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Rick Ankiel, ballplayer


I’ve had a somewhat tumultuous relationship with Rick Ankiel as a fan.  That’s not saying much given his ups and downs; almost everyone has ridden the highs and lows vicariously with Rick.  I’ve alluded in the past to my current ambivalence towards Ankiel but I’ve never really spelled out the why of it.




Rick Ankiel emerged towards the tail end of what I’d label the formative years for my baseball passion.  I’d always liked baseball.  Like most kids, I’d played in little leagues and throughout my younger years.  Like most kids, I wasn’t particularly good but I still enjoyed it.  What’s always struck me as odd is that I’m still not sure why I liked watching baseball as a kid so much.  My father wasn’t particularly enamored of the sport – in fact, my enjoyment of the game over the last 5-10 years has probably sparked his more than vice versa.  Whatever the case, I was hooked from an early age.

Of course, the near addiction (and let’s be honest, I suspect many of us are a bit too rabid to just call it a hobby anymore) didn’t start until 1998.  As I’m sure everyone remembers, that was the historic race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa.  As a 13-year-old, I was mesmerized.  If I was hooked before, I was a lost cause from that moment forward.

Ankiel’s fantastic pitching season in 2000 (175 innings, 3.50 ERA, 194 Ks) was just plain fun to watch.  He was heralded as the next great lefty and he was so young.  He was sure to be a fixture of the Cardinal rotation for the next decade.  Tragically, we all know how that storyline ended.  But it didn’t end with the 2000 postseason for me.  It didn’t end with the wild pitches or the Steve Blass syndrome or whatever you want to call it.  I tracked him through the minors constantly hunting for updates.  I made sure to catch his brief major league callups only to be disappointed by the results.

When Rick Ankiel announced that he was done pitching, I can recall the exact settings of that moment.  I was in my parents living room.  I remember our old couch that we had at the time and I had been arguing with my younger brother about something trivial.  I was channel flipping and came across one of the local news stations, channel 5 in St. Louis.  The announcement didn’t just catch me by surprise, it rocked me to my core.

Furious might not be a word strong enough to encapsulate how I felt about what, at the time, I perceived to be a unilateral decision.  Looking back, it was a very naïve and juvenile reaction but I was very naïve and juevenile at the time.  After all the Cardinals had invested in him, I couldn’t believe he’d just hang up his cleats.  I scoffed at the idea of Rick Ankiel the outfielder.  Things like that just didn’t happen.  He’d thrown in the towel right in front of my eyes and I personalized that betrayal in a way that only sports fans can do when a star player leaves a team.

By the time Ankiel started his transition in the minor leagues in 2005, I had washed my hands of him.  He wasn’t someone that I was watching for or emotionally vested in after he “quit” pitching.  His injury ridden 2006 was followed by a prodigious display of power in 2007 when he hit .267/.314/.568 with 32 homeruns in Memphis.  St. Louis was captivated again by Rick Ankiel.  Or maybe more accurately, they had never stopped being captivated but now had reason to cheer.  The expectations heaped on him were enormous.  Talk of Babe Ruth, however facetious, was the norm and the question of when he’d come up to St. Louis and mash HRs with Albert became a “when” rather than an “if”.

He certainly didn’t disappoint in 2007 either.  .285/.328/.535 with a HR once every 16 at bats.  The surprising part wasn’t the power -- we’d seen that in Memphis – it was the batting average.  For someone who strikes out relatively often and can get fooled by pitches he had a relatively high average.  The storyline became that he was a new hitter; he’d only been devoted to the craft for 2 years really so the growth curve was tremendous.  He’s a natural.  He’s the natural.

This brings us to the present.  To say that Ankiel’s career path up till now is unique would be a gross understatement.  It’s singular in its oddity and unexpectedness.  But Ankiel may be going through another more important transformation as a player this season.  He’s hitting .251/.332/.479 on the season with 11 HRs.  The slugging percentage is down but that’s almost solely a function of the drop in average.  He’s still hitting for power and lots of it (ISO > .200).  The real change has been twofold.

First, Ankiel is walking in over 10% of his plate appearances keeping his OBP from sinking to dangerous levels as his batting average has tapered off.  From a statistical standpoint, I’m a huge fan of players that walk often.  Not only are they getting on base, but it’s a trait that helps keep them from getting too cold during the cold streaks.  (Just to be clear, that’s an opinion; I haven’t seen any research that indicates players who walk a lot are less prone to dramatic slumps.)  

The second change is perhaps even more profound. Ankiel was called up last year for his offense.  He’s made himself a mainstay of the lineup because of his defense.  His RZR rating is tremendously better than last year (.947 compared to .800) giving him the best rating of all qualified players in the NL. If you had asked me a year ago whether I thought he’d be a centerfielder, I’d have answered no. I thought he’d be serviceable there but he’s playing some of the best centerfield defense this side of Jim Edmonds in his prime.  A really rough look at his balls in zone shows that he’s made 27 more catches to date this year than he would at last years rate.  While it’s an oversimplification of defense, it’s possible that he’s somewhere around 2 wins with his defense this season.  The fact that there’s an argument to even be had about whether he or Colby Rasmus should be in centerfield next year is astounding (but Colby is the right answer).

These both strike me as sustainable improvements to Rick’s skillset.  He's adopted a more advanced approach at the plate and become an excellent fielder.  If there’s any single phrase to describe it, I’d say he’s becoming a more “complete ballplayer”.  The fascination with Ankiel has effectively become a St. Louis pastime.  As he approaches the end of his team-controlled years, it will be interesting to see what John Mozeliak decides to do with the 28-year-old who is still learning.  Rick Ankiel the pitcher is gone. Rick Ankiel the slugger is inaccurate. Rick Ankiel the ballplayer. . . . . now that seems right.