New York Yankees

Slow start for Greg Bird nothing to worry about

New York Yankees' Greg Bird hits a two-run home run against the St. Louis Cardinals during the second inning of a baseball game Sunday, April 16, 2017 at Yankee Stadium in New York. (AP Photo/Rich Schultz)
(AP Photo/Rich Schultz)

When Greg Bird first came up to the Yankees in late 2015, he put on a show, hitting 11 home runs in only 46 games, and Yankees fans were excited about their future first baseman. That excitement turned to worry when he was diagnosed with a torn labrum in his right shoulder during the 2015-16 offseason and had to have surgery to repair his injury. It kept him out of baseball for a full season and people wondered if he’d be the same player he was in 2015.

In spring training, Bird put on another show, batting .451 with 8 home runs in the Grapefruit League, showing fans that they didn’t need to worry; his shoulder was just fine. But now, just 14 games into the season, he is hitting just .121/.237/.273 in 10 games with 1 home run and a whopping 14 strikeouts in only 33 at bats.

Heading into Sunday night’s nationally-televised game against the St. Louis Cardinals, the 24-year-old was mired in a 1-for-26 slump to start the season while also battling through a foot injury he suffered near the end of spring training and fighting off a bout of food poisoning. Yankees manager Joe Girardi told reporters , “I think the best way to get him (Bird) out of it is for him to play.”

Bird faced Adam Wainwright on Sunday, a pitcher he had never faced before, and he jumped on the first pitch he saw; 435 feet later, it landed deep into the right field bleachers for his first home run of the year. He followed it up with a double in the fourth, a walk in the sixth and a single in the eighth. Bird proved Girardi right, and thanks to his 3-for-3 night, his batting average increased by 100 points.

The thing about early-season slumps is that they’re more magnified than a slump that occurs in the middle of the season. If Bird were in a 1-for-26 slump in July, people would be talking and writing about it, but it wouldn’t be met with such an outcry and wouldn’t be dissected as much.

That said, we shouldn’t completely dismiss slumps no matter when they occur. So what seems to be the most glaring issues with Bird’s performance so far? The number of strikeouts and his seemingly bad luck at the plate.

Bird has 14 strikeouts in 33 at-bats (38 plate appearances) and his BABIP is only .167 (it was .319 in 2015).

Again, small sample sizes abound, but let’s look at the pitch breakdown for Bird. He’s seen 160 pitches so far in 2017 and he’s whiffed on 33 of them, looked at 23 of them for called strikes, and has fouled off 24. One positive is that he’s also let 61 pitches go by for balls, so while he’s striking out at an alarming pace, so far, he’s not swinging at everything.

Courtesy of Statcast™

Currently, Bird’s strikeout rate is a lofty 36.8 percent compared to his 13.2 percent walk rate. During his 46 games with the Yanks in 2015, his strikeout rate was 29.8 percent while his walk rate was 10.7 percent, so fans should expect those numbers to change a bit. He will always have a higher strikeout rate compared to his walk rate but the distance between the two numbers will more than likely decrease.

As for Bird’s .167 BABIP, it’s currently so far off from what it usually is (he hovers in the high-.200s to low-.300s range for his career), that it’s safe to say that he’s has had some bad luck so far this season and that the number will probably not be that low by the time the season ends.

After the Yankees’ 9-3 win on Sunday, Bird told reporters, “I’m a big feel guy. (Sunday) in the cage before the game, I really started to feel connected to my lower half, and that was nice.”

And Bird’s explanation for his slow start?

“I just feel like I was pulling off the ball a lot and my timing was messed up and I was really trying hard to find that and I just couldn’t.”

Bird also added, “At every level I’ve ever played, the game’s always been the same and I’ve always been able to hit.”

So Yankee fans can stop imagining the worst-case scenario for Greg Bird; it’s just an early-season a slump, he won’t be this bad all year; things should improve for him as the season goes on — as long as he stays healthy.

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