The First Baseman of the Future [2015 Season Review]


For the first time in a long time, the Yankees came into the season with some high-end prospects close to the big league level. We’ve spent the last few years talking about how the farm system was on the rise due to the team’s lower level talent, but geez, that’s lame as hell. Every team has talented players at the lower levels. That didn’t make the Yankees special as much as we wanted it to.

This year was different because of that upper level talent. And, given the club’s newfound commitment to young players, many of those players got an opportunity to help at the big league level this summer. Greg Bird, who I ranked as the fifth best prospect in the organization coming into the season, was one of those players even though he was what you could have considered a “blocked” prospect because of his position. Nevertheless, Bird got a chance late in the season and had an impact.

The Joys of Spring

The Yankees invited the 22-year-old Bird to Spring Training and he was arguably the most impressive young hitter during Grapefruit League play. It was either Bird or the resurgent Slade Heathcott. (Heathcott received a James P. Dawson Award as the best rookie in camp, for what it’s worth.)

Either way, Bird appeared in 13 spring games and went 6-for-17 (.353) with three doubles and a home run. He stood out most for his ultra-refined approach and insanely quick hands.

Bird had almost zero chance to make the Yankees out of Spring Training. He just wasn’t at the point in his career where that was a possibility. That said, young players like Bird still have a chance to make a strong impression on the front office and coaching staff in Spring Training. You might not make the team, but you can put yourself in position to be considered for a call-up during the season, and that’s exactly what Bird did it in camp. He was dynamite.

Back to the Minors

The Yankees assigned Bird to Double-A Trenton to start the season — he ended last year with 27-game cameo for the Thunder — and he started slowly, going 7-for-39 (.179) with only three extra-base hits in the first eleven games of the season. Bird eventually got hot, raked for a few weeks, then landed on the DL with a right shoulder injury. He was sidelined a month.

Bird returned in early-June, crushed the ball for a month (143 wRC+ in 24 games), then was promoted to Triple-A Scranton as part of the team’s mass midseason promotions. He hit .258/.358/.445 (133 wRC+) with six homers, a 14.2% strikeout rate, and an 11.3% walk rate in 49 Double-A games this year. Bird shook off the slow start and showed no ill-effects following the shoulder injury.

After the promotion to Triple-A, Bird hit .301/.353/.500 (146 wRC+) with six homers in only 34 games with the RailRiders, with an 18.0% strikeout rate and a 7.3% walk rate. It was his first taste of the level and, like pretty much every other stop in his career, Bird put up big numbers. He hit .277/.356/.469 (139 wRC+) with 12 home runs, a 15.7% strikeout rate, and a 9.7% walk rate in 83 minor games split between Double-A and Triple-A in 2015.

A Surprise Promotion

On August 13th, a little more than one week after calling up Luis Severino, the Yankees surprisingly called up Bird to bolster the bench. Trade deadline pickup Dustin Ackley was hurt and Garrett Jones hadn’t been all that productive, so the Yankees saw it as an opportunity for an upgrade. A marginal upgrade — the plan was to use Bird to rest Mark Teixeira and Alex Rodriguez on occasion, that’s it — but an upgrade nonetheless.

Bird made his Major League debut in Cleveland on August 13th, the day he was called up. They put him right in the lineup. Bird went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts as the seventh place hitter and first baseman. He started again two days later at first base — Teixeira sat on the 13th then served as the DH on the 15th with A-Rod resting — and went 1-for-4 with a strikeout in Toronto.

Bird’s first career hit came in his ninth plate appearance. He had been making solid contact but had a knack for finding gloves early on. That’s baseball. So, naturally, his first career hit was a little ground ball through the left side side of the infield.

Two days after Bird picked up his first career hit, Teixeira fouled a ball off his shin and suffered what proved to be a season-ending fracture. Bird’s stint as a bench player or spot starter or whatever you want to call it lasted five days. Bird replaced Teixeira off the bench that game, then, in the tenth inning, he sparked the team’s game-winning rally with a leadoff double against Glen Perkins.

That was Bird’s first career extra-base hit. Later in the inning he scored his first career run to win the game. He drew his first career walk in the seventh inning, in his first at-bat after coming in for Teixeira. Bird got a lot of “firsts” out of that way that night.

