Chase Headley: A Tale of One Horrendous Month [2017 Season Review]

(Ronald Martinez/Getty)
(Ronald Martinez/Getty)

It seems like a lifetime ago that I was writing Chase Headley‘s season preview piece, which focused largely on how his unimaginably awful April essentially torpedoed his 2016 season as a whole. That wasn’t the first time that we saw him forget how to hit for a full month, either, as he closed 2015 on the lowest of notes. And, unfortunately, it wouldn’t be the last time, either.

A Hot Start

Headley spent the first month of the season reminding us of the hitter we thought the Yankees had acquired way back in 2014. He hit .301/.402/.494 (142 wRC+) with 3 HR and 4 SB in 97 PA in April, and the underlying numbers didn’t stand out as particularly unsustainable. His 14.3% HR/FB was right in-line with league-average, and his .361 BABIP wasn’t terribly uncharacteristic for a player with a career BABIP of .328. Given his previous two seasons, nobody really expected Headley to keep it up – but he looked as good as he ever had in pinstripes, and nothing screamed fluke. And then…

Worst … Month … Ever

How bad was Headley in May, you ask? He was bad enough that his April of 2016 looked mildly appealing. He batted .165/.211/.235 in 90 PA, which is “good” for a 14 wRC+. That’s not a typo – he had a 14 wRC+ in the month of May. Headley struck out in 29 of those 90 PA, while walking just 4 times; for comparison’s sake, he drew 14 walks in April, and struck out just 19 times. What happened?

It’s difficult to explain the lack of patience and bat-to-ball skills, but Headley did see his batted ball profile change completely from one month to the next. His line drive rate dropped by nearly 12 percentage points, and his ground ball rate jumped by just over 18 percentage points. His infield fly rate also jumped from 4.8% all the way up to 20% – and the percentage of infield flies that turn into hits is just about as close to zero as one can get. In the span of a month, Headley went from a well-rounded hitter with patience and power to the type of production you’d expect from a pitcher. And it was ugly.

As a result of this, Headley’s wRC+ dropped from 142 to 81, and those who even contemplated getting on-board with a resurgence felt foolish.

Four Months of Competence

Something miraculous happened on June 1, though. Headley went 2-for-5 with a couple of RBI against the Blue Jays that day … and he kept hitting after that. He hit .294/.372/.427 (114 wRC+) with 9 HR in 399 PA the rest of the way, and didn’t have another truly awful month. Headley wasn’t good in September, posting an 89 wRC+ – but it was palatable when compared to the lowest of lows that he has reached with the Yankees in his three-plus years in pinstripes. His bat was good enough to stay in the lineup, for the most part, and that represented a massive upgrade over 2015 and 2016.

For those who may be curious, Headley hit .295/.377/.440 in his 496 non-May PA, with 12 HR. That’s a wRC+ of around 120, and it’s quite good. Unfortunately…

He Forgot How to Play Defense Again

The Yankees shifted Headley from the hot corner to first base this season, and some of that was due to necessity; it was a revolving door of a position while Greg Bird was on the mend, and his solid bat and capable glove represented the best-case scenario there.

He made it an easy decision, though, with 13 errors, -7 Defensive Runs Saved, and -4.3 UZR/150 at third in 85 games. Headley’s defense has been all over the place for the Yankees – it was amazing in a small sample size in 2014 (6 DRS, 39.9 UZR/150), bad in 2015 (-6 DRS, -3.0 UZR/150), very good in 2016 (7 DRS, 8.6 UZR/150), and bad again last year. The acquisition of Todd Frazier was as much about solidifying the team’s infield defense as it was adding a powerful bat to the lineup, and that’s why he never played another position for the Yankees.

If it’s any consolation, Headley did grade out as a good defender at first.

