law doubted his defense — evaluations of which range from slightly below average to slightly above — but he wasn’t worried about the bat. “The high walk totals weren’t Jeremy Hermida passivity, but an advanced approach that seemed likely to generate solid OBPs and get him to power counts,” Law says.
Stats-based models picked up on Bird’s potential early. Tony Blengino, a former Brewers and Mariners analyst who now writes for FanGraphs, generates simple prospect rankings based on statistical performance relative to level and league. His system pegged Bird as the 17th-best prospect in baseball after 2013. “The offensive bar is extremely high for bat-first/bat-only first base prospects, and rightly so,” Blengino says. “However, Bird’s combination of youth and raw power coupled with physical projection and plate discipline was always quite attractive to me.” Bird also impressed NEIFI, a player-evaluation system developed by former Brewers manager of baseball research and development Adam Guttridge and licensed to MLB teams. NEIFI — named after Neifi Perez, a highly rated prospect who went on to be one of the 10 worst post-dead-ball hitters to accumulate at least 2,500 PA2 — rated Bird among the Yankees’ best prospects after 2013 and projects him to produce 2.7 WAR per season at his peak, which would make him a slightly above-average regular.3 The system also expects Bird to produce the fourth-most surplus value during his team-control years of any player on the Yankees’ current 40-man roster, which is light on inexpensive studs.
None of this is news to the Yankees. Kuntz remembers Bird being at or near the top of the team’s internal rankings heading into 2014, which Eppler confirms. “We always had him very high in our rankings,” Eppler says. “When we would go into the trade deadline or the winter meetings, a lot of us were praying another team didn’t bring up his name.” Bird didn’t mind going undrafted in dynasty leagues as long as he felt appreciated by his employers. “The prospect list doesn’t get you to the big leagues,” Bird says. “The Yankees — the people who matter — knew, and I knew that.” If he’s ever insecure about his public prospect pedigree, all he has to do is look at the enclosure to his left, tucked behind an island of lockers added to accommodate an expanded-roster army of generic relievers. Bird’s clubhouse neighbor is Brett Gardner, another selective swinger who never appeared on a top-100 list but ranks among the top 25 position players by Baseball-Reference WAR since his first full season in 2009, despite missing almost all of 2012.
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Some scouts have comped Bird to Nick Johnson, another Yankees first baseman who debuted at age 22 with preternatural plate discipline that earned him the nickname “OBP Jesus.” Johnson, who ranked fifth on Baseball America’s overall list in 2000, was a better defender and hit for higher averages, but Bird has better raw power. “I never got to see him play, really,” Bird says. “I saw his name and his picture a lot in Trenton.” No one saw Johnson play as much as his teams would have liked him to, because of an endless succession of injuries that shortened his career. Bird lost time to the DL in 2012 and 2014, but his formerly troublesome back hasn’t bothered him in 2015, which he credits to improved preparation, physical maturation, and another year removed from being behind the plate.
Even if Bird settles in as a solid regular instead of the star he’s looked like so far, he’ll give the Yankees something they’ve lacked lately: a productive, cost-controlled player who spares them the price of paying for a declining free agent or giving playing time to another team’s incompetent castoff. Yankees GM Brian Cashman believes that “everybody is replaceable,” but thanks to a fallow farm system, that hasn’t always been true. From 2006 to 2014, the Yankees received only 3.8 WAR from rookie position players, the third-lowest total among major league teams. Last season, Yankees first basemen not named Teixeira hit .215/.293/.326 in 191 plate appearances. It could have killed the Yankees’ stretch run if those struggles had reoccurred when the resurgent switch-hitter went down. Instead, Bird — who started in the cleanup slot in his third big league game — has almost perfectly replicated Teixeira’s production, although he’s also exacerbated the lineup’s leftward lean.
Bird’s prescription for becoming a better hitter is simple — “swing at more strikes and take more balls” — but he hasn’t left himself much room for improvement. His rate of swings at pitches outside the strike zone (23.5 percent) is well below average, and his percentage of swings at pitches inside the zone (67.2) is well above average. Bird’s zone-swing-rate-to-chase-rate ratio trails that of only five qualified hitters: Dexter Fowler, Joey Votto, Andrew McCutchen, Carlos Santana, and Shin-Soo Choo.
“The first thing that you gravitate to is the behavior in the batter’s box, which is a very mature and polished approach,” Eppler says. “And it was a very mature and polished approach at age 19.” Eppler didn’t see Bird — a Memphis native who grew up in Aurora, Colorado — hit in high school, but the Yankees’ amateur staff watched closely while he caught more highly touted teammate Kevin Gausman. Eppler first saw footage of Bird in the draft room. “Looking at him on video, I was seeing exactly what all of those guys were saying,” he remembers. He got a firsthand look the following year. “I was down in Tampa prior to the draft, and I’m watching him play in an extended spring game, and it was exactly as the amateur reports read. I talked to Will later that day, and I said, ‘Bird’s a guy. This is a guy.’” Bird had the same effect on Alex Rodriguez, who took note of the new guy in the midst of this year’s spring training circus. “Alex asked me early on, ‘Hey, who’s that?’” Eppler says. When Eppler told him, Rodriguez responded, “That’s one hell of an approach right there.”
Rodriguez might be in Bird’s way in 2016: Whether the Yankees use the youngster at first, DH him, or try him in an outfield corner (which he has the arm for), Bird will be blocked by an overpaid player. But between an over-40 A-Rod, a 39-year-old Carlos Beltran, and a 36-year-old Teixeira who’s missed significant time in four consecutive seasons, playing time will materialize.
According to Eppler, Bird knows his swing so well that he often anticipates the tweaks the team recommends. “My feedback from the coaches is, ‘Greg already knows. By the time we talk to him, he already knows.’” The Yankees hope he’ll also stay ahead of his opponents, who’ll be trying to make adjustments as they ramp up advance scouting in preparation for the playoffs. “I would bet on him making them back,” Eppler says.