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Why Mike Ford looks so familiar

Ford’s profile mirrors one of the game’s brightest young stars.

Oakland Athletics v New York Yankees Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

Everyone loves an impressive debut. Few things excite baseball audiences as much as when a rookie takes charge, making the batter’s box his home. When a top prospect goes off at the plate, one feels a sense of validation. After years of anticipation, the hype becomes real.

There does, however, exist an even sweeter debut, one where the payoff comes not from the young star living up to lofty expectations, but from the everyman who brings the game closer to you. I’m thinking of the out-of-nowhere player, the unheralded arrival, the near-washout who got a chance and ran with his opportunity. I’m thinking of Mike Ford.

Ford, 27, had a tumultuous road to the big leagues. He signed with the Yankees as an undrafted free agent out of Princeton University in 2012 and slowly climbed the ranks through the system. The Mariners nabbed him in the 2017 Rule 5 Draft, but returned him before spring training ended. His career outlook more closely resembled organizational filler than a legitimate prospect.

Seven years after signing, Ford got the call to the Bronx amidst the team’s dramatic injury outbreak. The first baseman responded with an impressive debut, authoring a .259/.350/.559 batting line with 12 home runs (134 wRC+). He embodied the team’s next-man-up ethos, catching fire in September and hitting one of the most memorable walk-off home runs of the season.

“[I’m] a confident hitter that’s gonna control the zone and hopefully be a tough out,” Ford said to Steve Serby when asked to describe his approach at the plate. “I have some power that’s kind of come into fruition here the past few years. If I can continue to put swings on good pitches, I’ll be fine.”

We spilled a lot of virtual ink on Ford this offseason, from wondering what a full season of his would look like, to naming him a potential breakout infielder in 2020, and predicting a battle at first base with Luke Voit. At the risk of over-saturating the blog with Ford content, I ask you to indulge me in one more exercise: I want to find out why he looked so dang familiar at the plate last year.

Ford recorded 115 batted-ball events in 2019. To get started, I pulled the names of everyone with a minimum of 100 batted balls last year. That gave me 406 players, a healthy sample from which to draw a comparison.

To narrow that list down, I used exit velocity as a limiting criteria. Since Ford had an average exit velocity of 91.9 mph, I eliminated everyone outside of the 91-93 mph range. That left me with 49 players, a far more manageable group, but still too broad to figure out a one-to-one comp.

With Ford boasting a launch angle of 15.6 degrees, I further refined my search by discarding anyone who fell outside of the 15-to-17.6-degree range. This additional layer gave me nine players to work with, a group I’m comfortable using to name a comp. Since Ford spoke highly of his own approach at the plate and power, I added plate discipline and pull data into the fold, summed up in this table:

Mike Ford’s best offensive comps

Player Batted Balls Exit Velo Launch Angle Pull% Z-Swing% O-Swing% Z-O Swing
Player Batted Balls Exit Velo Launch Angle Pull% Z-Swing% O-Swing% Z-O Swing
Brad Miller 109 91.6 16.8 29.40% 71.50% 27.80% 43.70%
Hunter Dozier 380 91.1 16.7 40.80% 66% 30.10% 36%
Matt Chapman 439 92.6 16.3 42.40% 65% 24.80% 40%
Keston Hiura 208 91.4 16 30.30% 73.50% 35.10% 38.40%
Mike Ford 115 91.9 15.6 43.50% 63.10% 23.90% 39.20%
Teoscar Hernandez 265 91.1 15.5 46.70% 72.90% 30.30% 42.60%
Jorge Soler 415 92.6 15.4 46.70% 70.70% 27.10% 43.60%
Mitch Garver 226 91.1 15.3 51.30% 55.60% 20.10% 35.50%
Kyle Schwarber 379 92.7 15 40.10% 66.80% 28.40% 38.40%

As it turns out, Ford looked like a carbon copy of Athletics third baseman Matt Chapman. The 26-year-old followed up his 2018 breakout by hitting .249/.342/.506 with a 125 wRC+. He made the American League All-Star team and finished seventh in the junior circuit for home runs with 36.

Chapman obviously has a longer track record than Ford, with two full seasons of outstanding production in the books. He also was a first-round draft pick in 2014 and ranked among Oakland’s top 10 prospects. Still, their underlying profiles are remarkably similar. They both pull the ball with authority and have quite the comparable plate-discipline numbers. Ford basically represents the left-handed version of Chapman.

Of course, any post comparing Ford to Chapman would be incomplete without a discussion of glove-work. Chapman plays all-world defense at the hot corner, winning a Gold Glove at the position in each of the last two years. Stacast’s Outs Above Average grades him as the second-best defensive third baseman in baseball, only behind the RockiesNolan Arenado.

Ford, meanwhile, plays a mostly competent first base. In a small sample size, he amassed two Outs Above Average, but even that metric isn’t immune to the sketchiness that is first-base defense. Nonetheless, scouting reports considered him an average defender; he isn’t a DH hiding at first base. And as Voit shows, teams don’t prioritize first basemen for their scooping abilities. It’s all about the bat.

A great deal of Chapman’s value comes from his defense, hence the multiple six-win seasons. Ford may not have a game-changing glove working in his favor, but that doesn’t take away from their offensive similarities. Even if the projection systems didn’t notice the resemblance, they still look highly upon him. According to FanGraphs’ depth charts, Ford projects to have a .345 wOBA in 2020, fifth best on the Yankees, ahead of Voit, DJ LeMahieu, and Miguel Andujar. With the team at full health, will he even have the chance to perform to this level? That remains foggy, but the underlying data suggests they should find out.