The Bottom Line

Headley finished the season with a .273/.352/.406 slash line (104 wRC+), 12 HR, 9 SB. That essentially made him a league-average offensive third baseman, as they hit .256/.330/.438 (102 wRC+) as a group. Headley’s 104 wRC+ was his best since 2013, but his subpar defense at third dragged his WAR down by about half a win, to 1.9, which would make him fringe average there. If only he hadn’t forgotten how to hit in May…

2018 Outlook

As is the case with Starlin Castro, Headley is something of a placeholder. Miguel Andujar is knocking on the door (he had a 139 wRC+ at Triple-A), and would have garnered a longer look in 2017 had his defense been up to snuff. And top prospect Gleyber Torres was taking to the position, as well, and may’ve replaced Headley had it not been for his season-ending injury. Put it all together and you have a player that’s on borrowed time with the organization.

Headley is entering the last year of his contract, and he’s owed $13 MM. I am confident that the Yankees will try to shop him this off-season, and his contract shouldn’t be a deterrent for many teams – particularly if they are confident in his ability to play defense at third base. Should he make it through the winter without being dealt, though, I think he’ll end up in the team’s Opening Day lineup at third.

Mailbag: Carpenter, Ellsbury, Gregorius, Judge, Healy, Carroll

Got a dozen questions and eleven answers this week, in the first mailbag of the official offseason. As always, RABmailbag (at) gmail (dot) com is the place to send all your questions throughout the week.

Carpenter. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)
Carpenter. (Dilip Vishwanat/Getty)

David asks (short version): What about Matt Carpenter?

The Cardinals are a difficult to figure out, aren’t they? They seem to be stuck in the middle. Not really good enough to be a World Series contender and not bad enough to tear it down and rebuild. That’s not a good place. Carpenter would be one of their better trade chips, if they decided to shake things up. He hit .241/.384/.451 (123 wRC+) with 23 homers and nearly as many walks (17.5%) as strikeouts (20.1%) in 2017.

Carpenter, who turns 32 later this month, appears to fit the Yankees for a few reasons. One, he’s a left-handed hitter with power and patience, two Yankees trademarks. Two, he’s versatile. He can play both corner infield spots as well as second base, and he even has some outfield experience. And three, he’s signed affordably. His contract calls for $13.5M in 2018 and $14.5M in 2019, with an $18.5M club option for 2020.

The downside here is Carpenter is not a good defender anywhere. His best position is first base. And he’s really slow. Shockingly slow, really. These days Carpenter is a +3 WAR player or thereabouts, yet I fell like the Cardinals would ask for a king’s ransom should you ask about him in a trade. Yes, Carpenter would make sense for the Yankees. I wouldn’t trade Clint Frazier or Justus Sheffield for him though. Chance Adams plus secondary stuff? Sure, but that won’t happen.

Michael asks: I’d love it if Hal spent $400MM a year on payroll, but given that he doesn’t, would it be worth it to attach a couple prospects to Ellsbury to aid in dumping salary? Every dollar that goes to him is a dollar not going to signing Tanaka or someone else who can help the team win, and prospects have a certain volatility to their value – Billy McKinney, for instance, might be at a high point from which his value only sinks going forward.

Reuvy asks: Would including Betances in a trade be enough of an incentive for other teams to take Ellsbury off of the Yankees hands? Would the Yankees be willing to part with Betances for virtually nothing if it means getting rid of Ellsbury’s contract?

Going to lump these two questions together. I do not at all like the idea of attaching a prospect or Dellin Betances to Jacoby Ellsbury as a way to unload salary. I’d rather see the Yankees keep the prospect/Betances and use their greatest resource (money) to get rid of Ellsbury. Yes, the Yankees want to unload as much of Ellsbury’s contract as possible given the luxury tax plan. But the goal should be opening a roster spot and retaining talent. The Ellsbury contract is a sunk cost. The Yankees owe him that money no matter what and his salary is already earmarked for the 2018 payroll under the luxury tax threshold. Save what you can in a salary dump and move on from the mistake signing. Don’t compound problems by giving away talent on top of it.

Noa asks: I have never understood this and was wondering your thoughts on it. Why do managers always tell the media (especially in playoff games) that Pitcher So-and So is unavailable or that they’d be surprised if a certain pitcher got into a game for workload reasons. Even if its 100% true, it seems that it only gives the opponent an advantage in knowing that certain pitchers aren’t available. Thoughts?

