I never thought I’d be writing this article. I spent half my childhood in suburban New York learning reverence for Whitey Ford. He didn’t have the most wins, and he wasn’t a dominant strikeout artist, but Ford knew how to pitch. He was a winner and had the .690 winning percentage to prove it. An easy Hall of Fame selection.
Unless you’re one of those basement-bloggers with their new-fangled numbers. Their alphabet-soup stats suggest he’s a borderline Hall of Famer.
Faced with this daunting dilemma, I did what I always do when I’m confused about a matter of utmost baseball urgency: I went straight to baseball-reference.
The case for Whitey Ford is open and shut by traditional stats.
- 236 wins
- 2.75 ERA
- .690 winning percentage
- Fantastic October resume
- Key mounsdman for all those annual pennant-winning Yankee teams from 1950–1964
- Ten-time All-Star
- 1 Cy Young Award and a third-place finish in the one-award-covering-both-leagues era
- Twice in the top five for MVP
- Led the AL in wins and winning percentage three times; in ERA, shutouts, and innings pitched twice; and once in WHIP.
The immediate derivatives of the trad stats say the same thing:
- His ERA+ of 133 is eighteenth among starters since the mound moved to 60’6”
- His black-ink score, a measure of how frequently he led his league in important statistics, is thirty-eighth all time
- Gray ink measures how often he was in the top ten, and Ford is twenty-seventh in history.
So who, again, is saying that Whitey Ford isn’t an all-time great?
THE NEW-FANGLED STATS
Yeah, it’s the advanced analytics that see him as a Ford, not a Lincoln.
- BBREF WAR: 54 Wins, 77th all time
- Seamheads Win Shares: 253 Win Shares, 76th all time.
- Fangraphs’ FIP- (Fielding Independent Pitching Runs/9 below average): 114, half as impressive as his 133 ERA+
- Fangraphs’ WAR: 55 Wins based on FIP alone, 69th all time.
So why do some really thoughtful people’s analytical frameworks see Ford’s case as fundamentally weaker than his baseball-card stats? Is there anything to it?
Let’s find out.
SO WHO WAS WHITEY FORD, ANYWAY?
Whitey Ford was a crafty groundball pitcher with a dandy, moving fastball and so-so control who stopped the running game cold. Metaphorically, however, Whitey Ford was that silver-spoon preppy who had everything you wanted—the girls, the car, the clothes. Ford’s rich parents were the Yankees.
That bullet point above about Fangraphs’ WAR leads straight to the divergence of opinion between “all-time great” and “very good.” In addition to the FIP-based WAR that I shared above, Fangraphs offers what they call a RA9 WAR (based on total runs allowed) that parallels BBREF’s WAR. Ford’s 80 RA9WAR is 34th all time, even though his FIP-based WAR was 55th. So Fangraphs suggests that two-thirds of Ford’s total run-prevention came from his own skills. I took a group of nearly two dozen of Ford’s MLB contemporaries. Among them, only two (Bob Buhl and Bob Lemon) generated a lower percentage of their RA9WAR from FIP-based skills. What this means is that an unusually high proportion of Ford’s value arose from sequencing—the stranding of runners and the outcomes of balls in play. We can’t say with certainty how much of those things he can take credit for because his defense gets credit too. Here’s what we can say: only three other post-deadball pitchers derived more total value from fielding-dependent categories than Ford, and all three (Palmer, Hubbell, and Spahn) pitched a lot more than he did.
Did Ford have unusual abilities with sequencing? Or did he have the gift of good company?
ABOUT THAT YANKEE DEFENSE—AND OFFENSE—AND PARK—AND MANAGER
Casey Stengel managed the entire first half of Ford’s career. As Bill James notes in his managers book, Stengel’s teams always turned a lot of double plays, and his Yankee squads were filled with well-regarded gloves. In every year of Stengel’s tenure, the team finished above the league average in double plays turned, and they led the league more often than not. BBREF concludes that Ford’s defensive support was very, very good. So good that it saved him a quarter of a run per nine innings. In his salad days, Ford pitched about 220 innings a year, so a quarter run per nine was worth about six runs a year, or two-thirds of a win. Over the course of his career, BBREF implies that Ford received about 85 runs worth of defensive support, about 8.5 WAR of value. Fielding stats bounce around year over year, but over a career’s worth of games, we can have a lot more confidence that Ford got a lot of help.
