Even as one of the strongest Mike Ford believers, I’m not sure I saw his August power surge coming.
The Yankees’ backup to the backup first baseman is hitting .229/.325/.524 with a 115 wRC+, boosted by eight home runs and a 123 wRC+ in August alone.
In February, I wrote about the Yankees’ first base options beyond Luke Voit and Greg Bird, never thinking the team would also acquire Edwin Encarnación. I grouped Ford in with fellow Scranton All-Star Ryan McBroom in the post at River Ave Blues:
Mike Ford and Ryan McBroom have each hit well in Trenton and Scranton over the last couple years, though each is past prospect status in their late 20s. Could either go on a Voit or Shelley Duncan-style streak in the Majors? Sure! But sustained success is questionable, even if Ford could give you some two-way dreams.River Avenue Blues
That Shelly Duncan-esque stretch has come for Ford (though the two-way dreams were dashed). However, there are signs that Ford has sustainability, even with his limited defensive versatility.
Beyond his history of hitting at every level, Ford has given the Yankees more reason to believe in his future after just his MLB performance alone. The 27-year-old first baseman has a 92.2 mph average exit velocity, the 17th-best mark in baseball, ahead of All-Stars like Matt Chapman, DJ LeMahieu, J.D. Martinez and Bryce Harper, to name some. You can’t fake exit velocity, and Ford has shown the ability to put the barrel on the ball.
Furthermore, his plate discipline has carried over from the Minors, just as it did in April when he wasn’t launched every other ball over the fence. He’s walked in 10 percent of plate appearances and has a 16.7 percent strikeout rate, much better than average.
That comes in addition to his nine home runs, eight of which have come in August alone as he tagged the Dodgers and Mariners for plenty of long balls. And, in the words of Ken Singleton, he’s done it against at least one name-brand pitcher: Clayton Kershaw. The left-hander isn’t quite the same as he was five years ago, but that’s no slouch.
Seven of Ford’s nine home runs have come against left-handed pitchers, giving the first baseman a significant reverse platoon split. That contrasts with his Minor League track record, where he posted a normal platoon. So why is able to mash southpaws in this small sample? The left-handers he’s taken deep have primarily been soft-tossers like Tommy Milone, who he took deep twice.
Ford hasn’t seen much high-end velocity in his MLB stint yet, nor has he seen a ton of anything, collecting just 120 plate appearances over 33 games. Any conclusions about Ford at this point are suspect based on sample size alone.
But, as mentioned above, Ford’s success starts long before he reached the Majors. He was the Ivy League’s best hitter in his senior season, in addition to dominating on the mound. He went undrafted and had to rake in the Cape Cod League for the Yankees to sign him to an MiLB contract. Ford’s been an above-average hitter at every stop in the Minor Leagues, and his power poked through in the upper levels.
However, Ford belongs to a class of prospects that are often overlooked: College first basemen. Those players are already at the bottom of the defensive spectrum and have to hit at a prodigious rate to stand out. Ford came into this season with great numbers in Triple-A — .256/.334/.455 with 22 homers in 127 games. The reality is that he was slow-moving first baseman blocked from any chance at the Majors in the foreseeable future.
The Yankees aren’t the only organization to see something in Ford. The Mariners previously saw promise when they took him in the Rule 5 Draft before the 2018 season. However, after a lackluster spring for Ford, the M’s chose Daniel Vogelbach over Ford, which is a fine decision given Vogelbach’s production this year. This week, he made them pay nonetheless.
Statcast provides comparable players based off hitting profiles. For Ford, his top four similar players are Max Kepler, Kyle Seager, Jorge Polanco and Gleyber Torres, a foursome with four All-Star appearances and proven track records at the plate.
So how does Ford relate to Gleyber and the others? Each of those players have above-average strikeout rates, walk rates around 10 percent and a strong batted ball profiles with plenty of hard contact.
Just because he’s hit like those players in his first 33 MLB games doesn’t mean it will hold together when he faces harder competition and gets more playing time. The biggest question for Ford is where he fits in the short and long term for the Yankees.
In the short term, Luke Voit returns this weekend and takes back the majority of the first base at-bats. There will still be some starts at designated hitter available, so he can find his way into the lineup if he’s not sent down for Voit. It becomes trickier when Edwin Encarnación or Giancarlo Stanton return to the lineup.
After this season, the Yankees will have yet another 40-man roster crunch. Encarnación isn’t an issue as a free agent once he’s bought out. Ford might have passed Greg Bird on the depth chart with Bird a non-tender/trade candidate despite being younger and having a higher ceiling.
But with Voit and LeMahieu able to man first base, the Yankees could take their chances and deal Ford to alleviate roster concerns. Maybe Seattle takes another chance on him through trade, or another team deals a mid-level prospect to see what Ford can do in everyday time. There aren’t a ton of teams with first base jobs open, but Ford could still attract suitors.
Ford’s success gives the Yankees the best kind of roster problems. He’s gone from an afterthought, back-end depth, to a potential second-division regular or better, and may have a spot in the Yankees’ plans past September. For someone who went unselected in the 40-round MLB draft, that’s a remarkable reality to behold.