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Yet another Hall of Famer has passed on.  This has been a bad year for pretty well everyone, and it's been especially terrible for some of the most legendary baseball players of all time and Whitey Ford was as unusual a legend as one could ask for.

He certainly didn't look like much. He was an undersized left-hander with a good fastball and a very good curve ball. It is extremely difficult, at this remove, both to explain how dominant Ford was in his prime - which lasted for fifteen years - and to account for just why he was so great.

Well, he was pitching for the New York Yankees, when they were the most dominant team in the game's history, the team that won 11 pennants in his first 13 seasons. Which is true. But Ford was way, way better than the team he played for. He was a starting pitcher in an age when starting pitchers were expected to finish what they started. Ford started 438 games in his career and got the decision in 326 of them. And as a starter he went 227-99, which is a .696 winning percentage.

Needless to say, not even the Yankees played .696 ball during Ford's career.  They didn't play .696 ball in any one of those seasons. Ford was just really, really good at winning that day's game. He was much better at winning the game than the great team he played for. It was pretty much the theme of his entire career.

           Ford               Yankees Other Games
1950    9    1    .900        89    55    .618 1953    18    6    .750        81    46    .638
1954    16    8    .667        87    43    .669
1955    18    7    .720        78    51    .605
1956    19    6    .760        78    51    .605
1957    11    5    .688        87    51    .630
1958    14    7    .667        78    55    .586
1959    16   10    .615        63    65    .492
1960    12    9    .571        85    48    .639
1961    25    4    .862        84    49    .632
1962    17    8    .680        79    58    .577
1963    24    7    .774        80    50    .615
1964    17    6    .739        82    57    .590
1965    16   13    .552        61    72    .459
1966    2    5    .286        68    84    .447
1967    2    4    .333        70    86    .449
How did he do it? It's one thing for a great pitcher to rise above the level of a poor team, or an average team. Whitey Ford rose well above the level of a great team, a team that played .591 baseball over the course of his career. And there's more - for the bulk of Ford's career, his manager used him erratically. Casey Stengel made sure that Ford made as many starts as possible against the best teams in the AL any particular year, against the teams the Yankees actually needed to beat. Sometimes that meant coming back with two days rest. Sometimes it meant sitting a couple of extra days so he could be matched up against Cleveland or Chicago or whoever Stengel was worried about that year. Ford spent 9 seasons pitching for Stengel, and started 237 games for him. This was the day of the four man rotation, when a starter could be expected to make the majority of his starts on three, and sometimes four days rest. But Ford started 18 games on short rest, 44 times on 3 days rest, 102 times on 4 days rest, 37 times on 5 days rest, and 36 times on 6 days (or more rest.) He was the team's ace for almost this entire period, remember. Ford went 133-59 2.70 for Stengel (ERA+ of 137) - and he never started more than 30 games in any of those seasons.

Ford didn't get to work in a standard and fixed rotation, and fatten up his record with regular outings against the league's also-rans until he was 32 years old, when Ralph Houk replaced Stengel in 1961. Houk used Ford just like every other manager in baseball used his ace. In Ford's four full seasons with Houk at the helm, he started 149 games. Just 3 of those starts came on short rest. The vast majority, 96 of them, came on the standard 3 days rest. He made 32 starts on 4 days rest, 7 on 5 days rest, and 11 starts on long rest. As is well known, Ford stomped all over the AL during those four seasons, going 83-25, 2.76 (ERA+ 132) even if he wasn't quite as good as he'd been in his prime.

How did he do it? He was just a little LH with a good fastball and a really good curve. He didn't blow anyone away, like Ron Guidry or Billy Wagner, another couple of undersized left-handers. He was absolutely impossible to run against, but the running game wasn't much of a factor in his day anyway. He was an accomplished cheater, it's well known, but that's something he turned to in his old age for the most part.

How did he do it? I just don't know. His game was balanced and complete. He never led the league in Ks or in Ks per 9 IP - but he was in the Top 10 in both categories many, many times. He never gave up the fewest hits or walks per 9 IP - but again, he was among the leaders year after year. (He did the league once in Hits & Walks per 9)  He never beat himself. He gave nothing away. He was about as efficient as a baseball player could be. Which is what he was like on the mound. In an age of big and elaborate windups - there were lots of double-pumps and windmills - Ford was brisk, streamlined, economical. An emotionless, mechanical, cold-blooded killer. He came to beat you. He beat you. And then he walked off the mound.

