Harry Ford is one of the top prospects in the Seattle Mariners organization, and he is also unique among his peers. Born Harrison Michael Ford, in Atlanta, 20 years ago this week, the right-handed-hitting catcher is the son of English immigrants. His mother spent her childhood in London, while his father — “a real Brit; he still has an accent”— came to the U.S. a little over two decades ago from Oxford. Moreover, his multi-national upbringing included his family’s having hosted exchange students from Argentina, Brazil, and Germany.
If the above list of countries has you wondering if football — soccer to us here in the States — has been a part of his life, the answer is yes. Ford’s father is a huge Arsenal fan who used to play in a competitive men’s league, while the youngster impressed on the pitch in his schoolboy days before turning his full attention to baseball. Given that Ford is a muscular 5-foot-10, 200-pounds and has been called a unicorn due to the speed that augments his frame, how good might he have been had he pursued his father’s favorite sport rather than America’s national pastime?
“I think I’d go crazy in soccer!” was Ford’s fun-loving (and quite possibly accurate) response to that question, meaning that he would excel. Instead he is excelling on the diamond, and he’s doing so at a position that belies his athleticism. How he found himself wearing the tools of ignorance was a matter of happenstance.
“I was always a third baseman, but when I was eight or 10 we needed someone to play catcher,” explained Ford, whom the Mariners took 12th overall in the 2021 draft. “I remember that there was this royal blue, really ugly gear, and I was like, ‘I’ll try it. Why not? ‘I got back there and liked it, and haven’t left it since.”
As uncommon as it is for elite athletes to end up behind the plate, it has been an even less common destination for African Americans. Black catchers have been few and far between in MLB history. To Ford’s mind, “It will be cool to change that stigma.”
Ironically, the first known Black player at baseball’s highest level was a catcher; Moses Fleetwood Walker played for the American Association’s Toledo Blue Stockings in 1884. (Some historians credit William White, who passed as white while playing in one game for the National League’s Providence Grays in 1879.)
Josh Gibson — arguably the best ever to play the position — never got a chance to display his immense talent in MLB. His final professional season was 1946, one year before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier. Roy Campanella, a Negro League contemporary of Gibson’s for several seasons, joined the Brooklyn Dodgers in 1948 and went on to play 10 MLB seasons, likewise establishing himself as an all-time great. Notable Black catchers in the post-integration era include Elston Howard, Earl Battey, and John Roseboro.
Ford, whose mother is Black, is well acquainted with a more recent African American backstop. Charles Johnson caught in the big leagues from 1994-2005, primarily with the Florida Marlins.
“I went to his baseball camp for two years in a row and got to work with him a lot,” explained Ford. “There was a group of Black catchers there, too — a very talented group — which was cool. It was awesome getting to learn from a guy like that.”
Ford is now learning at the professional level, and that education includes the further honing of offensive skills that are advanced for a player so young. His 2022 numbers at Low-A Modesto are eye-opening. Pairing a line-drive stroke and plus plate discipline, Ford slashed .274/.425/.439 with 11 home runs in 499 plate appearances. Asked to describe the swing that produced that production, Ford said it “looks sexy!”
As was the case when he said he would “go crazy in soccer,” Ford’s answer came not with bravado, but rather with a mix of playfulness and youthful exuberance. Much like 22-year-old Mariners wunderkind Julio Rodriguez, Ford exudes personality. Equal parts confident and humble, Ford likes to have fun.
“I’d agree with that” said Ford. “I’m not really at the Julio level, though. I mean, he looks like a five-year-old out there playing the game. The joy he brings is incredible. But while I definitely like having fun, I’m also a thinker. I like breaking things down, So while I have a little bit of Julio in me, I’m also my own person.”
Ford would have attended Georgia Tech had he not signed with the Mariners, and the courses of study he had in mind were engineering and psychology. And while he does still hope to pursue a college degree, that’s down the road. Ford’s focus is now 100% baseball, where he hopes not only to be a Seattle Mariner, but also to join the ranks of MLB’s Black catchers. That he would do so as the son of English immigrants — one who is representing Great Britain in this year’s WBC — only adds to his level of uniqueness.
RANDOM HITTER-PITCHER MATCHUPS
Ellis Valentine went 19 for 47 against Steve Carlton.
Warren Cromartie went 12 for 17 against Rick Camp.
Andre Dawson went 12 for 21 against Mark Grant.