We didn’t know Teixeira’s injury was season-ending at the time, but it looked like he was going to miss at least a few days, so Bird was going to get an opportunity to play a few games in a row. It was an unfortunate way to get him in the lineup. That’s usually what it takes for a young player to get a chance though, an injury.

An Everyday Player, Suddenly

Teixeira started just one game the rest of the season. About a week later, with his shin feeling only slightly better, he started and played six innings against the Astros in a blowout loss. He pinch-hit in the ninth inning the next night. Teixeira did not play again the rest of the season.

In his first game as the starting first baseman, Bird went 2-for-4 and drove in a run. In his second, he went 2-for-4 with a pair of two-run home runs in the Yankees’ 4-2 win over the Twins. He provided all of the offense with his first and second big league dingers.

Bird was, like most players, consistently inconsistent the rest of the season. He went 3-for-23 (.130) with nine strikeouts in the nine games immediately following the two-homer game. Then he went 11-for-35 (.314) with three home runs in the next ten games. A 2-for-19 (.105) stretch followed that. On and on it goes. That’s pretty normal. Day-to-day consistency is a myth in baseball. The season is just a bunch of hot and cold streaks.

Bird’s most dominant stretch of the season was a seven-game span from September 15th to the 22nd, when he went 9-for-26 (.346) with three doubles and five home runs, including a homer in three consecutive games at one point. The third of those three was a go-ahead three-run shot in the tenth inning in Toronto, with the Yankees desperately trying to keep pace with the Blue Jays in the AL East.

The Yankees struggled big time in the final week of the season but not because of Bird. He was one of their few reliable bats down the stretch. Bird went 7-for-21 (.333) in his final seven games of the season and finished the year with an overall .261/.343/.529 (137 wRC+) batting line in 178 plate appearances across 46 games. He hit eleven home runs and drew a lot of walks (10.7%), but also struck out quite a bit (29.8%). Pitchers attacked him relentlessly with high fastballs. Here is the pitch type and location of his 53 strike threes.

Greg Bird strike threes

The high fastball is definitely a vulnerability for Bird right now. It is for a lot of hitters — fastballs in the upper third of the strike zone and above have a 9.1% whiff rate compared to 6.9% for all fastballs overall — so this isn’t unique to Bird. Opposing teams identified it as a weakness — they were throwing Bird high fastballs in strikeout situations the day of his debut, scouting reports are crazy good these days — and now it’s up to Bird to adjust.

The Yankees had only three hits against Dallas Keuchel and the Astros in the wildcard game and Bird had one of them, a solid line drive single to right in the second inning. Bird hit an acceptable .238/.347/.405 (110 wRC+) against southpaws like Keuchel overall this season — he hit .270/.341/.574 (147 wRC+) against righties — though it’s both a small sample (49 plate appearances) and quite misleading. Bird crushed lefties early and then went 5-for-31 (.161) against them in the final month.

Even with those late-season struggles against lefties, Bird was an excellent fill-in for Teixeira. The original plan was the play him two or three times a week to rest Teixeira and A-Rod, but the injury forced him into everyday duty, and Bird excelled. I didn’t think he would get called up at all this year coming into the season, the call-up was a total surprise to me, but Bird handled the promotion well. At least offensively. His defense remains rough around the edges.

Fly Balls & Hard Contact

Three things about Bird stood out to me during his relatively brief time as a big leaguer this season. One, he’s very calm at the plate. Joe Girardi called it a “slow heartbeat.” Bird seems very controlled with a bat in his hands. Two, he rarely hits the ball on the ground. And three, he hits the ball very hard. Combine two and three and you get a lot of hard hit balls in the air.

Here are Bird’s batted ball rates compared to the MLB average, just to give you an idea of how extreme his fly ball/hard hit tendencies really are:

GB% LD% FB% Soft% Medium% Hard%
Bird 26.7% 21.9% 51.4% 14.3% 41.0% 44.8%
MLB Avg 45.3% 20.9% 33.8% 18.6% 52.7% 28.6%

Among the 389 batters with at least 150 plate appearances this season, Bird had the lowest ground ball rate and the second highest hard contact rate. Only Giancarlo Stanton hit the ball harder, on average (49.7% … lol). Very, very few batters matched Bird’s combination of hitting the ball hard and hitting the ball in the air.