This used to annoy me too, but it’s really not that a big a deal. Teams keep tabs on the workload of the opposing pitching staff, especially in the postseason, so it’s not like this is a surprise. We mention the status of the other’s team bullpen in our series previews. If we’re keeping tabs on it, the other team is keeping tabs on it. The other day Dodgers manager Dave Roberts said Kenley Jansen was only available for three outs, then he got a six-out save that night. Did that catch the Astros off-guard? Probably not. And besides, it’s not like the other team can’t see who’s warming up in the bullpen. Announcing who and who isn’t available used to bother me. It’s not worth the energy though. Teams keep tabs on their opponents, including their potential bullpen options.

Travis asks: True or false: If McKinney succeeds at 1B in the AFL, Austin will likely lose his 40 man spot? They are redundant players with McKinney having options and a brighter future at this point.

False. Tyler Austin might lose his 40-man roster spot this offseason, but not because McKinney played 15 or so games at first base in the Arizona Fall League. If Austin loses his 40-man spot, it’ll be because the Yankees consider Garrett Cooper the better right-handed first base depth option. I’m not sure the Yankees need both. McKinney is still an outfielder, first and foremost. That’s his best position. The Yankees are trying to find a way to make him more versatile, and first base is pretty much the only option. There’s room for both Austin and McKinney on the 40-man. Probably not enough for Austin, McKinney, and Cooper, however. Either Austin or Cooper is likely to go at some point because they are redundant.

Air Didi. (Abbie Parr/Getty)
Air Didi. (Abbie Parr/Getty)

Dana asks: Should the Yankees sell high on Didi if he can headline a deal for a young, controllable starting pitcher? Gleyber is just about ready and his defensive value would be wasted at third or second. Even if Torres isn’t ready at the beginning of the season, the Yanks could play Toe or Wade there as a stop gap.

No! I mean, maybe. Always be willing to listen because you never know what offers will come along, but no, don’t actively shop Didi Gregorius. Keep him. Even if 2017 was a career season, Didi is still a very productive player in the prime of his career. He’s part of the solution. As long as third base remains unsolved long-term and the replaceable Starlin Castro mans second base, keep Gregorius. There’s room for both on the infield. Did you see Alex Bregman this postseason? He’s a natural shortstop playing third base, and his defensive value sure as heck isn’t being wasted at the hot corner. Didi and Gleyber is better than Didi or Gleyber.

Dan asks: What should the Yankees be willing to give up for Schwarber? He seems like a good fit as a buy low candidate with really good upside.

There is no such thing as buying low on Kyle Schwarber. Theo Epstein and the Cubs front office love him. Love love love him. Would they trade him? Yeah, probably, in the right deal. I can’t see them selling low on him, however. I’m not a big Schwarber fan. Never have been. He was healthy all season and he hit .211/.315/.467 (102 wRC+) with 30 homers, 30.9% strikeouts, and 12.1% walks. The power and walks are nice, but geez, the way this guy’s been hyped you’d think he’s a potential MVP candidate. Bad defense, no position, massive platoon split. The Cubs should be very open to trading Schwarber, especially given their pitching staff. I just don’t see them selling low on him. If the Yankees want him, they’d have to pay full price, which is way too much in my book considering how Chicago reportedly turned down Andrew Miller for injured Schwarber last year.

Ben asks: Curious your take on this; why was it so frowned upon that A-Rod opted out from his contract during the 2007 World Series? Everyone reported that it was (yet another) unwritten rule that no major news should come out during, and potentially upstage, the World Series. Now Yankees make the Girardi announcement during the World Series, and no one has a problem with it. Seems to be a double standard to me. It isn’t like the Yankees HAD to decide (or announce) this week. Thoughts?

Alex Rodriguez opted out literally in the middle of a World Series game. I can’t find the clip on YouTube, but I remember seeing Ken Rosenthal in the photographers’ well at Coors Field during the 2007 World Series, breaking the news. MLB does not want teams announcing news during the World Series because it draws attention away from the World Series itself. Rosenthal is not an MLB employee though. He got a huge scoop and had a chance to break the news on national television, so he took it, as he should have.