Tim Raines went 11 for 17 against John Stuper.
Gary Carter went 10 for 14 against Donnie Moore.
Left on the cutting-room floor from last week’s interview with Arizona Diamondbacks farm director Josh Barfield were his thoughts on 19-year-old left-hander Yu-Min Lin. Signed as an international free agent in December 2021, the Taitung, Taiwan native logged a 2.72 ERA with 91 strikeouts and just 40 hits allowed in 56-and-a-third innings last year between rookie ball and Low-A Visalia. His having pitched in the California League isn’t something the D-Backs expected.
“The plan was to just have him in the Complex [League] last year to get him initiated to pro ball,” Barfield explained. “But he exceeded everybody’s expectations, breezing through there and then also pitching well at Visalia. For a young kid to come over here for the first time and do that was really impressive. His pitch-ability is off the charts.”
Barfield went on to say that Lin has six pitches, but that the organization will likely be looking to pare that down. He called the youngster’s changeup and breaking stuff “really good,”adding that his fastball “touches ones and twos” and sometimes even 93 [mph]. Barfield expects the 5-foot-11, 160-pound lefty’s velocity to increase as he gets stronger.”
John Manuel was a guest on Friday’s Prospect Week episode of FanGraphs Audio, with the history of prospect rankings serving as the primary topic. The former Baseball America managing editor, and current Minnesota Twins scout, looked back at several players, including one whom Manuel considers one of his greatest misses.
“Verlander started the game the US [national team] had to win to make the Gold Medal game,” recalled Manuel. “His teammates did not love Verlander. I found out later that Verlander literally got into a fistfight with Dustin Pedroia that summer. I believe it was actually in the semi-final game against the Dominican Republic. If you go through their careers, Justin Verlander drank Dustin Pedroia’s milkshake for a long time. He never forgot that little personal rivalry. Those guys did not get along.”
(Pedroia went 3-for-27 versus Verlander, with two walks and three strikeouts.)
“I had a lot of negative vibes on Justin Verlander,” continued Manuel. “I thought that he was going to be a reliever. That’s why we underrated him; that’s why he was No. 3 on [Baseball America’s Tigers list in 2005], and why he wasn’t on our Top 100. That’s the story.”
Among the many other rankings and reports addressed by Manuel was his writeup of then 17-year-old Freddie Freeman. At the time, some scouts preferred Freeman as a pitcher, and expectations were that he would have been a two-way player had he attended Cal State-Fullerton rather than signing with the Atlanta Braves out of high school.
The entire pod, which includes Eric Longenhagen and Tess Taruskin talking about how they put our Top 100 together, is well worth a listen.
Greg Maddux (176) had the most pitcher wins in the 1990s, and Jack Morris (162) had the most in the 1980s. Which pitcher had the most wins in the 1970s?
The answer can be found below.
Saberseminar is returning from a three-year hiatus this summer, in a different city. Traditionally held in Boston, the can’t-miss event will take place in Chicago on August 12-13. More information can be found here.
The Miami Marlins announced this week that Kyle Sielaff will be the team’s new radio play-by-play broadcaster. The 32-year-old Trumansburg, New York native replaces Glenn Geffner, who joined the Marlins’ booth in 2008.
Alex Herrera, a left-handed reliever for the Cleveland Indians in 2002 and 2003, died earlier this month at age 43. The Maracaibo, Venezuela native appeared in 15 games and didn’t earn a decision.
The answer to the quiz is Jim Palmer, with 186 wins. Gaylord Perry was close behind with 184.
Count Heston Kjerstad among those who have been impressed with Andrew Painter. When I asked the Baltimore Orioles outfield prospect which of the pitchers he faced last year stood out the most, he cited a 19-year-old right-hander in the Philadelphia Phillies system.
“I probably have to go with Andrew Painter,” Kjerstad said of the No. 5 prospect on our recently-released Top 100. “He’s really good, and really young, too. He’s 19 and was consistently 96-98 [mph] with three other pitches he could command.”
Kjerstad described Painter’s heater as having “a little bit of ride to it,” and was of the opinion that the curveball was his best secondary offering. The fast-rising hurler’s ability to command the pitch to different locations was a notable attribute.