Actually, a graph probably works best here. Here are those 389 batters with 150 plate appearances, with ground ball rate on the x-axis and hard contact rate on the y-axis:

2015 Hard vs. GB

So yeah, when it came to hitting the ball hard and in the air this season, Bird was truly elite. Obviously small sample caveats apply, but I do think Bird’s batted ball tendencies are notable because they match the scouting report coming into the season. Here’s a piece of what Keith Law (subs. req’d) wrote in his preseason top 100 prospects list, in which he ranked Bird the 81st best prospect in the game:

Bird’s swing is very short to the ball, and he accelerates his hands quickly for hard contact to all fields, rarely putting the ball on the ground because he squares it up so frequently.

Consistently hitting the ball hard and in the air is a wonderful recipe for extra-base hits. I don’t know if Bird is a true talent sub-30% ground ball rate hitter, that seems very extreme — batted ball data has been recorded since 2002, and during that time only four of 729 hitters with at least 2,000 plate appearances have a sub-30% ground ball rate (Frank Thomas, Rod Barajas, Chris Carter, Jason Lane) — but the data matched the scouting report this year.

We’ll find out next season whether Bird can sustain his unique hard hit fly ball profile. What we saw out of him was pretty exciting though. He has a plan at the plate, he has power, and he seems to do a lot of damage when he makes contact. The strikeouts are the only significant red flag at this point.

(I suspect Bird will always be prone to strikeouts because he works so many deep counts. It just comes with the territory. You can’t drew a lot of walks and run 5+ pitch at-bats consistently without getting rung up a few times.)

Looking Ahead to 2016

Bird’s role next season is TBD at this point. He played more than well enough to be in the team’s future plans — he is clearly the first baseman of the future, there is little doubt about that — but Teixeira is under contract for another season, and he’ll be at first base in 2016. Teixeira had a pretty awesome year, remember. The Yankees are better with him at first than Bird.

This is a problem that isn’t a problem. Too many good players is a good thing. The Yankees could carry Bird as a bench bat again or they could send him to Triple-A for the time being. Teixeira, A-Rod, and Bird himself have not been the most durable players in recent years — Bird has had on and off back problems the last few seasons in addition to his shoulder injury this year — so my guess is there will be plenty of playing time for all three next year.

Fan Confidence Poll: November 2nd, 2015

2015 Season Record: 87-75 (764 RS, 698 RA, 88-74 pythag. record), lost wildcard game

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

Given the team's current roster construction, farm system, management, etc., how confident are you in the Yankees' overall future?

Kansas City Royals win 2015 World Series


For the first time 30 years, the Kansas City Royals are World Series champions. They beat the Mets 7-2 in 12 innings in Game Five Sunday night. Matt Harvey was brilliant, but the Royals scored two in the ninth to tie and then five in the top of the 12th to win. Here’s the box score and here’s the wild WPA graph.

I’m going to remember Eric Hosmer’s mad dash for home plate to score the tying run in the ninth more than anything. I was at the game for CBS and I literally stood up out of my chair and put my hands on my head when he broke for home. It was that kind of moment. What an insanely fun and memorable play:

The 2015 Royals have very few ties to the Yankees. In fact, no player on their World Series roster ever suited up for the Yankees. Joba Chamberlain did appear in six regular season games with Kansas City, however. Joba has two World Series rings now. How about that?

Pitching coach Dave Eiland played two stints with the Yankees (1988-91, 1995) and was the team’s pitching coach from 2008-10. He coached in New York’s farm system from 2003-07 as well. Bench coach Don Wakamatsu spent the 2013 season as a special assignment scout with the Yankees and hitting coach Dale Sveum played 30 games with the 1998 Yankees. No, really.

Congrats to the Royals for winning the World Series and to the Mets as well for their tremendous season. That is some rotation they have over there in Flushing.

Sunday Night Open Thread

We’ve reached the time of year when it starts getting dark out at like 4:30pm. Yuck. That means baseball is almost over. In fact, the season could end tonight. The Royals lead the Mets three games to one in the World Series, so every game from here on out is a possible clincher. I don’t care who wins, I just really want seven games, so go Mets, I guess.