News still leaks and gets reported during the World Series. That’s unavoidable. MLB wants to limit it though, so the league prohibits teams from formally announcing anything during the World Series without their permission, and the teams comply. The Yankees had to receive an okay from MLB to announce they parted away with Girardi last Thursday, which was a World Series off-day. The A-Rod news broke in the middle of a World Series game and that was all anyone talked about the rest of the night. You can understand why MLB would be annoyed.

Toshiki asks: Let’s pretend Otani signs with an American League team. Can he pitch and bat DH in the same game?

No. Players can only do one or the other, pitch or be the DH. Can’t do both in the same game. The Yankees or any other AL team that signs Shohei Otani could let him hit for himself on the days he pitches, though they’d be forfeiting the DH. You couldn’t, say, start Otani and let him hit for himself, then keep him in the batting lineup after a reliever replaces him on the mound. They be playing with NL rules, basically. Once he’s out of the game as a pitcher, he’s out of the game as a hitter.

Nico asks: Judge’s big strike zone. I know this is a little crazy, but do you think the fact that Judge wears high socks contributes? The high sock ends below the knee, but it creates a kind of visual cue that might make the knee look lower than it is. The umps might be calling his zone as the “top of the sock”, when really it should be a couple inches higher than that.

It might! That’s a good question. It’s too bad Statcast doesn’t have a socks option so we could see whether there’s a strike zone difference between players who wear low socks and high socks. Judge should go with the old Bobby Murcer mid-calf stirrup look next season.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Anything to help the guy get a fair strike zone. All those strikes below the knees this season were ridiculous.

Fernando asks: The A’s have made Ryon Healy available. Dh and sometime 1b with good power but not much defense. Is he worth pursuing? A’s have interest in relievers and Yankees have surplus there with Shreve, Holder, Gallegos, Mitchell, Rumbelow, Heller, Feyereisen, Mesa, Tarpley, etc. Some of these guys are going to be roster casualties for Rule 5 purposes.

Nah. I don’t really see it. Healy’s not even that good of a hitter. He hit .271/.300/.451 (100 wRC+) with 25 homers in 605 plate appearances this season. The power is nice, but he never walks (3.5% in 2017) and is a negative in the field and on the bases. A player who is a league average hitter and contributes nothing else whatsoever isn’t all that appealing to me. Healy turns 26 in January, so it’s not like he super young and you could reasonably expect a lot of improvement going forward. He’s the rich man’s Tyler Austin, basically. Maybe Healy’s worth it if you can get him for one of those fringe 40-man roster players. Something tells me the Athletics would just keep him if that’s all you’re offering though.

Dennis asks: Thoughts on Cody Carroll? He’s huge and throws in the upper 90’s. Sounds like a Betances style guy. Misses bats but walks people. At 25 and was in AA, do you think he can be anything or just a career AAA/injury replacement guy?

Carroll is a little too well known right now to be considered a sleeper. The Yankees drafted him out of Southern Mississippi (22nd round in 2015), where he worked as a starting pitcher, and moved him to relief. Suddenly his fastball went from 90-92 mph to 96-98 mph. This season he had a 2.54 ERA (3.04 FIP) with 32.1% strikeouts and 10.8% walks in 67.1 innings split between High-A and Double-A.

The biggest knocks on Carroll are his general lack of command and his good but not great breaking ball, a hard mid-80s slider. The Yankees have him out in the Arizona Fall League right now just to get more reps. You don’t need perfect command to be a very effective reliever (e.g. Betances), but it sure does help. Right now I think Carroll is more of an up-and-down depth arm than a true bullpen prospect. If he can begin to locate better going forward — the lack of command is a career long thing — then he’d become real interesting real quick. There are lots of dudes who throw hard but have no idea where it’s going down in Double-A.

Erik Kratz, Yankees all-time leader in OPS, elects free agency

Kratz isn't here to play, he's here to party. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)
Kratz isn’t here to play. He’s here to party. (Gregory Shamus/Getty)

So long, Erik Kratz. Earlier today the Yankees announced Kratz has elected free agency rather than accept an outright assignment to the minors, which was completely expected. The move opens a 40-man roster spot.