And then the party was on, of course. Oh yes.

Whitey Ford (1928-2020) | 13 comments | Create New Account
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Mike Green - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 03:08 PM EDT (#391553) #
Well said, Magpie. 

I was a little young to remember the 1964 World Series between the Cardinals and the Yankees with the three recently deceased Hall of Famers in action.  Ford started Game 1, with supposedly a sore heel.  Bob Gibson did not get the Game 1 start because he had to pitch 4 innings of relief on the last day of the season  on two days rest (as Madison Bumgarner would do decades later).  Lou Brock singled and scored in the 1st inning.  Ford gave up another the second, but shut the Cardinals down and led 4-2 going to the bottom of the sixth.  Mike Shannon hit a 2 run homer to tie the game, and then McCarver doubled to knock out Ford.  The Cards added another two runs that inning and went on to win 9-5.  It turned out that Ford had a sore arm and did not pitch again in the series.  Gibson started Games 2, 5 and 7, winning the latter two, so the two Hall of Fame pitchers never faced off. 

The Yankees incidentally outscored the Cardinals 33-32 in a closely fought series. 

John Northey - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 04:09 PM EDT (#391554) #
Like many others of that era Ford also missed a couple of years to the military (Korea 1952/53) ages 22/23 and had a 123 ERA+ his first year back. Safe to say without that war service he'd have had another 30-40 wins pushing him over 250 easily. Only 1 season did he have under 1 WAR (age 37, his 2nd to last) and one more under 2 (age 38, his final) - those 2 years combined he 4-9 2.15 ERA over 117 IP, a 151 ERA+. In modern times he'd have kept going but back then they probably thought he was done due to the poor W-L record. His peak in IP was 283, 39 games started that year but 'just' 11 completed (a low total for that era). For comparison, Dave Stieb's peak was 288 IP, 38 starts, 19 completed in 1982. Halladay's peak was 266 IP over 36 starts 9 complete games in 2003.

As a hitter, Ford was meh. 28 OPS+ - 173/256/200 with 65 sac bunts. So hit bat wasn't horrid for a pitcher, but it wasn't good either. Bob Gibson for comparison had a 50 OPS+ 206/243/301 line with 72 sac bunts.
John Northey - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 04:13 PM EDT (#391555) #
Can't forget the post-season - just 10-8 but with a 2.71 ERA against the best the NL had to offer (this was pre-playoffs, just the World Series each year). Only 146 innings in the post-season but like I said there was just the one round. 6 rings, once the MVP of the series (1961- 2-0 0 runs in 14 IP, one complete game shutout to start the series, then 5 shutout innings game 4 before being pulled with a 2-0 lead, kind of odd for that time - wonder if they were saving him for a potential game 7).
Mike Green - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 04:31 PM EDT (#391556) #
I was curious about how often Ford faced the doormats of the AL of the 50s- Kansas City (the Athletics for young Bauxites), Baltimore and Washington.  He made 438 starts in his career, 53 against KC, 64 against Baltimore and only 18 against the Senators.  It seems that he overall didn't get as much work against the doormats- but it was all Washington. 
Magpie - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 05:15 PM EDT (#391557) #
Ford started to have a circulatory problem toward the end of his career. They tried all kinds of things to fix it - he definitely had surgery at one point - but he got to the point where he couldn't feel the baseball with his finger tips. It was especially a problem when the weather was cold. That's what basically made a mess of his final two seasons. He was actually still pretty effective when he was able to pitch, although the team by then was utter crap.

Ford was a New York boy and he was famous for prowling the NYC night life, especially with his great chum Mickey Mantle and Billy Martin. A couple of alcoholics, they were. Ford had no such problem. He explained that he'd grown up in a bar (his dad owned one), he knew how to drink. And he knew how to stop.

I'm still puzzled at why he was so effective. He wasn't an utterly team-dependent guy like Tommy John, who'd go 7-17 on a bad team and 17-7 on a good team. That actually made sense, it was easy to see why it would happen. And he wasn't utterly team independent like Nolan Ryan, who'd go 16-14 whether his team won 90 games or lost 90. And again it was easy to see why. Ford's Yankees were almost always good - but even in the two seasons when they were below .500 in games Ford wasn't involved in - Ford himself still went 16-10 and 16-13. And when they had a good team - it was like some kind of geometic progression.
Magpie - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 05:26 PM EDT (#391558) #
then 5 shutout innings game 4 before being pulled with a 2-0 lead, kind of odd for that time

Nah, he fouled a pitch off his foot batting in the top the sixth inning.