Here is your open thread for the remainder of the weekend. The Royals and Mets will play Game Five tonight (Volquez vs. Harvey) and the late NFL game is the Packers and Broncos. Do the Broncos play every prime time game? It feels like it. The Islanders are in action as well, so talk about those games or anything else here. Just don’t be a jerk.

Headley’s deadly September

Sadly, there wasn't too much of this for Chase in 9/2015. (Photo credit: Richard Perry/The New York Times
Sadly, there wasn’t too much of this for Chase in 9/2015. (Photo credit: Richard Perry/The New York Times

There’s not much of a way around this: 2015 was, on aggregate, just plain bad for Chase Headley. On top of committing a career high 23 errors–seriously, what was up with that?–Chase had the worst offensive season of his career, notching new lows in wOBA (.307) and wRC+ (91), edging out 2010 (.313/98) for his least productive full season ever. Overall, Headley hit .259/.324/.369, .307/91; his ISO clocked in at 110, continuing a downward trend that started after his powerful 2012 (.212): .150 in ’13 and .130 in ’14. There were bright spots for him, specifically July and August. He tore the cover off the ball in those steamy summer months, hitting to a .386/146 wOBA/wRC+in July and .376/139 in August. The other side of the coin, though, was just as bad as that side was good. Headley essentially went belly up in June (.267/64) and September (.220/32). Since it’s most recent, and was most disastrous, we’re going to focus on September here, which also featured a 28.5% strikeout rate and a .045 ISO for Headley, both very indicative of his September struggles.

To figure out what went so wrong in September, we’re going to compare that lost month to the salad days of July and August in my favorite way possible: breaking down how he did and what he did against certain pitch types. You can find July and August’s numbers here and September’s here. As we often do, let’s start with fastballs, good ol’ number one.

Chase feasted on fastballs in his good months, hitting .333 against them. In September, however, that trend was reduced. Part of the reason was he just stopped making contact with them. In July/August, his whiff/swing% on fastballs was 12.96. In September, it hopped up to 16.67%, resulting in 11 total strikeouts on fastballs for the month; he only had eight strikeouts on fastballs in July and August combined. A similar trend appeared in Headley’s “performance” against curveballs in September. While both segements of time were fairly unproductive from a results standpoint, his “process” against curves was hideous in September, when he missed on 63.64% (!!) of the cuts he took against Uncle Charlie. This only resulted in three strikeouts for the month (one total in July/August), but it’s easy to assume that pitchers were using curveballs to get ahead of Headley or put him further behind in counts, exploiting this new hole in his swing.

Aside from the lack of contact against certain pitches, there was a problem with the contact Headley was making in September. There was no sting in Headley’s swing in September, evidenced by the aforementioned .045 ISO he compiled for the season’s final month. Three pitch types and their results can enlighten us here. Against sinkers, changeups, and sliders in particular, Headley was just beating the ball into the ground, resulting in a lot of easy grounders for infielders. When putting those pitches in play, Headley saw increases of 10%; 33.97%; and 53.92% respectively. The sinkers he put in play saw a dramatic decrease in power, going from a .333 ISO in July/August to an .059 ISO in September. Changeups told a similar story. His BA against them in July/August was a robust .321, compared to a meager .182 in September. He also recorded no extra-base hits against changeups in September, whereas he had an ISO of .182 against that pitch in July and August. For pitchers looking for a grounder against Headley, a slider was invaluable, as he produced a worm-burner 83.33% of the time and failed to get even a single hit (!) against sliders for the entire month of September.

Whether it was pitch-recognition, injury, or just a funk in his swing, something went way wrong for Headley in the season’s final month. Between whiffing and hitting grounder after grounder, he must’ve been glad for the season to come to a close. Whatever it was, I’m certain he and whoever the next hitting coach (I nominate Alex Rodriguez for player/coach) will work to fix it.

Saturday Open Thread

Happy Halloween, everyone. I was on the subway this afternoon with about a thousand little girls dressed as the princess from Frozen. She was princess, right? Probably. Anyway, here is tonight’s open thread. The Mets and Royals play Game Four of the World Series a little later (Matz vs. Young at 8pm ET on FOX), plus both the Knicks and Nets are in action. There’s also a ton of college football as well. Talk about whatever right here.