The Yankees acquired Kratz from the Indians in a cash trade to serve as their third catcher in September, while Kyle Higashioka was out injured. The 37-year-old journeyman went 2-for-2 with a double and two runs driven in during his time in pinstripes. He is the franchise’s all-time leader in OPS (minimum two plate appearances):

  1. Erik Kratz: 2.500 OPS
  2. Chris Latham: 2.000 OPS
  3. Chris Parmelee: 1.875 OPS

Drop the minimum to one plate appearance and the Yankees all-time leader in OPS is Branden Pinder at 3.000. How about that? Anyway, Kratz did travel with the Yankees throughout the postseason, mostly because the team wanted him close by in case there was an injury and they needed to add a catcher to the roster.

The Kratz move begins the annual early offseason 40-man roster purge, in which clubs clean up their rosters and prepare for the winter ahead. Aside from Kratz, the Yankees don’t have any obvious outright candidates right now. Guys like Bryan Mitchell and Chasen Shreve may be at risk of losing their 40-man spots this winter, though they’re probably minor trade bait rather than outright candidates.

Thursday Night Open Thread

I’ve gotta admit, I’m a little surprised we didn’t hear anything about Brian Cashman‘s new contract today. It’s pretty obvious he’s coming back, and I figured the team would make the announcement as soon as the World Series ended. I guess not. I’m sure it’ll happen soon. Anyway, a total of 149 players became free agents today. Here’s the list, if you’re interested.

Here’s an open thread for the night. Bills vs. Jets is the Thursday Night Football game, plus the (hockey) Ranges and Islanders are playing. Talk about those games or anything else here tonight, as long as it’s not religion or politics. Thanks in advance.

Manager & Coaching Staff Notes: Espada, Hairston, Ibanez

Espada and his new shortstop. (Elsa/Getty)
Espada and his new shortstop. (Elsa/Getty)

One week ago today we learned the Yankees had parted ways with Joe Girardi. And since then, we haven’t heard a peep about potential managerial candidates or interviews. Part of me wonders if we’re in for an out of nowhere hire. Know how Brian Cashman tends to make surprise trades with little to no rumors? What if the manager search happens in secret and one day they just announce a hire? That’d be something. Anyway, here’s the latest managerial and coaching staff news.

Espada joining the Astros

Yankees third base coach Joe Espada is now former Yankees third base coach Joe Espada. Espada will join the Astros as their new bench coach, reports Marly Rivera. Alex Cora, Houston’s former bench coach, is leaving to take over as Red Sox manager. Espada, whose contract expired earlier this week, also interviewed to be Cora’s bench coach in Boston.

Espada, 42, had been New York’s third base coach the last three years, and prior to that he worked in the front office as a special assistant to Cashman. It’s unclear whether the Yankees ever seriously considered Espada for their managerial opening. He’s young, he’s into analytics, he’s bilingual, and he’s already close to the young players in the organization. Seemed like a potential fit.

Hairston a managerial candidate

A few days ago it was reportedly Jerry Hairston Jr. is a potential managerial candidate for the Yankees, and now it is confirmed. Mark Feinsand reports Hairston is indeed in the mix. It’s no longer speculation or conjecture. Hairston played 16 seasons in the big leagues, including the second half of the 2009 season with the Yankees. He’s been working as a television analyst the last few years.

Hairston, now 41, has zero coaching or managerial experience. He grew up around the game — his father, grandfather, uncle, and brother all played in the big leagues — and he certainly spent enough time in the clubhouse as a player, though we know nothing about his skills as a manager. Is he a good communicator? How well-versed is he in analytics? How’s his feel for the game? The numbers may say one thing, but your eyes may tell you another. Is he adaptable? No one really knows.

Ibanez wants to stay with Dodgers

Rauuul. (Leon Halip/Getty)
Rauuul. (Leon Halip/Getty)

According Jon Heyman, the Yankees like Raul Ibanez as a managerial candidate, though word is he wants to stay with the Dodgers in his current front office role. Also, Heyman says the Yankees have a list of about 20-25 managerial candidates. Hooray for casting a wide net. Here’s my list of candidates, which runs 24 names deep.

