April 28, 2015
Greg Bird: Patient or Passive?
One of the great things about the Prospect Team—and scouting in general—is that there are so many talented evaluators out there who see the game in different ways. What we’re going to do here is highlight a player who draws differing opinions, and have an open discussion as to how and why we come to our various conclusions.
Ever since Yankees first baseman Greg Bird was given seven figures as a catcher out of Grandview High School in Aurora, Colorado, the left-handed hitter has drawn conflicting reviews as to just what kind of player he’ll be at the big-league level.
To help settle the debate, Jeff Moore and Tucker Blair are going to share their views on Bird, as I, Chris, moderate. As you’ll see from the debate, while their differences of opinion are slight, they add up to a fairly substantial divergence on just how successful Bird can be.
Christopher Crawford: Much has been made of Bird's approach at the plate, as seen in his 188 walks in 264 games coming into the 2015 season. However, some scouts I've spoken with believe that Bird doesn't show enough assertiveness at the plate. Is he Nick Johnson, Joey Votto, or a combination of both?
Jeff Moore: Even as the high man on Bird, I wouldn't put a Votto comp on him. Votto remains one of the elite hitters in baseball when healthy and it's not fair to use him as a comp on every left-handed first-base prospect with a lot of walks.
Those scouts who questioned Bird's willingness to pull the trigger may have been correct at one point, and this past summer you would have counted me in that group. I even expressed a similar sentiment about him last July saying that he "takes too many hittable fastballs." That said, in two more looks at him—one in the Arizona Fall League and one this spring—the approach was noticeably different. He's still patient, but he's getting away from being passive. He has shown more of a willingness to hit his pitch even if it comes early in the count while still showing a strong knowledge of the strike zone. That difference will be one of the biggest determining factors of his future success.
That will be the thing to look for this season. From what I've seen in different looks spread out over the past eight months, he appears to be bridging the gap between passivity and patience. If he can successfully make that developmental change, it will allow his raw power to play more consistently in games. And don't forget, Johnson was a pretty darn good player too, when healthy. There are worse comps to have.
Tucker Blair: As the low man on Bird, I also believe he displays an adept approach with a keen eye for the fastball. He routinely laid off pitches just outside of the zone in my viewings, although he was susceptible to average or higher secondary offerings like most hitters in the world. That being said, most pitchers in the majors will have at least one average off-speed pitch in their arsenal, sans some relievers. His passive approach is not necessarily a detriment to his game, but as Jeff said, he was passing on too many hittable offerings. At some point, you need to swing at the 2-0 fastball that is inside-middle on the zone. So on this note, you could argue that the approach has been passive. However, most of my concerns do not derive from his approach.
CC: So if your concerns don't derive from the approach, where do they derive from?
TB: I believe most of the issues with Bird's game start and end with the hit tool. While the approach helps to boost his ability to get on base, the swing is not conducive for making consistent contact. As noted in my report last season, Bird has average bat speed but the swing is elongated. While average bat speed is certainly capable of playing in the majors, the elongated swing and his slight hitch are detriments on his ability to make consistent contact on the inside half of the plate and to catch up on high-end velocity. Average bat speed is not valuable if the swing is taking too long through the zone.
From my viewings, Bird lacked the fast-twitch muscle that I look for in a swing. This also is displayed in his ability to stay back on off-speed pitches. I see Bird making less contact, and less hard contact in the majors because of this. The lack of fast-twitch muscle also correlates to his overall athleticism and defensive abilities as well, although those skill sets are far less important since he is already pegged as a first baseman long term. I still believe he is a big-leaguer, but not quite to the level that some are making him out to be. I see a second-division player at this stage of development.
JM: I don't disagree with most of Tucker's assessment of Bird, I just see it ending with a more positive outcome. The swing can get long and the bat speed is not elite, though it's not slow either. He may struggle with premium velocity in even counts, but the equalizer for Bird is the approach. Because of his patience, he consistently puts himself in fastball counts. My initial concern was that his over-passiveness would be exploited by better pitching and he'd get attacked early in the count, fall behind by taking hittable pitches, and thus be susceptible to breaking stuff later in the count, as Tucker accurately suggests he would be. My follow-up views showed the change in approach, however, jumping on fastballs early. Was he cheating slightly to catch up to them? Perhaps. But he'd be far from the first big-league power hitter to guess or cheat in order to jump on a pitch and drive it, especially in today's strikeout-accepting era.
With an advanced understanding of the strike zone, Bird's moderate skill set plays up. It's not going to make him a .300 hitter—I still think he ends up as a 45/50 hitter, settling in somewhere in the .250-.270 rage in the big leagues—but the raw power is a 60 and the approach could allow him to reach that level in games. He's going to strike out in the meantime, both because of the bat speed/swing issues and his propensity to work deep into counts, but strikeouts aren't a major concern. If he hits .260 with 25 home runs and 75 walks, that puts him in Lucas Duda territory, who has become a first-division regular.
CC: Is there anything in Bird's game that suggests he'll be able to hit left-handed pitching as he advances? And if not, is the chance for walks/power enough to justify playing him against southpaws?
JM: It's difficult to suggest that he'll definitely be able to handle them, but the things I generally look for as indicators that a hitter won't be able to handle them (flinching on breaking balls, ugly check swings, wild swings at pitches far out of the zone) haven't been evident in my looks. There are sure to be some left-on-left issues, as that's the biggest split in the game, and he did have a relatively large split last season against his best competition yet.
Most left-handed hitters, especially power hitters, have a pronounced platoon split, and I suspect Bird will be no different. The question is whether or not he will be completely useless against lefties to the point of needing to be platooned or simply weaker, as are most left-handed hitters. That's something we may not be able to answer until he's on the brink of the majors and faces better competition, but to this point I haven't seen anything relegating him to platoon status just yet.
Even if a platoon is necessary, however, he could still reach second-division levels of production. He obviously can't be considered one of the top 15 first basemen in the game if he has to sit out one to two games per week, but his strong track record against righties and his spot on the correct side of the platoon should be enough for him to still be considered a second-division regular even if he needs a caddie against some lefties.
TB: And this is where we really begin to exhibit our different views. Bird was flinching and dropping his backside on off-speed pitches during my viewings. Specifically, he was having issues with Orioles farmhand Tim Berry, who I have graded with an average change and curveball. I do see some of these split issues, although he does have the pure strength to make up for some of the eventual hit-tool issues that will derive from susceptibility of secondary offerings. So while the splits might be a mild concern, I don't envision it being such a drastic notion that turns him into a platoon option. The overall hit tool is simply light for me, enough to push him down to a second-division profile; and the lack of a defensive position outside of first base also means he will need to hit in order to provide value for his club.
JM: I don't think this makes our views all that different. It's more about the difference between A-ball and Double-A breaking balls (I saw him in the Florida State League, Tucker saw him in the Eastern League). Assuming that trend continues, Bird will probably struggle with the better breaking balls at the big-league level, but many left-handed hitters do. The lefties without platoon splits are few and far between, especially with power hitters. I'm sure there will be a split, but it sounds like Tucker and I agree that it won't be so drastic to force him out of the lineup on a strict platoon basis.
In the end, I'm simply a believer that as long as the hit tool is average and he doesn't need to be completely benched vs. lefties, then his ability to get on base will make up for the swings and miss and allow his power to play enough to be an everyday player.
Moore’s ceiling/floor comp: Floor Ike Davis, ceiling Lucas Duda (sorry, Mets fans)
Tucker Blair is an author of Baseball Prospectus. Follow @TuckerBlairON