DotF: Sanchez and Pirela off to great starts in winter ball

Got some minor league notes and links to pass along before we get to the first round of performance updates from winter ball:

  • Keith Law (subs. req’d) posted some Arizona Fall League scouting notes, saying LHP Ian Clarkin “looked great in a four-inning stint” in his first game of the year. “Clarkin was 89-93 mph, mostly 90-92, for his entire outing, with a plus curveball that he really controlled well, 73-75 with tight spin. His changeup needs some work, and was actually better at 82 mph (where it had more action) than at 85-86 mph (where it was more like a bad fastball),” wrote Law. He added Clarkin’s ceiling as a potential No. 2 starter remains unchanged despite the elbow injury.
  • In a separate post (subs. req’d), Law says RHP Domingo Acevedo was “throwing 94-98 mph” with bad command, plus an 84-87 mph slider that “took a lot of effort for him to get to it.” He kinda sorta likened Acevedo to Dellin Betances because of his “high-effort delivery and long arm swing as well as a general lack of athleticism.”
  • Sam Dykstra posted some really simple Triple-A park factors for both 2015 and 2013-15. Once again, Triple-A Scranton’s PNC Field ranked among the toughest parks to hit, with a 0.876 (!) park factor this year. That means it suppressed offense to 87.6% of the league average. It was 0.926 from 2013-15. The four full season affiliates play in what have historically been pitchers’ parks.
  • Some transaction news from Matt Eddy: both IF Gregorio Petit and RHP Kyle Davies elected free agent after the end of the season, as expected. Also, Eddy reports the Yankees signed 16-year-old Venezuelan OF Jhon Moronta. I can’t find much about him, just this.

Now on to the performance updates from fall and winter ball, which take place at the same time of year. As a reminder, Ramiro Pena used to crush winter ball every year. The guy was like Babe Ruth down there. Don’t take the numbers too seriously. Small samples and the caliber of competition is not good.

Arizona Fall League

  • OF Tyler Austin: 8 G, 9-29 (.310), 6 R, 2 2B, 2 HR, 4 RBI, 4 BB, 7 K, 1 SB, 1 CS (.310/.394/.586) — had a rough regular season — that included getting dropped from the 40-man roster — so it would be great if he could rake here and head into the offseason feeling good about things
  • OF Dustin Fowler: 4 G, 5-18 (.278), 4 R, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 4 K, 3 SB (.278/.316/.278)
  • C Gary Sanchez: 10 G, 17-44 (.386), 7 R, 2 2B, 1 3B, 5 HR, 15 RBI, 2 BB, 6 K, 2 SB, 1 CS (.386/.404/.818) — leads the AzFL in homers (by one), RBI (by five), and total bases (by five)
  • IF Tyler Wade: 9 G, 5-29 (.172), 2 R, 2 2B, 5 RBI, 1 BB, 4 K, 1 SB, 1 CS (.172/.219/.276)
  • LHP Ian Clarkin: 3 IP, 3 GS, 12.1 IP, 15 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 9 BB, 8 K, 1 HB, 1 WP (5.11 ERA, 1.95 WHIP) — ugly numbers, but he’s a) healthy!, and b) shaking off an entire season of rust
  • LHP Chaz Hebert: 5 G, 0 GS, 8 IP, 7 H, 4 R, 4 ER, 2 BB, 4 K, 1 HR (4.50 ERA, 1.13 WHIP) — he had a breakout regular season (2.46 ERA and 3.07 FIP in 139 innings) and is Rule 5 Draft eligible, plus he’s left-handed, but I’ll be surprised if the Yankees protect him … 40-man roster space is pretty tight
  • LHP Tyler Webb: 5 G, 0 GS, 6 IP, 5 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 0 BB, 4 K, 1 HR (4.50 ERA, 0.83 WHIP) — first game action since late-June … he missed a bunch of time with a tendon problem in his hand

Dominican Winter League

  • IF Abi Avelino: 1 G, 0-1
  • RHP Andury Acevedo: 3 G, 0 GS, 4.1 IP, 4 H, 3 R, 3 ER, 1 BB, 5 K, 1 HR, 2 HB (6.23 ERA, 1.15 WHIP)
  • RHP Joel De La Cruz: 1 G, 0 GS, 2 IP, 2 H, 2 R, 2 ER, 1 BB, 3 K (9.00 ERA, 1.50 WHIP)
  • UTIL Jose Rosario and SS Jorge Mateo are listed on rosters but have yet to appear in a game. They might not play at all, especially Mateo, who ended the regular season on the DL. (Albeit with a minor injury.) They’re listed on the rosters because the clubs hold their winter ball rights.