Pitching in front of the Yankee offense made Ford look great, too. The Yankee offense ranked first in the league seven times during his career and second five times—once by a mere .009 runs. Ford received run support of 4.8 runs per game in his actual starts vs. a 4.3 AL-wide runs per game average (weighted to his innings). An otherwise average pitcher with this run support would have a .555 Pythagorean winning percentage. But there’s a compounding effect here as well: Ford never, ever had to face the league’s preeminent offense.
But his AL peers did, and here’s how some AL long-timers did against them (minimum 5 GS):
- Early Wynn (1950–1963): 89 G, worst ERA and worst W% vs. NYY
- Billy Pierce (1950–1963): 78 G, second worst ERA and worst W% vs. NYY
- Camilo Pascual (1954–1967) 63 G, second worst ERA and second worst W%
- Bob Lemon (1950–1958), 59 G, worst ERA and worst W% vs. NYY
- Mike Garcia (1950–1961) 51 G, second worst ERA and worst W% vs. NYY
- Pedro Ramos (1955–1966): 50 G, fifth best ERA but third worst W% vs. NYY
- Mudcat Grant (1958–1967): 38 G, fifth worst ERA and fourth worst W% vs. NYY
- Ned Garver (1950–1961), 33 G, worst ERA and worst W% vs. NYY
- Milt Pappas (1957–1965): 32 G, seventh best ERA but fourth worst W% vs. NYY
- Jim Bunning (1955–1963): 25 G, fourth worst ERA and seventh worst W% vs. NYY
Good pitchers all who struggled against New York. And remember that some of these guys did a lot more of their work in the low-scoring 1960s than Ford did. By the way, there’s an exception to every rule, and Frank “Yankee Killer” Lary had his finest winning percentage against the Bronx Bombers.
How did never pitching against the Yankees effect Ford? BBREF calculates that the offenses Ford faced all told scored about 4.26 R/9 (adjusted for park). How about these other guys (AL starts only)?
- Billy Pierce (1950–1963): 4.53
- Bob Lemon (1950–1958): 4.51
- Early Wynn (1950–1963): 4.42
- Ned Garver (1950–1961): 4.41
- Pedro Ramos (1955–1966): 4.39
- Mike Garcia (1950–1961): 4.36
- Jim Bunning (1955–1963): 4.33
- Milt Pappas (1957–1965): 4.29
- Whitey Ford (1950–1967): 4.26
- Camilo Pascual (1954–1967): 4.24
- Mudcat Grant (1958–1967): 4.14
Now tack on to this that Whitey Ford pitched in one of the AL’s toughest parks for righty hitters. Yankee Stadium in Ford’s time still had the yawning Death Valley that robbed DiMaggio of so many homers. Perfect for a crafty lefty. A hand count of homers against Ford from his BBREF HR logs shows this:
WHERE HAND HR PCT APP/HR ============================ HOME R 62 61% 4.2 L 39 39% 6.5 ------- 101 ROAD R 103 81% 2.4 L 24 19% 10.0 ------- 127 ALL R 165 72% 3.0 L 63 28% 7.9 ------- 228
Ford clearly benefited from how Death Valley mitigated the platoon disadvantage, even if The Stadium’s short right-field porch meant more lefty homers.
BBREF takes the park question even further, by figuring his actual mix of home and road venues. The average Ford start took place in a park five percent tougher to score in than the average AL park. The implication here is a savings of an additional 62 runs (6 Wins) beyond what an average pitcher would have given up.
Which brings us to Casey Stengel. Casey was known for carefully picking the parks and opponents for Ford. While many other teams had begun the move toward a regular rotation, Stengel’s actions suggest he made four tactical decisions about Ford’s use:
- Never pitch him at Fenway Park if possible
In sixteen seasons, Ford started only twelve times in Fenway where his ERA was 6.16. Stengel only started him five times in Boston but seventeen times against the Sox in New York. The only team he made fewer road starts against in his entire career was the 1961-expansion Washington Senators.
- Limit his exposure to the Tigers
As Bill James noted. Under Stengel Ford made only twenty-two starts against the righty-heavy Tigers who featured Al Kaline, Ray Boone, Harvey Kuenn, then later Eddie Yost and Rocky Colavito. He also made only twenty-two against Boston.
