by Jason Wojciechowski
Do you remember when Rick Ankiel was awesome? I do, by god. Twice, in fact. I remember when he was a 20-year-old phenom pitcher, throwing 175 innings, striking out ten men per nine, and matching the .382 slugging percentage that Rookie-of-the-Year Rafael Furcal pounded out. I was 18 at the time, doing my level best to finish my first year of college without utter academic disaster, drinking Bombay Sapphire while composing papers on Russian literature, but we all keep one eye on the game.
|Hats off to you
Photo by chetthejet
As it happened, maybe Ankiel could have used a little chemical depressant in his system. I won't even rehash his 2001. It was painful to watch. It was painful to hear about. It was painful to have in the back of my mind as something I knew was going on even while I didn't have a ton of time to consume baseball. I'm not anything like a Cardinals fan, but hey, Mark McGwire was slugging .492 with a sub-.200 batting average while J.D. Drew hit like a Hall-of-Famer (specifically Mickey Mantle, given the time he missed due to injury), and I've always been a fan, for different reasons, of both guys. Plus, Craig Paquette was on that St. Louis team. So what I'm saying is that I rooted for Ankiel just a few percentage points harder than your typical non-Cardinals fan might have otherwise, and felt just a few percentage points more pain than your typical non-Missourian.
So how thrilling was it for all of us, for baseball fans, for dudes who sorta kinda root for the Cardinals, for people who love a good (and totally fantastical) yarn when Ankiel played more or less a full season in the outfield in 2008 and hit .264/.337/.506 while manning center field and making throws like this:
Ok, that's a video game. But you remember how he would make actual throws like that, right? Because he did. And how thrilling was it, to get back to the original question? It was amazing. It was a delight all around. And I really mean all around. You don't see me dropping too many Charles Krauthammer links here or anywhere else, but Krauthammer called the kid Roy Hobbs and it was hard not to be excited right along with him.
But the warning signs were there. One hundred strikeouts in 416 at-bats and an adequate-at-best and walk rate threatened to undermine his obvious power by pointing to contact and/or plate discipline issues that most major-league hitters cannot overcome.
And indeed, the bottom fell out in 2009. Ankiel struck out the same number of times in sixty fewer trips to the plate, his walk rate fell below adequate down to just plain bad, and, in news likely related to these just-mentioned issues, his slugging figure dropped below .400. Ankiel went from being roughly 20% above-average as a hitter to roughly 25% below-average.
If you want one table to sum up Ankiel's downfall as a hitter, go to his FanGraphs PITCHf/x Plate Discipline stats and click "Show Averages." I'd like to also show standard deviations, but you can't always get what you want, and in any case, this is better than nothing: note how he consistently swings at more pitches both inside and outside the zone than other hitters and how he makes less contact inside and outside the zone than other hitters. If you think major-league pitchers, scouts, and coaches don't know how to deal with this, then look at the Zone% column and see how Ankiel consistently gets fewer pitches in the zone than other hitters. (Technical note: I don't know how FanGraphs defines its zones, whether it uses the rule-book zone or the as-actually-called strike zone that I associate most with Mike Fast's research, but my guess is that Ankiel would not come out looking rosy by either measurement.)
Using the custom leader-boards at FanGraphs, we can see some very good players around Rick Ankiel's 2008-2011 total percentage of swings on pitches outside the strike zone. Miguel Tejada, Carl Crawford, Ichiro Suzuki, and Robinson Cano are in the same general vicinity, but guess what those players do far better than Ankiel? They make contact. Here's another way to look at it: of the players ahead of Ankiel in swinging outside the zone, the only one who makes less contact overall is Miguel Olivo. It is, it turns out, something of a miracle that Ankiel even had the success he did in 2008.
Still, as Ankiel inks his minor-league contract with Washington in the hopes of keeping Bryce Harper and his terrible mustache on the farm for another year, it's easy to dream on Ankiel's Natural talent, the way he seemed to switch almost seamlessly from pitching to the outfield, mashing the ball around the yard, and beseech the baseball gods that they deliver just a few more glorious months before Ankiel is forced into bench roles and long summers in AAA and contemplations of the Japanese leagues before he finally settles into retirement or coaching or whatever a Port St. Lucie High School grad who's never done anything but play ball is qualified to do. What's one more miracle?