Mexican Pacific League

  • OF Rico Noel: 3 G, 1-12 (.083), 1 R, 1 2B, 1 RBI, 1 BB, 2 K, 1 SB (.083/.154/.169) — he’s a runner, not a hitter
  • RHP Gio Gallegos: 8 G, 0 GS, 5.2 IP, 12 H, 9 R, 9 ER, 2 BB, 9 K, 2 HR, 1 WP (14.29 ERA, 2.47 WHIP) — he’s allowed multiple runs in four of those eight outings, so it’s not just one disaster outing skewing the numbers
  • RHP Luis Niebla: 4 G, 4 GS, 24 IP, 15 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 7 BB, 14 K, 1 HR, 1 HB, 1 WP (1.88 ERA, 0.92 WHIP)
  • RHP Cesar Vargas: 8 G, 0 GS, 7 IP, 9 H, 1 R, 1 ER, 0 BB, 11 K, 1 HR (1.29 ERA, 0.92 WHIP)

Roberto Clemente Professional Baseball League (Puerto Rico)

  • RHP Bryan Mitchell, IF Cito Culver, and 2B Angelo Gumbs are listed on rosters but have not yet appeared in a game. The season just started yesterday. Mitchell threw only 104.2 innings during the regular season. He might be down here to get some more under his belt. His career high is 145.1 innings set back in 2013.

Venezuelan Winter League

  • C Francisco Arcia: 12 G, 11-32 (.344), 3R, 3 2B, 1 3B, 5 RBI, 5 BB, 4 K (.344/.432/.500)
  • IF Ali Castillo: 4 G, 3-15 (.200), 2 R, 1 2B, 2 RBI, 1 BB, 3 K (.200/.294/.267)
  • OF Ben Gamel: 13 G, 13-48 (.271), 7 R, 4 2B, 2 HR, 10 RBI, 7 BB, 12 K, 1 SB, 1 CS (.271/.351/.479) — following up his excellent regular season with a nice showing in winter ball … I’m sure the Yankees were happy to let him play winter ball this year, it gives them more time to evaluate him before deciding whether to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft this offseason
  • OF Ericson Leonora: 12 G, 4-22 (.182), 5 R, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 5 K, 1 SB, 1 HBP (.182/.217/.318)
  • OF Teodoro Martinez: 18 G, 20-69 (.290), 2 3B, 7 RBI, 3 BB, 8 K, 2 SB (.290/.318/.348) — I’m not even sure if he’s still in the organization, to be honest … the Yankees signed him at midseason when they needed some outfielders to help cover for injuries and promotions … that’s usually a part-time gig
  • UTIL Jose Pirela: 6 G, 11-20 (.550), 5 R, 1 2B, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 5 BB, 1 K (.550/.640/.750) — he always rakes in winter ball
  • RHP Luis Cedeno: 3 G, 0 GS, 2.2 IP, 3 H, 0 R, 0 ER, 1 BB, 1 K (0.00 ERA, 1.13 WHIP)
  • RHP Jaron Long: 4 G, 4 GS, 23.2 IP, 20 H, 5 R, 5 ER, 4 BB, 11 K, 1 HR (1.90 ERA, 1.01 WHIP) — between the regular season and winter ball, the ex-hitting coach’s kid has thrown 178.1 innings this year
  • RHP Mark Montgomery: 8 G, 0 GS, 6.2 IP, 6 H, 7 R, 7 ER, 5 BB, 9 K, 1 HR (9.45 ERA, 1.65 WHIP) — allowed three runs in two of those eight outings … everything else has been pretty good
  • IF Thairo Estrada is listed on a roster but has not yet played in a game.