Baseball and player development have become increasingly data-driven, but the determination of the athlete under evaluation is essential too. At least that’s the case with Mike Ford of the New York Yankees.
During his junior year playing for Princeton (2013), Ford was the Ivy League Baseball Pitcher and Player of the Year. Yet no team picked him in the draft that summer. Today, as one of only eight undrafted free agents playing in the major leagues, his approach to hitting has opened eyes all around baseball.
Ford could have easily given up on baseball after he was passed over. During an interview with Yahoo Sports, he said “It was a little bit embarrassing being passed over in the draft at times. I did well at school at both, but I didn’t have good 95-mph fastball, or I didn’t put up 20 homers. I was just a good player. I don’t think anything 100 percent necessarily stuck out. I think with the Ivy League, a lot of times a lot of those guys kind of fall since they will be seniors, that’s what I’ve heard from a few teams since then. We passed because we thought we could get you next year.”
His embarrassment and disappointment quickly gave way to resolve to prove he belonged in the majors, and that resolve led to his determination not just to generate more power at the plate, but to remain quiet at the plate.
Around the time Ford was passed over, his uncle, Frank Marro, introduced him to Mike Sutlovich, a hitting instructor that also worked with Marro’s son Nick. Sutlovich made changes in Nick’s hitting mechanics and approach which led to improvements in Nick’s power. As a result, Division I college baseball programs began to notice him while he was in high school.
Sutlovich, another ballplayer born and raised in the Garden State, was on the same trajectory as his future student. At the age of 16, he had private tryouts with the Mets and Yankees, once going yard in the old Yankee Stadium. He received a scholarship to play at Bloomfield College, a Division II baseball school. He was a standout second baseman, hitting for average and power. As a sophomore, he was invited to try out for the USA Olympic baseball team as was offered a contract with the Colorado Rockies.
Sutlovich suffered a setback as a junior. He tore his rotator cuff, and his arm speed never fully recovered after surgery. Though he could still hit, his opportunity to play pro ball vanished. But he poured his love of the game into teaching, founding the Mike Sutlovich School of Baseball in 1999. Instead of just giving lessons, he arranged for his players to get proper exposure for their hard work and talents via professional tryouts and assistance in scholarship applications. He is also an associate scout for college and MLB teams.
His approach is summed up well by something The Athletic’s Eno Sarris points out about player development: “If we can possibly make strides connecting certain cues to their associated physical outcomes, we’ll still have a missing ingredient that will probably never be quantified: player makeup.”
Sutlovich helps hitters understand what mechanical changes lead to constant improvements. He doesn’t fill students with 20 different tweaks or changes to their stance or swing. Instead, he emphasizes staying quiet at the plate. He also teaches hitters how to rock and load before they swing. Most hitters are still told to “stay” balanced, and to keep their weight right beneath their feet. They are also taught to keep their head “still” or down and don’t move it.
In years past, young ballplayers were discouraged from seeking advice or instruction outside of what the big club coaches provided. Even in an era of data-driven player development, there is a danger of stifling or writing off kids if they don’t fit the mold. It is important to note that some of the game’s greatest and most improved hitters made adjustments on their own. Cody Bellinger, Christian Yelich, J.D. Martinez, Christian Diaz, Gio Urshela, and Aaron Judge all sought an outside view to help improve. And parent clubs are not only permitting such interaction; they are encouraging it. Indeed, such initiative is rightfully regarded as a measure of the athlete’s commitment to his craft.
Sutlovich is the first to say that what separated Ford from all others was his quiet determination.
“Lots of guys make the adjustments in the hopes of getting a little better. Mike used them to become among the best hitters, if not the best hitter, at every level of minor league ball. And he will do the same thing as a major league player.”
Marro says “Mike took the adjustments Sutlovich suggested and added them to his toolkit. His hitting approach is also shaped in part by what he learned as a pitcher to get batters out.” Ford has used both to make himself a consistently more powerful and intelligent hitter.
After working with Sutlovich, Mike was invited to play in the Cape Cod League in 2015, which is the summer home to some of the best prospects in college baseball. All he did was lead the league in batting average, slugging, on-base percentage, RBIs, and homers. He received offers from several teams, but he signed with the Yankees and joined their Staten Island affiliate.
His trajectory from the minors to the Yankees was not a direct one. Indeed, the Yankees added first basemen Chris Carter, Ji-Man Choi, Garrett Cooper, and Luke Voit to their system. Additionally, the Seattle Mariners picked Ford in the Rule 5 Draft and he seemed poised to be their starting first baseman. The team then went with Daniel Vogelbach and sent Ford back to the Yankees. If that wasn’t enough, Ford hurt his oblique when the Yankees sent him to Scranton, where he started the minor league season on the 7-day IL.
Despite these challenges, Ford’s rise as a hitter has been steady and spectacular. Ford’s power, ability to control the strike zone, and solid contact skills improved all the way through Triple-A. He was rewarded with his major league debut this past April, and he has played a fair amount in August and September, showing off his strength at the plate.
What does the future hold for Ford? His chances of playing in the postseason are slim, but the Yankees could add him to the roster if they go deep and need another left-handed power bat.
Ultimately, it’s the inner life of Ford that matters most. Only 10% of college position players signed in the later rounds of the draft make it to the majors. The odds of making it as an undrafted free agent are likely smaller. But Ford has defied those odds and more.
To break through took more than his physical talent, and it didn’t mean overhauling his swing. Mike Ford’s grit comes from creating a quiet place in his life and at the plate. In an era where celebrity is often more valued than real accomplishments, Ford had friends, family, and instructors like Mike Sutlovich encouraging him to explore his love of baseball on his terms.