Over the last few weeks, Derek has been reviewing the 2020 Yankees projections from the leading projection systems. You can check those out here (Steamer), here (ZiPS), and here (PECOTA). There are a number of interesting takeaways from those suite of projections, but there’s one unifying thread to which I want to draw particular attention: each projection system loves Mike Ford.
I’ve been slowly coming aboard the Ford train recently, but I must admit that I’m still surprised to see all of the major projection systems – which, as you all know, lean conservative – in relative unison on Ford. Check it out:
- PECOTA: .255/.341/.501 (124 DRC+) in 21o AB
- ZiPS: .257/.340/.481 (116 wRC+) in 491 PA
- Steamer: .255/.340/.485 (115 wRC+) in 105 PA
Those are optimistic projections to say the least, but none more so than PECOTA. Baseball-Prospectus believes he is a Top 50 true talent hitter by their DRC (their version of wRC+ or OPS+). In fact, his 124 DRC+ ranks places him alongside players like Justin Turner (124 DRC+), Edwin Encarnación (124 DRC+), Carlos Correa (125 DRC+), and José Altuve (123 DRC+). That’s pretty good company!
In terms of Yankees, only Giancarlo Stanton (139 DRC+) and Aaron Judge (130 DRC+) project better. I’ve come around to the idea that Ford might actually be good, as I said, but I still admit that I’m surprised by this! However, a look at some under-the-hood data shows that we should not be surprised: Ford did about as well as you could possibly do last season. Let’s get right into it.
He Hit the Ball Hard
By way of reminder, Ford hit .259/.350/.559 (134 wRC+) with 12 homers in 163 trips to the plate in 2019. (For a more thorough refresher of his season, check out Derek’s season review here.) That was a very solid debut campaign for the 27-year-old lefty, but one with a slightly muted reaction. I suspect that the unusual ball, which drive up offensive production, plus the fact that it came when the Yankees had a playoff spot all but confirmed, contributed to this.
However, there’s a lot of encouraging stuff in Ford’s profile. Check out some of his batted ball data, with league averages in parentheses:
- Average Exit Velocity: 91.9 mph (87.5 mph)
- Launch Angle: 15.6 (11.2)
- Expected wOBA: .365 (.318)
- Hard Hit Rate: 45.6% (34.5%)
That is all very good to see. It suggests that his pop (24% HR/FB rate compared to 15% league average) is for real, as he was hammering the ball and hitting it into the air. You can’t ask a hitter to do any more than that, no matter how small the sample is. I’ve said this a million times, but I’ll say it once more: a batter can only hit the balls he sees. Ford did that, and he did it well.
Not to mention, there are even more promising figures underneath this data. First, let’s look at his rolling wOBA, courtesy of Statcast:
This shows us that Ford struggled until about his 100th plate appearance of the season. He was quite a bit below average for a stretch there, in fact. Even during this rough stretch, though, he hit the ball very hard. Check out his rolling exit velocity average:
And his rolling hard hit percentage:
In other words, even when he struggled, Ford mostly hit the ball hard (and much harder than league average). This all suggests that Ford was not a fluke, and it is certainly a very large piece of the projections.
He was Patient at the Plate
There is one additional piece of promising data, too: Ford was extremely patient at the plate, laying off pitches out of the zone and attacking those in the zone. This shouldn’t be a surprise given the above — it’s much easier to hit the ball hard when you swing at the right pitches — but it’s further evidence that he’s a legitimate hitter.
Consider some stats that weigh patience and selectiveness, with averages in parentheses as usual:
- Pitches per Plate Appearance: 4.08 (similar to Brett Gardner)
- Walk Rate: 10.4% (8.5%)
- O-Swing Rate (pitches outside the zone): 24% (32%)
- Z-Swing Rate (pitches in the zone): 63% (69%)
- Z-Contact Rate: 88% (85%)
- Swinging Strike Rate: 8% (11%)
Again, this tells a pretty straightforward picture: Ford laid off pitches out of the zone and attacked the pitches he could hit. Even though he swung at a fewer percentage of pitches in the zone than league average, I think that might indicate that he’s confident waiting for the right pitch. In fact, that’s borne out by this Statcast charts. Check it out:
The area with the least amount of swings (44%, lower left) is also the area in the zone with the lowest xWOBA (.289). That, again, shows that he knows which pitches to swing at. It’s hard to say if this is meaningful long-term, as the sample is very small, but, again, you cannot ask for more out of a player. Ford not only hit the ball hard – he also showed a consistent and noteworthy ability to swing at the right pitches.
Shades of Luke Voit
Finally, this all reminds me of Luke Voit — and I wrote for River Ave Blues at this time last year that Voit looked like the real deal, too. That was all based on similar reasoning, and so I feel like it’s only consistent to bang the same drum here. Besides, look at this:
- Luke Voit (2018): 322/.398/.671 (189 wRC+) in 161 PA
- Mike Ford (2019): .259/.350/.559 (134 wRC+) in 163 PA
Obviously, Ford didn’t quite live up to the Voit standard here in terms of actual production. Voit was basically the best hitter in the league over that stretch, after all. But still: underneath Voit’s absurd production was a similar skillset. He laid off bad pitches, he hit the ball hard, and that all impressed the projection systems – all of which predicted a strong campaign for Voit in 2019.
I think it is worth mentioning this just to give some credence to Ford. Voit, who is unfairly maligned for a poor September, is one of the Yankees’ best hitters, and he is also proof that underlying peripherals and strong projections can uncover a hidden gem.
I’m not going to lie: I’ve talked myself into Mike Ford fully now. This isn’t to say that he’s going to be the Yankees third-best hitter – that feels insane to me still – but I do think there’s reason to believe that Ford will be a productive member of the Yankees’ lineup next season. After all, we’ve seen it before.