The 45-year-old Ibanez has long been considered a future coach or manager because he’s a smart guy, he’s hard-working, and because he was such a strong leader and clubhouse presence during his playing days. Ken Davidoff wrote a good piece explaining Ibanez’s qualifications recently. At the same time, Ibanez has no coaching or managerial experience. I’m not sure I love the idea of bringing in a rookie skipper to work with this team.

Hal will discuss future plans with A-Rod

Now that the 2017 season over, so to is Alex Rodriguez‘s monster ten-year, $275M contract. The Yankees of course released A-Rod last year, though his contract ran through this season, so the team still had to pay him his $21M salary in 2017. Rodriguez spent the year as a part-time instructor with the Yankees and worked specifically with their young players, at least when he wasn’t doing television work with FOX or hanging out with Jennifer Lopez.

Anyway, according to Dan Martin, Hal Steinbrenner plans to reach out to A-Rod to determine the next step in their relationship. “Haven’t talked to him yet about his plans for next year … I will though. He seems to really enjoy working with our young players,” said Hal. I’m not gonna lie, I assumed the only reason the Yankees kept A-Rod around as an instructor was because they were still paying him this year, and they wanted to get something back from that investment. Now that his contract his up, will they really keep this going? We’ll see.

The Good, the Bad, and the Injuries of Greg Bird [2017 Season Review]

(Al Bello/Getty)
(Al Bello/Getty)

Down the road, when we look back at this 2017 season, we’ll remember it for the young players who emerged to make the Yankees more competitive than pretty much everyone expected. Aaron Judge broke the rookie home run record. Gary Sanchez missed a month and still led all catchers in homers. Luis Severino pitched well enough to get Cy Young votes. All homegrown, all 2017 All-Stars, none older than 25.

There was supposed to be a fourth member of that emerging homegrown core. Greg Bird, who played very well during his late 2015 debut, was returning from shoulder surgery and set to take over first base full-time. That shoulder surgery caused him to miss the entire 2016 season, so it wasn’t a minor procedure. He had plenty of rehab time though — Bird did play in the Arizona Fall League last year — and was primed for a breakout season.

And in Spring Training, the 24-year-old Bird couldn’t have looked more ready for that breakout season. He hit .451/.556/1.098 with eight homers and more walks (12) than strikeouts (10) in 23 Grapefruit League. Bird led all players, Grapefruit League or Cactus League, in homers, total bases (56), and extra-base hits (16) this spring. Eight homers, seven doubles, one triple, seven singles. That was Bird’s spring. He was ready to pick up where he left off in 2015.

Of course, things didn’t play out that way. Bird again dealt with injuries and needed another surgery, this time to his ankle. What was supposed to be a breakout season instead featured a .190/.288/.422 (86 wRC+) batting line in 170 plate appearances. A total bummer. Not quite a second consecutive lost season, but pretty darn close. This season was about the good, the bad, and the injuries for Bird, though not in that order.

The Bad

Fun fact: Bird hit third on Opening Day. Not Judge, not Sanchez, not Matt Holliday or Starlin Castro. It was Gregory P. Bird, Esq. By the end of April, he was hitting eighth. Bird hit a miserable .107/.265/.214 (37 wRC+) in the season’s first month. He went 6-for-56 — 6-for-56! — in April, and three of those six hits came in one game against the Cardinals. Bird started the season 1-for-26, had the three-hit game, then slipped into a 2-for-31 rut. Yikes.

On one hand, it wasn’t a total surprise a player who missed all of last season with major shoulder surgery got off to a slow start. On the other hand, holy cow Bird was really freaking bad. The rest of the Yankees were great! The Yankees went 15-8 with a +43 run differential in April despite getting negative production from first base. They could afford to ride out Bird’s slump and reap the rewards later. But we never did see any real indications Bird was ready to bust out.

