Breaking down the first base battle: Bird vs. Voit

All eyes are on first base.

No, really, they are.  At least, from a fan and reporter perspective, we’re all waiting to hear who is going to get the job of regular play at first base: Greg Bird, or Luke Voit?

Photo credit: Charles Wenzelberg/New York Post

There’s a lot of questions to be answered here.  Who worked harder in the offseason? Who has a better track record of health and  hustle?  Who is the better defender, and the better hitter?  Who has more experience?  Who can come through in the clutch?  And ultimately, who deserves the recognition of being the Yankees’ every day first baseman?

Without any bias just yet, and without the assumption that this battle will just end in a platoon (but not eliminating the possibility of it either), let’s answer these questions by making a good ol’ fashioned pro-and-con list, for both Bird and Voit.

Pros for Bird:
During his MLB rookie season in 2015, Bird quite literally came out swinging -- at least, by rookie standards.  He hit .261 in just 46 game appearances, hit 11 home runs, recorded 31 RBIs and logged 41 hits.  Truly, this is not too shabby for a rookie who only appeared in 46 games. The potential for Bird to be a great slugger lies in the stats of his rookie season.  His 28 hits, 28 RBIs, nine home runs and .190 batting average in 2017 can be explained away by his returning to the Yankees following a season-long absence in 2016 due to injury.

Bird also possesses a loyalty pro; he came up through the Bombers’ farm system, and as such, he has been groomed for Pinstripes since his career in baseball began.  And that’s a pro because being groomed for Pinstripes means understanding the pressure of playing in New York because it’s assumedly drilled into home-grown Yankees from the get-go.  Not to mention, he’s young and has a long career ahead of him (hopefully), younger than Voit, but still has more big game experience than Voit does.

As far as clutch hitting, Bird has indeed had his moments, especially in the 2017 postseason -- at which point he was still not even a year post-2016 injury.  And regarding working on his game in the offseason, SNY reports that Bird sought a “fortress of solitude” this past winter -- during which he took time to relax mentally, but worked hard physically.  Instead of returning to his home in Denver for the winter, Bird stayed at the Yankees’ camp in Florida to put in additional training with the coaching staff.

So far this spring, Bird is silencing the critics -- as of March 7th, he has appeared in seven exhibition games, has hit one home run, accumulated a 1.300 OPS, and recorded three RBIs.

Photo credit: Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Cons for Bird:
The biggest question mark in the Bird conversation is also the biggest con: can he just stay healthy?  And, if he can’t, can he bounce back once he returns to the roster?  After losing the entirety of the 2016 season, and what amounted to the entirety of the 2018 season (thanks to his inability to bounce back from an early 2018 injury)?

It’s tough to say.  Is it Bird’s fault that he was injured?  No. But, is it his fault that he couldn’t bounce back?  Maybe.  We fans don’t know what’s happening in his head, and maybe the mental solitude that he sought after in the offseason will help him when bounce-back is necessary.  However… does Aaron Boone really want to take the risk that when it’s time to bounce-back, Bird’s old habits will die hard?

With 82 game appearances in 2018, anyone who knows baseball would assume that Bird would throw up higher numbers than he would have over previous seasons, in which he only played 46 and 48 games.  However, over the 2018 season, Bird logged just 54 hits -- 13 more than he logged in 2015, when he only appeared in 46 games and was fresh up from Scranton/Wilkes-Barre.  He recorded a mere 38 RBIs, only seven more than he recorded in 2015.  With those most recent numbers over more games played than in his previous two seasons, Bird is going to have to overcome a great deal of fan and hopefully, coach, skepticism if he wants his job back -- a concern that was highlighted when Bird was noticeably absent from the 2018 postseason roster.

Pros for Voit:
Voit came onto the scene in the Bronx in the middle of the 2018 season, following the trade deadline.  And when he came on the scene, he, well, burst.

In 39 appearances in Pinstripes during the 2018 season, Voit logged 44 hits, 14 of which were home runs.  He drove in 33 runs and scored 28, and, quite remarkably, overall hit .333. With his impressive slugger stats, Voit could work well in the DH slot if, in fact, Boone decided to platoon Bird and Voit and put Bird in the 1B slot.

Voit also has something to prove: he’s not a fluke on the offensive front.  And with something to prove, it’s reasonable to expect that he’ll play even better, just to shut down the skeptics.

So far this spring, Voit has appeared in five exhibition games during which he hit two home runs, drove in five runs and has a 1.126 OPS. 

With regard to hitting in clutch situations, Voit proved in 2018, both in the regular season and in the postseason, that he has the chops -- provided, of course, that he is indeed not a fluke.  In a must-win game against the Red Sox on September 19, 2018, in which the Yankees were looking to keep their postseason hopes alive, Voit went 4-4 with two home runs.  And, who could forget his clutch moment in the 2018 American League Wild Card game to give the Yankees some sixth-inning insurance?

Voit also rose up as fan favorite in 2018 -- largely because he was unexpected, and, well, those of us who are old enough to be fans for 20+ years grew all nostalgic for Shane Spencer. But Spencer aside, the Yankees were waiting for a player like Voit for some time.  And let’s face it: seeing this unexpected “cult hero” play every day will help put people in the seats at Yankee Stadium.

Photo credit: WFAN

Cons for Voit:
Is Voit as accomplished on the defensive side as Bird is?  Well, no.  Even his manager admits it

But Voit isn't unaware of his weakness, either -- considering he's gone on the record announcing that he intends to win a Gold Glove in 2019 thanks to all of the work he's done in the offseason on his fielding.  Why would he have to work that much harder as a fielder? I'm not inside his head, but I'm going to guess it's because he knows that's one pro that Bird has in a side-by-side comparison. 

Whether or not Voit will reach his Gold Glove goals remains to be seen; however, he's focused on constantly improving his game in the field.  "Defense is something I never really took pride in coming up in the minor leagues, and it kind of showed a little bit," Voit told ESPN. 

Additionally, if Boone were to put Voit in the DH spot, another question then comes into play: where will he put Giancarlo Stanton, considering how many times he found himself in the DH spot in 2018?  Of course, other offensive players on the roster find themselves as a DH during a season, but Stanton was a regular DH.  Would the Yankees then be left with a “platoon” in the DH spot between Stanton and Voit (with Bird at first)?  Does a “DH platoon” work better than a first base platoon (again, assuming a first base platoon is not how this battle will end)? 

So, even after weighing the pros and cons… who will win the battle at first base?  It’s still a tough call, and both players have strong cases for why he should be the Yankees’ every day player once Opening Day comes around.  However, after weighing the pros and cons, there’s one stand that I feel comfortable taking, and that’s the notion that Voit -- even if not in the field and at DH -- needs to be in the lineup as often as possible.  As far as fielding, he deserves a chance, especially considering the offseason work that he cites.  Bird is at a bit of a disadvantage here; we’ve heard the story of offseason work from him previously, we’ve heard the tales of strong rehab when he’s been out for injuries… and they haven’t provided the outcome that anyone had hoped for. 

All of the above said, the decision from Boone should ultimately come from both a combination of track record and results at the conclusion of Spring Training.  At this point, it’s truly too soon for him to make a decision.  Both Bird and Voit are off to good Spring Training starts, which leads fans (and presumably, Boone) to one conclusion for right now: the battle for first base is going to rage on.

Article by: Mary Grace Donaldson


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