- Don’t pitch him much against the A’s
The A’s were the Yanks’ mirror image, finishing last eight times during Ford’s career. He started against them only 27 times. Why waste your bullets?
- Start him as frequently as possible against Chicago
The Chisox and Indians were the Yankees’ main rivals in the 1950s, but Stengel especially saved Ford for the Pale Hose. Overall, Ford matched up with them forty-nine times under Stengel, ten more times than any other team. Ford’s ability to control the running game against Aparicio, Fox, and Minoso combined with outstanding performance in Comiskey Park made him a natural choice.
Stengel’s careful manipulation traded quantity for certainty. Ford made thirty starts only once during the 1950s, but many of his assignments minimized his risk of losing or maximized his chance of winning. When Ralph Houk (and later Yogi and Johnny Keane) put him in rotation, Ford pitched about as well as ever for several seasons and about twenty percent more often—though, even Houk and company sheltered him from Fenway.
SO WHO IS RIGHT ABOUT WHITEY FORD?
Ford was the beneficiary of a nearly unique set of helpful team interactions. He got fabulous defensive support, fabulous offensive support, and choice assignments that shielded his weaknesses. I haven’t mentioned it yet, but even his bullpen support was better than average. Add it all up, strip away the team context, and BBREF, at least, suggests that on an otherwise perfectly average team Ford would have been a .558 pitcher, not a .690 pitcher. That’s a very good pitcher! But it’s not necessarily a slam dunk for all-time greathood.
For the sake of perspective, Sandy Koufax, in about 800 fewer innings, rates as a .577 pitcher. Jim Bunning is at .576 in an 600 more innings than Ford. Robin Roberts is at .576 in 1500 more innings than Ford. Don Drysdale comes out a .555 pitcher in 300 more innings. Spahn is also at .555 but in 1100 more innings than Ford. Ford compares better to Billy Pierce (.544 in 130 more innings than Ford), Larry Jackson (.538 in 100 more innings), Bob Lemon (.533 in 250 fewer innings than Ford), and Early Wynn (.524 in 1400 more innings). If WAR were the only information that led us to the conclusion that Whitey Ford wasn’t the pitcher his numbers suggest, it might not be enough. But it is supported by a lot of corroborating background data, the same application of which suggests that Ford is closer to the bottom of his chronological peers than the top. A big reason for which was that he didn’t rack up the innings his peers did. If you don’t have the bulk, you’d better bring the dominance. It’s not clear to me, at least not yet, that Whitey Ford did.
If one number truly sums up the aura and mystique of The Chairman of the Board, it’s his .690 winning percentage. But there’s also one number that sums up everything I’ve just written: .582. That figure is the Yankees’ winning percentage over all sixteen years of Ford’s career…in any game at all when he didn’t get a decision. That’s one hell of a baseline for a good pitcher to start with. Especially for a crafty lefty catching all the breaks.
FINALLY, THEN, AN UNPLEASANT CODA
Whitey Ford cheated. We know he did because he admitted it in his book, Slick. James quotes him in the New Historical Baseball Abstract:
“I didn’t begin cheating until late in my career, when I needed something to help me survive. I didn’t cheat when I won the twenty-five games in 1961. I don’t want anybody to get any ideas and take my Cy Young Award away. And I didn’t cheat in 1963 when I won twenty-four games. Well, maybe a little.”
Ford was thrown out of at least one game for ball doctoring. We know the various ways he did it: the mudball, a sharpened buckle on Elston Howard’s shinguard, Ford’s own wedding ring. We also know why he did it: to enhance his performance because he was losing his game. Yes, Ford succumbed to the temptations of PEDs: Performance Enhancing Defacings.
Ford broke the rules, and he engaged in deception and misdirection to do so. He may have robbed another pitcher of an opportunity by trying to stay in a big league rotation. But you know, we like good old-fashioned cheating that we can understand without resorting to a medical dictionary—the kind that doesn’t involve needles. The kind we can imagine ourselves doing with, say, the IRS. You know, everyone does that stuff, man.
I’m sure Yankee fans out there will give me guff for this, but…. If we question or even debit the statistical record for steroid users, don’t we have to question Ford’s stats from 1963 onward, too?