Throughout April, there were signs Bird was not right physically. It wasn’t the shoulder. It was his right ankle. He fouled a pitch off the ankle in the very last Grapefruit League game of the spring and it was still bothering him in April. Those suckers hurt. Paul O’Neill has talked about them on YES Network broadcasts a bunch of times over the years. He’s said he’s fouled pitches off his shin or foot in April and still felt it in September. I went through the trouble of finding the pitch earlier this year, so he’s the foul ball that created the injury:

greg-bird-ankle

Looked innocent enough. Joe Girardi sat Bird for a few games early in the season — he sat for the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth games of the season, to be exact — hoping that would knock it out. But apparently not. On May 2nd, with his batting line sitting at an unsightly .100/.250/.200 (29 wRC+), the Yankees placed Bird on the 10-day DL with what they called a bruised ankle.

The Injuries

“In watching him yesterday, and talking to (hitting coach Alan Cockrell) about his work yesterday, I just didn’t feel like there was a lot of explosion in his lower half,” said Girardi after Bird was placed on the disabled list. “We talked after the game. We felt that we just need to give this some time … He just felt like his ankle wasn’t working properly. Yesterday was the first day I really, really noticed it. Players play through things but this one just seems to not be healing. We’re pretty confident there are no breaks. But bone bruises, they’re tricky. They can last months.”

Indeed, they can last months. In fact, it was what was originally called a bone bruise that landed Bird his first MLB opportunity. Mark Teixeira fouled a pitch off his shin in August 2015, it hurt like hell, and weeks later a hairline fracture was discovered when the shin didn’t get better. That created an opening at first base. Now, two years later, there was fear the same would happen to Bird. A seemingly minor injury would blow out into something major. And that’s exactly what happened.

The ankle injury saga included a lot of important steps, so let’s recap this thing timeline style:

  • May 2nd: Bird placed on 10-day DL.
  • May 18th: Bird begins running.
  • May 24th: Bird begins baseball activities. Fielding grounders, hitting, running the bases, etc.
  • June 1st: Bird begins a minor league rehab assignment.
  • June 15th: Yankees pull Bird from his rehab assignment due to continued discomfort.
  • June 20th: Bird sees a specialist who gives him a cortisone shot.
  • June 28th: Bird resumes working out, but experiences renewed soreness.
  • July 14th: Bird sees another specialist, who gives him another cortisone shot.
  • July 17th: Bird sees yet another specialist, who says he needs surgery to treat “inflammation in his os trigonum.”

The surgery, which was performed on July 18th, removed the os trigonum, which was an extra bone in his ankle. They’re not uncommon. I was born with one in each foot and they’ve never bothered me in any way. They’re just … there. It seems Bird fouled the pitch off his foot in such a way that disturbed the extra bone. Anyway, Bird’s surgery came with a six-week rehab, which meant there was a chance he’d return before the end of the season, but given his career to date, it was tough to count on him getting healthy.

“In nearly four months since first injuring my ankle, it had been increasingly frustrating to have only questions and no answers,” said Bird after finding out he needs surgery. “All this time, I have wanted nothing more than to be out there playing the game I love as a member of the New York Yankees. My season is not over. I plan to do everything in my power to return and help our team win in 2017.”

Because the miserable April and ankle injury weren’t bad enough, a “Yankee insider” ripped Bird while speaking to Bill Madden, and essentially questioned his desire to play. The quote:

“You really have to wonder what’s with this guy,” a Yankee insider complained to me earlier this week. “You’d think with Judge and Sanchez, the guys he came up through the system with, doing so well up here he’d want to be a part of this. Apparently not.”

The identity of the “Yankee insider” still isn’t known and probably won’t ever be known because that person is a gutless coward. You want to question someone’s desire and competitiveness? Fine, but put your name on it. Don’t hide.

“I don’t think I would be too happy about it,” said Girardi when asked how he’d feel if someone made similar comments about him. “Only the player knows, and I would be a little bit upset if someone questioning my desire and integrity … He’s done everything we’ve asked, it just hasn’t happened.”

The Good

This was a tough, tough season for Bird. Fortunately, the six-week recovery timetable meant there was still a chance he could contribute down the stretch, and on August 16th, Bird started another minor league rehab assignment. He went 11-for-26 (.423) with three homers in nine rehab games with Triple-A Scranton. Most importantly, his ankle — and surgically repaired shoulder — was feeling good.

