Monday, July 30, 2012
Lew Ford in Left: Day 1 in the Books, Day 2 Comin' Up!
Since Chris Davis started playing left field back on July 13, I’ve have been closing my eyes every time a ball is hit to left field in Oriole Park (and surely I’m not alone), knowing that I’d rather listen to a radio call, even a bad one, than watch a 6’3” 230-pound converted corner infielder with limited speed play any ball batted into the largest expanse of Camden Yards.
To say nothing of Baltimore’s limited offensive prowess, Davis was clearly a square peg in a round hole, one that spurred me to think more extensively at potential solutions. For me as an observer, someone who does not have to worry about financial considerations or the long-term viability of the team, there seemed to be a ready-made answer that hadn’t yet been tried, one not named Xavier Avery, Endy Chavez, Steve Pearce, or Davis. His name was Lew Ford, a journeyman outfielder.
I had asked that question in late June when my brother and good friend were bantering back and forth about the O’s per usual. Lew Ford, they said. He’s killing at Triple-A. We gotta give him a shot, damn the age!
Ford’s age happens to be almost 36 years young, though he’s nearing the end of a largely unremarkable career spent between the majors, minors, independent leagues and abroad. Defensively, he once provided capable replacement-level play behind Torii Hunter when the nine-time Gold Glove winner was a center-field mainstay in Minnesota. Between 2004 and 2005, Ford made 209 starts in the outfield while committing only 10 errors in almost 500 chances. 500 is a nice, round number, a bit more substantial than say, zero, so right away, Ford is miles ahead of Davis. That said, fielding isn’t the only reason, or even the primary reason, that Ford deserved a call-up.
After being snagged from the Long Island Ducks of the professional Atlantic League, Ford has hit very proficiently for Triple-A Norfolk. In 62 games since his arrival, he batted .331 for the Tides and got on base at a .390 rate. Admittedly, stats at Triple-A are probably a good 30-50 points inflated from realistic MLB figures (that’s a personal guess, not a SABR-metric figure), but it’s not like the O’s have a proven hitter on their active roster who’s a natural left-fielder, so the risk in trying Ford out was (is) relatively low. If you had to pick out flaws, the biggest “holes” in his standard batting splits at Triple-A were as follows:
Bases empty (151 AB): .291 AVG/.340 OBP;
Runners on (91 AB): .396/.467
Vs. LHP (55 AB): .291/.350
Vs. RHP (187 AB): .342/.401
Ahead in count (68 AB): .279/.462
Behind in count (94 AB): .287/.291
That’s the worst of it. For all the other usual splits you examine, including performance since the All-Star Break (63 AB, .302/.348), Ford has batted over .310 and got on base at a .340 rate or higher. So why did it take this long?
My guess: the explanation involves Mark Reynolds and Steve Pearce.
Reynolds, currently hitting .203, is the only player with at least 150 at-bats who is hitting under .220. He’s struck out 94 times, the second highest total on the team behind Davis (102), but his team-high 40 walks have allowed his on-base percentage to remain among the highest on in the everyday lineup despite his hitting woes. (Davis, in defense of his strikeouts, is hitting .264 with a .311 OBP and has twice as many homeruns as Reynolds in only 10 more games played.) Erratic defensive play aside (though his time at first base has been mostly acceptable), Reynolds somehow provides the one thing the O’s lineup really lacks — a man consistently on base — but he does so at the steepest of prices.
After a 3-year stretch where he hit at least 30 homeruns and racked up at least 80 RBI each season, Reynolds holds a slugging percentage that bests only Robert Andino among everyday O’s players. He’s struggling through a season in which he’s not in a stable or comfortable fielding situation and is no longer doing the things that the O’s hoped he would continue when they traded for him before 2011. The only way Reynolds becomes valuable, aside from miraculously regaining form, is as a trade chip, but he can’t be a worthwhile investment to other teams if he’s riding the bench for us — he has to prove he can play his way out of a slump in order for other teams to want him and possibly agree to pay part or all of his $7.5 million salary. Forced to play Reynolds, Orioles manager Showalter has little choice in where he plays Davis if Showalter is committed to keep a power left-handed bat in his line to supplement Matt Wieters, an aging Jim Thome playing DH and the occasional blast from right-fielder Nick Markakis.
Which brings us back to Steve Pearce, who’s played a good deal more left field in his career than Davis, but still not enough to be called a legitimate outfielder. Pearce had 8 hits and scored had 3 runs in his first 25 at-bats, but he swung a fairly quiet bat after that, posting a 10-for-51 mark in spot duty between June 14 and July 20, when the O’s designated him for assignment on July 20.
As long as Pearce was seen as a viable option, Ford’s chance to return to the big leagues remained on hold. Now, with Pearce gone and Ford still playing well at Norfolk, the O’s finally had justifiable circumstances to call Ford up: he’s a natural outfielder hitting well enough in Triple-A that the O’s could call him up & insert him right away. If Ford keeps playing well, he and Davis would each continue hitting well enough to bump Davis his usual position at first base, sending Reynolds, who now appears to be a trade package afterthought, back to the bench as a righty pinch hitter or DH; at worst, if Ford manages to stick in Baltimore, Reynolds and Davis would platoon at first against lefty and righty pitchers, respectively, with Ford platooning in turn with Chavez in left field with similar matchups (though every replacement outfielder the O’s have tried, including the non-natural outfielders, seemed to have swung a better bat than Chavez).
Ford, to his credit, began his tenuous tenure in left field on Sunday with a bang, throwing out Yoenis Cespedes on his bid for a double in the top of the second inning. He batted fifth, walked in his first plate appearance and advanced to third on a single by Davis in the bottom of the second before Wilson Betemit grounded into a fielder’s choice to end the inning. Ford batted three more times in the game without reaching base: according to MLB.com, he saw 16 pitches overall and made contact each time he made an out, twice putting the ball in play on the ground. He also didn’t strand anyone in scoring position, and though he grounded into a fielder’s choice in the bottom of the fifth, he managed to beat the relay from second base to prevent an inning-ending double play.
It’s still early in the second career of Jon Lewis Ford, but if he provides a spark for an offense looking for more people to get on base and continues to play adeptly in left field, he may hang around long enough to play in Boston, against the team that drafted him way back in 1999, and against the Rangers in his native Texas. For five years away from The Show, that’d be a pretty decent reward. With Jim Thome still out dealing with neck spasms, Ford has a spot in the lineup again tonight, playing in New York for the first time as a big leaguer since leaving the L.I. Ducks barely ten weeks ago. It’s only about 50 miles from Bethpage Ballpark in Central Islip, the Ducks’ home park, to the new Yankee Stadium, but for Ford, it might as well be 50,000.
“The tougher the battle the sweeter the victory. This is crazy I’m back!” Ford said yesterday on Twitter. “Thank you everyone who supported and believed.”