Cole Irvin has been interviewed for print here at FanGraphs, and he’s also been a guest on FanGraphs Audio. A member of the Oakland Athletics when those conversations took place, the 29-year-old southpaw is now with the Orioles, having been traded to Baltimore last month, along with Kyle Virbitsky, in exchange for Darell Hernaiz. Irvin met with the media via Zoom shortly after the deal was announced, and among the things he told reporters was that the new pitch clock won’t be an issue for him, as he “likes to get the ball and go.” Irvin also said that the new dimensions at Camden Yards will be to his liking; as the quotable hurler pointed out, “left field is being pushed back a little bit… a lot of bit.”
He also addressed his M.O. on the mound, as evidenced by last year’s 3.98 ERA over 181 innings having been accompanied by a humble 17.3% strikeout rate. Irvin isn’t a power pitcher. It’s a fact that he readily accepts, and has been forthcoming about in the past.
“I may not be fancy, and I may not be lighting up the radar gun, but at the end of the day my job is to get hitters out,” said Irvin, whose fastball averaged 90.9 mph. “There are times I think I beat a dead horse with that.”
Hearing earlier this week that reporters at New York Mets camp were told to leave the field because the team was about to do a proprietary drill got me thinking about a Buck Showalter stratagem from a few years back. When he was skippering the Orioles, Showalter would sometimes position his first baseman off the bag with a runner on first base — not because he was slow-footed, but rather as a way of holding him on. The idea was that the runner could see the first baseman out of the corner of his eye, and if the first baseman feinted back toward the bag as the pitcher was preparing to deliver, the runner would instinctually think pickoff possibility and shift his weight in a backward direction. Given the new limited-pickoff rule that will be in play this year, this is something we may see teams trying.
LINKS YOU’LL LIKE
At The New York Times, Tyler Kepner wrote about how the Detroit Tigers — now under the leadership of President of Baseball Operations Scott Harris — are staying patient in baseball’s waiting game.
Phil Regan, who was 82 years old when he was replaced as New York Mets pitching coach following the 2019 season, is suing the team for age discrimination. Isabel Gonzalez has the story at CBS Sports.
MLB.com’s Michael Clair wrote about Jocko Maxwell, the first Black sportscaster in radio history.
St. Louis Cardinals manager Oliver Marmol opined that C.B. Bucknor “has zero class” after the frequently-criticized umpire refused to shake hands during Saturday’s pregame meeting. Jack Baer has the specifics at Yahoo Sports.
Chicago White Sox prospect Anderson Comas is the most recent player to come out publicly as gay. Cyd Zeigler has the story at OutSports.
RANDOM FACTS AND STATS
The Los Angeles Dodgers used five starting pitchers while winning 95 games in 1966. Sandy Koufax made 41 starts, Don Drysdale 40, Claude Osteen 39, Don Sutton 37, and Joe Moeller 8. Koufax had 27 of the club’s 52 complete games.
Jason Kipnis hqd 1,147 hits, 126 home runs, a 103 wRC+, and 21.0 WAR.
Jed Lowrie has 1,185 hits, 121 home runs, a 103 wRC+, and 19.8 WAR.
Bernie Williams had 2,336 hits, 449 doubles, and 147 steals in 234 attempts.
B.J. Surhoff had 2,326 hits, 440 double, and 141 steals in 225 attempts.
Jimmie Foxx had at least 30 home runs and 100 RBIs ever year from 1929-1940, a 12-season stretch where he averaged 40 home runs and 137 RBIs, as well as a .334 batting average and a 166 wRC+.
The Boston Braves signed Babe Ruth on today’s date in 1935. Reportedly a pre-arranged deal between the team’s owners, Ruth had been released by the Yankees earlier the same day. “The Bambino” hit the last of his 714 home runs in a Braves uniform before calling it a career on May 30th.
Players born on today’s date include Vic Janowicz, a catcher/third baseman who saw action in 83 games with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 1953-1954. A multi-position player on the gridiron, the Ohio State University product won the Heisman Trophy in 1950 and played for the Washington Redskins in 1954 and 1955.
Also born on today’s date was Preacher Roe, who allowed the first of Janowicz’s two big-league home runs. A southpaw from Viola, Arkansas — he was born in nearby Ash Flat — Roe had a six-year-stretch (1948-1953) where he went 90-33 with the Brooklyn Dodgers.
The four teams that comprised the Red River Valley League in 1897 were the Fargo Divorcees, Grand Forks Senators, Moorhead Barmaids, and Wahpeton-Breckenridge Methodists.