In a season of fun stories of production from unexpected sources, Mike Ford was arguably the most fun of all 2019. An undrafted first baseman, Ford stuck around and kept moving up levels of the Yankees’ minor league system by simply continuing to produce. He never landed on any top prospect lists, but he just kept on putting up numbers that led the Yankees to keeping him around.
Then in 2019, the Yankees went through an immense amount of injury trouble, and eventually Ford was the name called upon. Not only did he fill in admirably, he thrived. His numbers against lefties (.333/.389/1.000) were good enough that he was kept around even when expected starters started to recover from their injuries. While Luke Voit was always destined to be the starting first baseman, Ford was good enough that it was completely logical for the Yankees to keep him around.
Then the calendar turned to 2020.
2020 Stats: 84 PA, .135/.226/.270, 2 HR, 11 RBI, 19.0 K%, 8.3 BB%, 36 wRC+, -0.6 WAR
2021 FanGraphs Depth Chart Projections: 28 PA, .238/.324/.450, 1 HR, 4 RBI, 19.9 K%, 10.2 BB%, 102 wRC+, 0.1 WAR
The 2020 season was practically the opposite of 2019 for Ford. His OPS dropped over 400 points. His wRC+ fell from 134 to 36. He walked less and struck out more. He went from mashing against lefties to literally going hitless against them all season, albeit in just nine plate appearances.
The peripherals of his season don’t suggest he was much better, as he had a pretty sizable drop in them across the board.
The massive drop is launch angle is especially troubling. As mentioned, pretty much all of Ford’s stats across the board went down, but his power was arguably the most affected. His slugging went from .559 in 2019 to just .270.
More concerning is the fact that there doesn’t appear to be much of a change in Ford’s approach.
Ford didn’t change his habits too much from the season before. He just swung and missed more, and made weaker contact when he did get bat on the ball.
What does that hold in store for his future?
There’s the possibility that 2020 is proven to be the small sample size it was. He only got 84 plate appearances all season. Voit was so good that he got down-ballot MVP votes; the Yankees weren’t going to leave him out of the lineup just to get Ford more at bats. Plus, there was all the other genuine weirdness of the season, maybe all that just messed with him. Perhaps with a little more normal of a year in 2021, he gets back to being at least being a decent platoon bat.
Or maybe 2019 was actually the small sample size. The ball was probably juiced that season. It’s possible the combination of that and him getting good swings against pitchers that had never seen him before resulted in him playing above his level. Maybe is drop in 2020 is who he actually is when opponents know his game.
The truth is probably somewhere in the middle. It’s almost certainly not a 134 wRC+ hitter, but he’s also probably not as bad as a 36 one. However, wherever the middle is may have taken a hit.
A few weeks ago, MLB announced that they were going to alter the baseballs in 2021. Even if Ford does play better, whatever his median season is probably fell a bit with that news. His 2019 was almost certainly positively impacted by whatever was going on, it’s likely that his 2021 will be hurt in the other direction.
One other hurdle for him is spelled out is this FanGraphs depth chart projections* listed above: without injuries, it’s hard to find a place for him. After his 2020, there’s way less of a need for the Yankees to try and carve out a spot for him on the roster. Voit has first base locked down, and DJ LeMahieu has shown an ability to fill in there.
*If you’re looking for a more full-season projection for Ford, ZiPS says that he would hit .237/.322/.447 with 20 homers, a 101 wRC+, and 0.8 WAR if given 432 plate appearances.
The Yankees carried Ford last year with a similar situation, but would they do it again or take someone with more positional flexibility? There’s no need for the Yankees to DFA him or anything drastic just yet, but there’s also no need to try and squeeze him in on the Opening Day roster.