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What a mess!

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I know that many here aren’t big fans of WPA but sometimes it can tell us a lot. Yesterday, for example, Rick Ankiel’s WPA was minus .342. Is there any doubt that his 0-6 w/ 2 K day played a big part in the Cards’ loss? For the year his WPA is minus 0.80 – easily worst on the team. Does that surprise anyone? His OBP is .273, his SLG is .231 and his wOBA is .241. So what’s the problem?

First of all, it’s pretty clear his pitch recognition is horrendous right now. His O-swing% -- the percentage of pitches outside the strike zone at which he’s swinging – is 35.9%, behind only free-swinger Brendan Ryan on the team. Just for reference, Albert’s only swinging at 20.5% of the pitches he sees outside the zone and Colby Rasmus has only swung at 11.3% of the pitches he’s seen outside the zone. Curiously, he’s only swinging at 64.5% of the pitches inside the strike zone (Albert’s at 73.6%). In fact, only Khalil Greene and Skip Schumaker, among regular players, are swinging at a lower % of the pitches they see inside the zone. When he swings, he misses…a lot. No one on the team swings and misses more than Ankiel. His contact % is just 75%. Even the pitchers who have swung the bat this year have made more contact than Ankiel – except Lohse. He’s particularly awful when swinging at pitches in the zone – worst on the team among regulars.

His walk rate – 9.3% -- isn’t awful but his K rate is – 25.6%. Though some here don’t agree that there’s value in taking pitches and working counts, and despite the fact that he’s seeing roughly the same number of pitches per PA (3.77 this year to 3.83 last year), he’s swinging at balls and taking strikes. That’s horrendous pitch recognition. Additionally, when he swings, he’s missing. What are pitchers throwing him? Among Cardinal regulars, only Skip has seen more fastballs than Ankiel. A full 55.9% of the pitches he’s seeing are fastballs. Molina is close – 55.0% but neither Skip nor Yadi have any power to speak of. They’re both, basically, singles hitters. Clearly pitchers right now aren’t afraid of Ankiel’s power. They’re just going to rear back and fire the fastball by him. Yesterday’s futility demonstrated this as well as any game has.

In the first, Ankiel struck out on 7 pitches when he swung and missed at a 92 mph fastball. He saw 5 fastballs and 2 changeups in this PA. In the third, Dempster threw Ankiel 4 consecutive fastballs and Ankiel swung and missed at the 4th. 2 PAs – 2 Ks. In the fifth, he got ahead in the count when Dempster started him off w/ 3 straight changeups. Then he saw 4 straight fastballs – a swinging strike, a ball, a foul, and then he popped up to 2nd. Against Marmol, w/ 2 on and no one out in the 7th, he saw 2 fastballs, a slider, and then popped out to the catcher on a third fastball. 4 ABs – 2 Ks and 2 popouts, all the outs made on fastballs. Ankiel led off the 9th against Kevin Gregg and saw fastball, fastball, fastball before his 3rd popup of the day landed in Ramirez’s mitt. In the 11th, Angel Guzman threw him 5 straight fastballs (and why shouldn’t he? He was in the mid-90s.) and Ankiel grounded the fifth into Miles’ glove at 2nd. In all, Ankiel saw 29 pitches in his 6 PAs yesterday – a pretty good number, btw. Out of those 29 pitches, 23 of them were fastballs, w/ 5 changeups and 1 slider. He made 6 outs, all of them on fastballs.

In the Maple Street Press Cardinals Annual Larry Borowsky authored an article on Ankiel’s futility last year in clutch situations. What he found is that he was swinging at more pitches than usual in clutch situations, and he was missing more frequently in clutch situations. Larry reached this conclusion about Ankiel’s futility and pitch type:

Toss Ankiel a slider or change-up off the plate and let him get himself out. That was the formula in key at bats during 2008.
Clearly, that’s not what’s affecting Ankiel right now. Right now, he’s just a mess. He’s swinging at too many balls and, probably, not enough strikes. He’s missing too frequently when he does swing and pitchers are throwing fastballs right by him. Last year, according to Josh Kalk’s pitch f/x data, Ankiel batted .316 w/ 5 doubles, 2 triples, and 10 homers against fastballs. Clearly, he had more success against off-speed pitches but it’s not like he was futile against the hard stuff.

Now, I don’t really know whether the key to breaking out of a slump is to have him take a couple days off and relax or to have him see more pitches and play his way out of it. There’s probably no singular answer. What works for some doesn’t work for someone else. And with a lefty on the mound tonight and a plethora of lefties in our OF, it’s difficult to say whether Ankiel will be in tonight’s lineup. Last year, less than 50% of Lilly’s pitches were fastballs. He emphasized sliders and changeups and that pattern has persisted in his first couple of starts in ’09. Does that help or hurt Ankiel? I don’t know but he’s a mess right now and maybe seeing a pretty tough lefty isn’t exactly what he needs.