On the Career of Rick Ankiel

On August 9, 2007, in the bottom of the first inning against the San Diego Padres, the starting right fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals took an awkward swing at a Chris Young fastball and popped it straight up, not even out of the infield.

Geoff Blum, who at this point in his career shouldn’t have been playing shortstop for a team with playoff aspirations, settled under the ball and retired the right fielder.

All in all, it was an unremarkable at bat in an unremarkable game from a season that felt like the lengthy hangover after the 2006 championship celebration. Except for one thing: the starting right fielder for the St. Louis Cardinals was a 28 year-old Rick Ankiel, making his second Major League debut.

Rick Ankiel’s first Major League debut happened eight years earlier.  Adam Kennedy would start at second base for the Cardinals in both of Rick Ankiel’s debuts, but was traded for Jim Edmonds in between. The St. Louis Cardinals faced the Montreal Expos, a team that would no longer even exist when Ankiel stepped to the plate in 2007.  Mark McGwire was at first base.  Alberto Castillo was behind the plate.  The outfield featured Ray Lankford, the legendary Craig Paquette, J.D. Drew and even Willie McGee for the last few innings.

Most importantly, Rick Ankiel made his first debut as a pitcher.

Most people remember the sweeping curveball. It wasn’t a 12-6 hammer like Adam Wainwright’s signature pitch, or a diving air-to-ground missile like Shelby Miller’s hook.  Ankiel’s curve started up and away and tumbled through the strike zone to the catcher’s mitt low and in.

It was a thing to behold, but it wasn’t what really made Ankiel special.  He combined this curve with two fastballs.  One, a straight pitch, effortlessly touched the mid-90s and could blow away any hitter who wasn’t expecting such velocity from a lefthander.  The other fastball, a sinker/two-seamer, came in almost as fast but danced downward, just out of the hitter’s reach.

In 1999, Baseball America listed Rick Ankiel as the #2 prospect in all of baseball.  A year later, he was upgraded to #1.

Everyone knows what happened next.  Ankiel made good on his promise as a starting pitcher in 2000, having one of the best rookie years of any pitcher in club history.  His weakness, as it had always been, was his command.  But it had never been bad enough to become his undoing.  Randy Johnson had only recently mastered command of the force of nature residing in his left arm, so a 4.6 BB/9 in Ankiel’s rookie year didn’t seem like a cause for concern.  Then Ankiel was called upon to start Game 1 of the NLDS.

I was at Game 1 of the NLDS.  I skipped school to go see it.  After all, when you have playoff tickets, sophomore pre-calculus doesn’t seem so important.

A number of oddities surrounded Ankiel’s Game 1 appearance.  Cardinals catcher Mike Matheny, injured in a freak accident unwrapping a hunting knife, was on the DL and replaced by Carlos Hernandez, who had an injured back and get up to block a wild pitch. Dave Duncan had been tinkering with Ankiel’s set position on the rubber, though the results of those experiments had been very positive for his control in September.  Tony La Russa had pulled an interesting stunt, using Darryl Kile as a decoy Game 1 starter up until game day.

And that’s all without mentioning the pressure that had followed Ankiel his entire career.  His father made Tony Rasmus look like a reasonable fellow with reasonable expectations for his son.  If Rick Sr. hadn’t been in jail during his son’s first stint on the Cardinals, I expect he would have spent hours trolling Dave Duncan on usenet.

Did any of these things contribute to Ankiel’s meltdown?  There is no way to know.  It could have been a simple trick of the brain.  Steve Blass disease.  The yips.  Chuck Knoblauch block.  But after that game he was never the same pitcher.  Within a few years, he wasn’t a pitcher at all.

Back to August 9, 2007.  It’s the seventh inning of a 2-0 game.  The Cardinals lead over the Padres.  Chris Young has just left the game, after a walk and a wild pitch (of all things).  The Padres make the call to the bullpen for Doug Brocail, who originally broke in with San Diego back when George H.W. Bush was president and Sir Mix-a-lot’s “Baby Got Back” was popular for the first time.

Brocail had never been a power pitcher, and the combined forces of age and repeated arm injury hadn’t done him any favors.  On 2-1, he tried to sneak a backdoor breaking ball past Ankiel.  The result:

Suddenly a meaningless game in an increasingly meaningless season became something bigger.  For a few moments, the 2007 St. Louis Cardinals transcended the team that followed a stunning World Series victory with a Kip Wells/Braden Looper rotation.

Very few people thought that Rick Ankiel would ever see the Major Leagues after deciding to become an outfielder.  In his one full season as a Major League pitcher, Ankiel hit only .250/.292/.382.  He was 24 years old when he made his conversion official, and he was generally seen as a finished player.  The idea that he could turn his entire career around in his mid-20s, improve his batting skills in the minors, and fight his way back to MLB was wishful thinking at best.

When he hit that home run, he proved something.  He could have never taken another Major League at bat, and he would have done more than anything ever expected of him after he decided to end his pitching career.  Everything else was just gravy.

A few days ago, Rick Ankiel was released by the Houston Astros.  I’m not sure it was a good move, and I suspect there are several teams that could use an outfielder with an excellent arm capable of slugging .484.  Nevertheless, being released by the worst team in the Major Leagues is a damning fate.  This may be the end to Rick Ankiel’s career.  He never became a star.  He never even became a full-time starter.  It’s easy to say that his career was a failure, but that would be incredibly short-sighted.

In 2000, Rick Ankiel pitched 175 innings with a 134 ERA+.  In 2008, he had 463 plate appearances with a 120 OPS+.  No one in the modern era has accomplished anything like that.  Two separate seasons, two significantly above average stat lines, on both sides of the plate.

I don’t think Rick Ankiel should retire.  He can still hit the ball a long way, which is a lot more than can be said for a number of players who still somehow inhabit a MLB roster.  But if this is the end for Ankiel, it is not an ignoble end.  His career is not one to be mourned, but rather celebrated.  He didn’t fail.  He didn’t falter.  He persevered   On August 9, 2007, he beat the odds.  And he continued to beat the odds for over five years, seventy home runs, four hundred hits, and a few blistering outfield assists.

We will all be lucky to see another player like him.

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