Yankees first baseman Greg Bird reacts after striking out against the Tampa Bay Rays on Aug. 15, 2018, at Yankee Stadium.

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Murti: A Contrarian Case For The Yankees Sticking With Greg Bird

History Suggests 1B Might Not Be Lost Cause

Sweeny Murti
August 31, 2018 - 9:19 am
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This seems like the least opportune time to tell anyone that Greg Bird still has the ability to be a good player. Which is exactly why I wanted to try.

I mean, how hard is it right now to opine that it’s time for the Yankees to give up on Bird? That’s an easy argument to back up and may indeed be the right answer. But you have to work a little harder to find the reasons not to give up on him yet.

This is without a doubt a lost season for Bird. Yankees fans have grown tired of hearing about potential or waiting for the first baseman to duplicate the late-season power he showed in 2015 and 2017. 

All summer long, scouts and executives from other teams have asked me, “What’s wrong with Bird?” It’s a mystery to everyone what exactly has taken Bird off the rails. And it reminded me of a key element here. Bird isn’t an overhyped prospect who didn’t cut it. People from teams all over the league were convinced Bird was every bit the hitter as Aaron Judge or Gary Sanchez, maybe better.

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Speaking of Bird and the White Sox’s Yoan Moncada — once ranked the top prospect in all of baseball but struggling to find his groove — one MLB veteran told me this week, “The whole industry can’t be wrong.”

So the most important question the Yankees face is whether or not they are ready to move on, whether or not they feel like they can no longer wait for Bird to take off (pun intended). 

It’s hard to point to anything that you’ve seen this year and make you believe it is something other than what it is. This has been a very bad year for Bird. What could possibly make the Yankees believe they shouldn’t give up on him yet? That’s what I went looking for. And here is what I found.

Bird entered this week with 636 career plate appearances over 167 games and a slash line of .214/.303/.438. The slugging percentage stands out — thanks to 31 home runs and 29 doubles — and gives him a career OPS of .741. Bird is in his age-25 season and will turn 26 in November.

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Here are the career lines of four other players through their age 25 seasons:
A) .274/.329/376, .705 OPS in 1,551 PA and 363 games.
B) .251/.300/.387, .687 OPS in 975 PA and 252 games.
C) .225/.306/.349, .655 OPS in 928 PA in 247 games.
D) .253/.316/.368, .683 OPS in 1,302 PA in 341 games.

Player A is Michael Brantley, who has spent his entire major league career with the Indians. They showed patience with his ability, sticking with a decent average hitter without significant power and watched him turn into an All-Star and MVP candidate at age 27.

Player B is J.D. Martinez, who the Astros released after seeing those numbers over three years. Martinez also became an All-Star at 27 and is now a Triple Crown and MVP candidate in his age 30 season.

Player C is Aaron Hicks, who was a first-round draft pick by the Twins, but after parts of three big league seasons was traded to the Yankees and at ages 27-28 improved his OPS nearly two hundred points.

Player D is Didi Gregorius. His numbers actually include his first year as a Yankee in 2015, as well as his time in Cincinnati and Arizona. He has followed that up with three straight seasons of 20 home runs and increased his OPS each season.

All four of those players had significantly more games played and at-bats at the same age before their production caught up to their ability. In the case of Brantley, the Indians were rewarded for their patience. The Astros let Martinez go for nothing, while the Twins and Diamondbacks both traded their players to make room for the next prospect and look for some payback on the potential they first invested in.

If you’d like to discard Bird’s flashes of success, it’s pretty easy to dig up comps like Kevin Maas and other rise-and-fall stars. But it’s important to note the turnarounds of Hicks and Gregorius by the time they turned 26 and 27. And I look at them specifically because the same guys who believed Hicks and Gregorius would be good players are the same ones who believe in Bird. That would be Yankees general manager Brian Cashman and his team in baseball operations.

Just how far they are willing to carry that belief will be tested this offseason. With the luxury-tax rate ready to be reset and increase the Yankees spending power again, it’s not hard to imagine Bryce Harper, Daniel Murphy or another established free agent slugger playing first base for the Yankees in 2019. Or perhaps you like Toronto first baseman Justin Smoak, who was Seattle’s version of Bird when he compiled a .223/.306/.377 (.683 OPS) line in 355 games and 1,421 plate appearances through his age-25 season.

There may very well be a payoff on Bird’s talent, but predicting when that comes is the problem facing the Yankees as they’ve officially grown out of their rebuilding phase.

Even if Bird hits well in the final month of the season, it could be looked at as a small sample size, much like his other pockets of success. Which way the Yankees go will be more a test of their faith than anything else.

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN