The 2019 Yankees boast a wealth of surprise stories, with the likes of Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman, and Domingo German all giving the team far more production than expected. Of all the pleasant surprises, though, the emergence of Mike Ford might be the unlikeliest.
The Jersey native went undrafted after playing in college ball at Princeton University, then signed with the Yankees in 2012. The team briefly lost him to the Mariners in the Rule 5 Draft, only to be returned last year. Now, in increased playing time thanks to an historic injury outbreak, Ford is posting a .535 slugging percentage and a 124 OPS+. He has even shown a flare for the dramatic, with a walk-off dinger against the A’s last Sunday afternoon.
Ford’s explosive lefty bat has been as remarkable as it is improbable, especially when subject to a closer look. For example, he currently holds a 1.630 OPS in 31 plate appearances against southpaws, including seven of his 10 home runs. That certainly stands out as interesting considering the platoon disadvantage.
Of Ford’s 10 dingers, eight have come against fastballs, including the one off of Liam Hendriks on Sunday at the Stadium to send the Yanks to a series win. So far this season, Ford boasts a .617 xSLG against heaters and a strikeout rate of just 8.7 percent. He clearly likes his fastballs, but if he wants to have any staying power at the major-league level, he better prepare himself for some adjustments from opposing pitchers. They likely have caught on to his fastball-hungry approach.
Ford has absolutely demolished heaters this season, but when it comes to breaking balls, it’s a vastly different story. He has seen breaking balls 31.3 percent of the time—compared to 50.3 percent fastballs—and has an xSLG of .257, a strikeout rate of 30.3 percent, and a put-away percentage (the rate of two-strike pitches that result in a strikeout) of 20.8 percent.
The first baseman’s whiff percentage on breaking balls is four times as high as it is on fastballs, and other teams could be catching on. It’s a small sample size, as the month has just started, but the trend from August to September in terms of pitch usage against him could be a sign of what’s to come for Ford, and what he will have to do to remain productive:
It should be expected that Ford will begin to see more breaking balls as the season winds down, and he might continue to struggle against them. That’s often a natural adjustment in the major leagues, considering breaking balls at the big-league level are often much tougher to connect with than at Triple-A. It’s unfair to think Ford will keep this up—though weirder things have already happened this year—but if he wants to stay in the bigs, he’ll have to figure out the breaking ball.
On the bright side, the Yankees have seen this happen before, with Aaron Judge in 2017 and Miguel Andujar in 2018. Both stormed out to fast starts in their respective rookie seasons, saw a gradual increase in breaking balls, and adjusted accordingly. Of course, both were considered better hitters and more established prospects than Ford, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t capable. Ford has already shown more than many expected out of his career in a span of one season, and if he was able to defy the odds and reach the point he’s at right now, why can’t he keep climbing?