That was 1961, the year Maris broke Ruth's single season home run record. And with his work in the World Series, Ford had accumulated 32 consecutive scoreless innings in the World Series, which broke Ruth's even older record for that very thing. (Ford's mark still stands for the World Series, although Mariano Rivera was able to top it for post-season play.)

"It was a bad year for the Babe" Ford explained.
Magpie - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 05:33 PM EDT (#391559) #
He didn't even have a big home-park advantage, which is really, really hard to fathom. That version of Yankee Stadium was a) one of the greatest pitcher's parks of all time and b) tailor-made for left-handed pitchers. The left-centre power alley was 473 feet from home plate. And all the great Yankees teams were rich in left-handed pitching, from Herb Pennock to Lefty Gomez to Eddie Lopat to Ford. To name but a few. But Ford went 120-55, 2.58 at home, 116-51, 2.94 on the road. The road winning percentage is actually a shade better. Go figure.
Magpie - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 06:21 PM EDT (#391560) #
Posnanski's got a nice appreciation of Ford over at The Athletic, which I'm happy to see because he uses the Roger Angell quote I've been looking for:

Ford stands on the mound like a Fifth Avenue bank president. Tight-lipped, absolutely still between pitches, all business and concentration, he personifies the big-city, emotionless perfection of his team.

I'm thinking Roger wasn't much of a Yankees fan back in 1962.
Mike Green - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 07:10 PM EDT (#391561) #
My source for the comment that Whitey's 1964 World Series injury was to his arm not his heel is here.  The origin was manager Yogi who said that he was just trying to keep the Cardinals guessing about Ford's status.  He had recovered, according to Yogi, from the heel.

I wondered how Ted Williams, the greatest left-handed hitter of the time, fared against Whitey Ford.  The answer surprised me- he hit .378/.501/.511 in only 59 PAs.  He absolutely destroyed Ford early in Ford's career, but had hardly any PAs against him from 1958 on.  I guess that facing a tough lefty was hard on Williams' back.  I wonder what would have happened if the Red Sox had been competitive in those years and there was a key game involving the Red Sox and Yankees.  Anyways, I'll put it down to sample size, but Williams did walk 13 times and strike out only 4 times during those PAs. 
Mike Green - Friday, October 09 2020 @ 07:25 PM EDT (#391562) #
Angell has always been a straightforward man.  This 2016 article (written when he was 96) is as timely as ever and references his disdain for moneyed introductions...I suspect that it wasn't the Yankees he didn't like, but rather Chairmen of the Board!

I realize that I forgot to give proper appreciation for Angell when he turned 100 in September.  Thank you, and a belated happy birthday. 
vodkadog - Saturday, October 10 2020 @ 12:00 AM EDT (#391565) #
The comment on Yankee Stadium's left-centre fences reminded me that Ford also had a sharp sense of humour. After someone (I think it was Gene Green) hit one out there and over against him, he reportedly returned to the dugout and asked: "How can anyone pitch in a bandbox like this?"
Magpie - Saturday, October 10 2020 @ 12:06 AM EDT (#391566) #
It sure looks like Casey Stengel went out of his way to have Ford not pitch in Fenway Park. Which isn't too surprising - Fenway was about as hostile an environment a southpaw could find that didn't involve actual wild animals. Ford started 38 games in Chicago's Comsikey Park, 28 in Baltimore, 26 in Cleveland - but just 12 games in Fenway and just 5 of those during his 9 years pitching for Stengel.

And indeed Ford didn't pitch very well at Fenway: he went 7-6, but with a 6.16 ERA. The worst ERA he had in any of the other parks he made at least 10 starts in was 3.16 in 25 starts in Kansas City.
Magpie - Saturday, October 10 2020 @ 12:09 AM EDT (#391567) #
How can anyone pitch in a bandbox like this?

That so reminds me of the famous grumble from the Yogi. He struck out swinging at three pitches way out of the strike zone, went back to the dugout, and wondered how a pitcher that wild could stay in the league.
Whitey Ford (1928-2020) | 13 comments | Create New Account
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