Over the last few years, the Yankees’ hitting coaches have shown a knack for transforming relative unknowns into fearsome big league sluggers. Just look at the leaps taken by Luke Voit, Gio Urshela, Mike Tauchman and Mike Ford. And while Voit and Urshela have maintained or improved upon that production — entrenching themselves as major league stalwarts — others have crashed back to Earth.
Yesterday, my colleague Dan Carty delved into the regression of one of those players. He explored how Mike Tauchman’s precipitous decline from 2019 to 2020 has thrown his role on the team into the realm of uncertainty. There is one significant contributor from 2019 whose status is even murkier: Mike Ford.
Ford burst onto the scene in the latter stages of the regular season last year. The southpaw compiled a monstrous final 39 games deputizing for the hobbled Luke Voit, pacing the team in slugging (.619) and ISO (.345) while trailing only Aaron Judge in OPS (.952) and wRC+ (145) over that stretch.
Heading into spring training 2020, it appeared Ford had done enough to force a competition for the starting first base job. His prodigious production, in combination with Voit’s diminished performance while playing through a core injury in the second half, meant Voit would have to once again prove himself. And that he did, sprinting out of the starting gate and never looking back. Voit would go on to claim the major league home run crown, leaving Ford with precious few chances to break into the lineup.
Unfortunately for Ford, he was unable to capitalize upon those limited opportunities. Just as Dan did with Tauchman yesterday, let’s compare Ford’s stats from 2019 and 2020:
2019: 50 G, 163 PA, .259/.350/.559, 12 HR, 10.4% BB%, 17.2% K%, 136 OPS+, 134 wRC+
2020: 29 G, 84 PA, .135/.226/.270, 2 HR, 8.3% BB%, 19.0% K%, 37 OPS+, 36 wRC+
These numbers come with the obvious caveat of small sample size, as neither 2019 nor 2020 provided a large enough sample to draw many definitive conclusions about the type of player Ford is or can be. However, it is still concerning to see this steep of a drop across the board.
Before we get into the bulk of his problems, let’s get some of the peripheral issues out of the way first. His plate discipline took a minor hit in 2020, however both his walk rate and strikeout rate still hovered around if not better than league average this year. His strike recognition suffered a tad, as both his swing percent and contact rate on balls in the zone dropped, though not terribly so. He was also a victim of some bad luck, as his expected batting, slugging, and wOBA far exceeded his actual performance. Additionally, his BABIP stood at an unsustainably-low .140, something almost certain to regress back to the mean.
Now onto the area that is cause for most concern: the near-complete neutralization of his power. Ford’s average exit velocity dropped by over two MPH while his maximum exit velocity fell by 1.5 MPH. His barrel rate dropped from 9.6% to 6.8% while his hard hit rate went from 45.2% to 39%. What makes this so alarming is that batted ball data becomes reliable with a relatively small sample size — about 50 batted ball events. Ford’s 59 batted ball events are enough to tell us that the power has been sapped from his game.
It’s not just the power that suffered a blow this year. In fact, almost all of his batted ball metrics showed worrying signs of decline. Ford’s average launch angle flattened out considerably, from 15.6 degrees in 2019 to just 8.4 degrees in 2020. Correspondingly, his ground ball rate jumped from 39.1% to 50.8% while his fly ball rate fell from 33% to 16.9%. All of this contributed to a more than 100 point drop in expected slugging and 70 point drop in expected wOBA.
So basically Ford went from a burgeoning power hitter to a ground ball specialist (no not the good kind) who could not square up the baseball. What are we to make of all this? Does a player of that profile have a place on the major league roster? Well... it’s complicated.
The Yankees do not have another readymade backup at first base, especially with the infield thinned by DJ LeMahieu’s free agency. They do not have another reliable lefty pinch hitter on the bench, not that Ford offered much in that department this year. Still, the Yankees are better served giving Ford’s bench spot to someone who offers one of: positional versatility, defensive soundness, offensive upside, and/or speed.
Regrettably for Mike Ford, at the moment he checks none of those boxes. Therefore it is probably best that he begin next season in Triple-A, without the pressure of being thrust into a high-leverage situation for his first at-bat of the game. He can work on lifting the ball again, and hope that his power stroke returns. Given the litany of injury issues on the major league roster, Ford could get the call back sooner than he might think.