Greg Bird's Injury Nightmare Is Robbing Yankees, MLB of Superstar Slugger

Zachary D. Rymer@zachrymerMLB Lead WriterMarch 28, 2018

An elegy for Greg Bird, who just can't stay healthy.
An elegy for Greg Bird, who just can't stay healthy.Paul Bereswill/Getty Images

It's a difficult time to get depressed about a shortage of home runs in Major League Baseball. A record amount were hit in 2017, after all, and the dingers should continue to flow in 2018.

All the same, what's being lost in Greg Bird's ongoing injury saga is worth at least an exasperated sigh.

Simply by virtue of being a young up-and-comer on the New York Yankees, Bird already has a fair bit of name recognition. But at this point, anyone familiar with the lefty-swinging first baseman might know him primarily as a regular on the disabled list in 2016 and 2017.

It's a new year now, but so it goes for the 25-year-old.

He had surgery Tuesday to fix a bone spur on his right ankle. He's due to miss the first six to eight weeks of the regular season, which puts his likely return date somewhere around mid-May or early June.

"It's upsetting," Yankees manager Aaron Boone said Monday, according to Aimee Sachs of MLB.com. "I know it's upsetting to Greg, but at least we have some answers, and in the grand scheme of things, hopefully we do look back and it's a short-term bump in the road and we can get him back for good."

The part about "answers" is in reference to how Bird's right foot was also the culprit in a frustrating 2017 season during which he played in only 48 games with the Yankees. Before that, surgery to repair a labrum tear in his right shoulder sidelined him for the entire 2016 season.

As young as Bird is, this much injury trouble raises doubts about his future. Is he still the Yankees first baseman of the future? Or are they now that much closer to being forced to move on?

Regardless of whether the Bird situation is a short-term disappointment or a long-term shame, this much is certain in the meantime: MLB's dinger party is being denied a special guest.

Kathy Willens/Associated Press

When Bird has been healthy, Bird has hit.

That's true of his minor league career, which includes an .883 OPS and 51 homers in parts of six seasons. It's also true of his brief-yet-tantalizing major league career, which has included attention-grabbing spurts such as: 

  • 2015 regular season, pre-shoulder surgery: 46 G, .871 OPS, 11 HR
  • 2017 spring training, post-shoulder surgery: 23 G, 1.654 OPS, 8 HR
  • 2017 regular season, post-foot injury: 29 G, .891 OPS, 8 HR
  • 2017 postseason, post-foot injury: 13 G, .938 OPS, 3 HR

Add all that up, and you get 30 homers in 111 games. Extrapolate that over 162 games, and you've got yourself a 40-homer slugger.

If that argument is too iffy, consider this one: Bird is basically a more powerful Curtis Granderson.

It feels like ancient history now, but Granderson went on quite the run with the Yankees a few years back. He cranked 115 homers between 2010 and 2013, with 41 coming in 2011 and 43 coming in 2012.

What helped was that Granderson had the perfect swing for Yankee Stadium.

The porch in right field is notoriously short, so any left-handed hitter with a knack for air balls and a preference for his pull side always stands a good chance of doing damage there. That was the case with Granderson, whose time with the Yankees included an ultra-low ground-ball rate (33.4 GB%) and an ultra-high pull rate (49.6 Pull%).

Granderson's home run power wasn't exclusive to Yankee Stadium, but it was magnified there. He hit 52 homers on the road and 63 at home. Many of the latter bunch would have been gone at any park. A few, though, were short fence-scrapers that would have been loud outs at, say, Kauffman Stadium.

Although Bird hasn't logged a ton of time in the majors, he's logged enough to compile a batted-ball profile that's eerily similar to the one Granderson had while he was in pinstripes.

There's the ultra-low ground-ball rate (28.4 GB%) and the ultra-high pull rate (44.8 Pull%). Likewise, the majority of his major league homers (14 of 23, including the postseason) have been hit at Yankee Stadium.

Ah, but then there's the "more powerful" part. For that, consider two rates of hard contact:

This is about what you'd expect with a comparison of a 6'4", 220-pound first baseman to a 6'1", 200-pound outfielder.

And the exact numbers might not even be necessary, as evidence of Bird's penchant for hard contact has tended to be apparent in the sound of the ball coming off his bat:

Going into spring training, it wasn't unreasonable to pencil in 30 homers next to Bird's name. With his pull-power swing to lean on and regular action at Yankee Stadium to take advantage of, he would surely be good for at least that many, with a stretch to 40 long balls well within the realm of possibility.

But now, neither projection is terribly likely to come to fruition. And if the injury bug keeps coming back to snack on him, it's possible that Bird may never live up to his power potential.

For now, the good news for the Yankees is they're covered for Bird's absence. They have Neil Walker and Tyler Austin set to share time at first base. In the event Bird's recovery lingers, the Yankees have the roster depth to either stick with that pairing or swing a deal for a first baseman.

This wasn't what they were counting on, however. They were counting on Bird and the many homers contained within his bat. Instead, they're back to waiting in frustration.

Hence, the exasperated sigh.

        

Spring stats courtesy of MLB.com. Other stats courtesy of Baseball Reference and FanGraphs.

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