Bird returned to the Yankees on August 26th, 117 days and one os trigonum bone lighter after being placed on the disabled list. I thought the Yankees would just wait until rosters expanded on September 1st to bring him back, but no, they wanted him in the lineup as soon as possible. And sure enough, Bird struggled out of the gate. He went 11-for-58 (.190) in his first 20 games back from the ankle injury. It was a continuation of April, basically.

Despite those ugly 20 games, there were some positive signs and things that led you believe Bird would soon figure it out. For one, he was healthy! For the first time in nearly two years. His shoulder was fine and his ankle wasn’t bothering him at all. And two, Bird was showing more power. Four of those eleven hits left the park — he had only one homer in April — and his soft contact rate dropped from 23.7% before the injury to 13.0% after the injury.

On September 20th, in the 152nd game of the regular season, Bird finally had that long awaited breakout. He went 3-for-4 with two doubles in a win over the Twins. The next game he went 1-for-4 with a homer. The game after that he went 1-for-3 with a double and a walk. Then back-to-back-to-back games with a home run. Bird was finally having an impact, better late than never.

In those final ten games of the regular season Bird went 11-for-29 (.379) with four doubles and four homers. His final season numbers were ugly — again, he hit only .190/.288/.422 (86 wRC+) in 170 plate appearances — but he was starting to snap out of it just in time for the postseason. The Yankees had been short a bat for a while. Basically since Holliday got sick and stopped hitting in June. Bird stepped in to fill the void late in the season.

During the Wild Card Game, Bird drove in what proved to be the game-winning run with a two-out single to drive in Sanchez. He went 4-for-18 (.222) in the ALDS against the Indians, and while his average was low, he made up for it with walks (.364 OBP) and also two homers. Bird’s second ALDS homer was probably my favorite homer of the season. Bird drove in the game’s only run in the 1-0 win in Game 3 to keep the season alive.

I love everything about it. I love that, given the circumstances, the home run basically saved the season. I love Matt Vasgersian’s call. I love that the crowd completely drowned out Vasgersian’s call. I love that the camerawork made it look like the ball was going to land in the upper deck. I love that Bird hit it against Andrew Miller. Not because I don’t like Miller. He’s awesome and forever cool in my book. He’s just so good and he normally chews up lefties, yet Bird took him deep anyway. So good. So, so good.

Bird added another home run in the ALCS against the Astros, and he finished the postseason hitting .244/.426/.512 with three homers and 12 walks in 13 games. He was probably the team’s most consistent hitter in the playoffs. Yes, Bird did get thrown out at the plate (twice!) in the ALCS, and that was a major letdown. Both plays probably changed the series in Houston’s favor. What can I say? Speed and baserunning was never Greg’s thing.

After missing all of 2016 with shoulder surgery, and after being dogged by injuries and idiot Yankee insiders for the first five months of 2017, Bird finally arrived late this season, and became the impact hitter the Yankees have expected him to become for years now. Seven homers in his final 23 games? Tons of walks? Surprisingly nimble first base defense (Bird can really stretch, eh?)? We’ve waiting a long time to see this Greg Bird. It was glorious.

2018 Outlook

It wasn’t all that long ago that there was speculation the Yankees would pursue impending free agent Eric Hosmer this offseason. Would Bird stay healthy? Would Bird hit even if he did stay healthy? We didn’t know the answers to those questions, and truth be told, we still don’t. We’ve only seen flashes of greatness from Bird. Next season will be his final pre-arbitration year and we’re still waiting for even a half-season of quality play, nevermind a full season.

Signing Hosmer never seemed all that realistic to me given the plan to get under the luxury tax threshold. I mean, I suppose it could happen. The Yankees do still have an opening at DH, after all. But I don’t think it’ll happen. The Yankees love Bird and they want him to be their full-time first baseman, and he’s going to get another opportunity to do exactly that next season. And the goal is simple: stay healthy. If Bird stays on the field, I truly believe he can become one of the better first basemen in baseball. There are 30 homers and a .400 OBP batting eye in there, waiting for Bird to stay healthy enough to be unleashed.