AFL Action: Yankees’ Bird Flying High

SCOTTSDALE, Ariz.—Scorpions first baseman Greg Bird has the reputation for being an old school ballplayer—the kind who revels in sitting in the clubhouse or in the dugout or anywhere baseball people congregate, and talking about the game he loves.

Greg Bird (Photo by Bill Mitchell).
Greg Bird (Photo by Bill Mitchell).

“He's a student of the game," said Scorpions hitting coach P.J. Pilittere who, like Bird, is a member of the New York Yankees organization. “When he's not in the lineup he watches every pitch. When he's off the field, he's talking baseball with the guys. Whoever wants to talk hitting, he's there. And he loves that … he's a bit of a throwback player who doesn't want to sit at his locker and lock into his iPad or his music …. He wants to talk about the game."

The lefthanded hitting Bird is taking the Arizona Fall League by storm, leading the league in homers (5) and RBIs (14) at the midpoint of the season. His slash line of .349/.382/.651 is impressive, and he ranks fourth in slugging and sixth in OPS.

Bird's fall season comes on the heels of a solid regular season at high Class A Tampa and Double-A Trenton when he hit .271/.376/.472 with 14 homers in 369 at-bats.

He might be viewed as one of the bigger surprises in the AFL this year and a player who has opened eyes with his performance to date. Scouts have commented about really liking the bat, albeit reserving judgment as to whether his current skills at the plate will eventually translate into handling big league pitching. But those most familiar with Bird aren't surprised at all by his productivity in Arizona, and neither is he.

“Honestly, the people who matter in our organization know," Bird said. “I'm not really worried about what other people think … I'm just going to go out there and work hard and keep getting better. That's all I can do."

Bird's performance in Arizona is not unexpected by those in the Yankees organization.

“Birdie's just being himself," Pilittere said. “What he's displaying right now in this league is what we've all been confident that he could do. We've seen it for the few years that he's been part of the system … Our expectations for him are what you are seeing here. He's a dangerous hitter, very knowledgeable and very smart. He's got a chance to be really special."

Like most young power hitters Bird carries with him high strikeout totals, as he was punched out in 22 percent of his plate appearances in the regular season and 23.5 percent in the AFL. But he also draws more than his fair share of walks, having led all of minor league baseball in bases on balls with 107 in 2013 while at low Class A Charleston affiliate. While acknowledging that Bird will still be a productive hitter regardless of how often he fans, Pilittere believes that his strikeout totals will go down as he moves higher in the minors because the zones will be more consistent.

Bird certainly isn't concerned about his strikeout totals. When asked if he's making any changes to put more balls in play, Bird replied, “Nope. I'm just going to go out there and stick with my plan and my approach … It's worked up to this point and I feel like it's good enough for me. I can have success with it and I'm going to keep sticking with that."

The other rap on Bird is that he's not yet a strong defender at first base, although improving his glove work is one of the primary goals for his six weeks in Arizona. To help, Bird has been taking extra ground balls, working on his first step, and being more aggressive to the baseball on grounders.

A catcher in high school before the Yankees took the Colorado product in the fifth round in 2011, Bird credits his time behind the plate with helping him improve defensively at first base.

“With the catching background there's a lot of footwork involved that helps me around the base," Bird said. “That's something that people don't realize … that there's more footwork (in playing first base) than people think."

Bird also agrees that his time behind the plate helped his development as a hitter, especially having caught the likes of high school teammate Kevin Gausman, now a member of the Orioles starting rotation. Bird said that understanding the mindset of working hitters is valuable knowledge, but also said he tries not to overthink it too much.

Injuries have kept Bird out of action for parts of two of his three seasons, with back problems mostly to blame, so he continually works on keeping his body healthy.

“This game is tough," Bird said. “It's a long season … everyone deals with stuff. It's just maintaining and staying strong throughout the year. Everyone has to deal with some little thing and that's what I've come to deal with, too. It's just maintaining the strength."

Bird has developed a strong sense of Yankees pride since becoming part of one of baseball's most storied franchises.

“Wear the pinstripes, man, there's nothing better," Bird said. “… Being part of it is something special. You don't get that in any other organization. It's an honor and a privilege. I take that seriously. That's the best part of it."

He further cemented that reputation as a baseball rat when asked what he likes to do when he's away from the ballpark.

“Come back to the field," Bird said. “That's my favorite thing to do."

AFL NOTES

• Cuban pitcher Raisel Iglesias (Reds) impressed in his two brief stints for the Surprise. After making his first stateside appearance in an instructional league game on Oct. 16, a very quick 1-2-3 inning in which he struck out the side on 10 pitches, Iglesias then pitched twice in the AFL in the past week. His first outing on Monday resulted in another perfect inning in which the 24-year-old righthander showed a fastball up to 97 mph and a devastating curveball. He wasn't as dominating in his second outing on Thursday, with the fastball up to 93, but still came away with another hitless inning. One scout from an American League organization was ready to declare Iglesias as Cincinnati's top prospect after witnessing that first AFL outing.

• Several key players were removed from AFL rosters last week. Kyle Zimmer (Royals) was pulled from his third start on Oct. 18 after one inning with shoulder soreness and has been shut down for the year. Taijuan Walker (Mariners) and Addison Russell (Cubs) both departed early as planned. Surprise outfielder Rusney Castillo (Red Sox) injured his hand last Monday and is not expected to play again this fall, although he has not yet been taken off the Saguaros roster.

• The ninth annual Fall Stars game will be held on Saturday at Salt River Fields beginning at 7:08 pm EST. Baseball America editor-in-chief John Manuel will be part of the broadcast team for the national telecast on MLB Network. Rosters for the game were announced on Monday.

Comments