Rick Ankiel redux

One day in college my political science professor spelled out the difference between baseball and football. “Football,” he said, “is the ultimate capitalist game. It’s all about acquiring land, yardage, maintaining possession. In baseball, however, no one wants possession. It’s almost pre-capitalist. Just look at the way baseball fans fetishize the game’s pastoral roots: the cycle of bases, the seasonal wheel. They’re conservatives at heart. They like to pretend that nothing ever changes.”

Even a new-school discipline like sabermetrics has some of this conservative impulse. There is the idea, for example, that ballplayers are coachable only up to a point—that they are more or less who they are. Or the idea that underlies Bill James’ similarity scores, or Nate Silver’s PECOTA system—that there’s nothing new under the sun, that Frank Tanana is the reincarnation of Allie Reynolds, who is the reincarnation of Lefty Gomez. This might explain why performance analysts can be so curmudgeonly. We like to think we’ve seen it all before, that we’ve got the game figured out.

I should know. I made that very mistake here at The Hardball Times, in the spring of ’05, in an article about Rick Ankiel’s migration from the mound to the batter’s box. I wrote that Ankiel is “not a real hitter by any conceivable stretch of the imagination,” and that the Cardinals should cut him loose rather than turn him into a novelty act. “It’s best,” I advised, “to consider Rick Ankiel retired from baseball.”

So whatever happened to that Ankiel fellow anyway?

Of course, he’s ripping the cover off the ball. Not just now and then—frequently, for almost a month now. I know, I know—a month isn’t long in baseball time—but still, he’s making real contributions to a team that stubbornly refuses to bow out of the pennant race. Since his recall to the majors on Aug. 9, Ankiel sports a batting line of .343/.388/.657. Over that same time he’s leading his team in home runs, total bases, extra-base hits, RBIs and curtain calls. And when you combine his totals with his performance in the minors, he’s up to 38 homers on the year.

As a hitter, Ankiel is, well, a lot like he was as a pitcher: jumpy and explosive. He rarely looks for the walk, instead letting ‘er rip just about every time up. You know how you can hear how good some players are just by the sound of the ball exploding off their bats? Ankiel is one of those guys. He’s got a compact whipsaw swing, pulling everything to right with a sizzling backspin. There’s nothing subtle about him at the plate—he’s just pure entertainment, in the Reggie Jackson mold.

Of course, there have been other pitcher-to-hitter switches over the years: Smokey Joe Wood, Babe Ruth, and the double-duty pulled by Brooks Kieschnick as recently as 2004. But the way that Ankiel got here is unheard of, if not fairly ridiculous. Remember, he’s not just a guy who used to pitch—he was one of the very best young pitchers of his generation (if you didn’t get to see him in person, picture a lefty with Matt Cain’s fastball and Felix Hernandez’s curve).

Then, after one of the most public psychological meltdowns in all of sports, Ankiel started over as a batsman—and along the way, just to lengthen the odds, missed all of 2002 after surgery to replace his elbow ligament and all of 2006 with a torn knee tendon. He went from being a phenom, the youngest kid in the majors when he first arrived, to one of the oldest players at every stop of his return trip through the minors. If this crazy story didn’t exist, someone might’ve invented it some night around the campfire.

Indeed, since his return gig to the majors, Ankiel has pulled off some feats that seem worthy of Paul Bunyan or Pecos Bill. Consider the following:

  • He drilled a game-breaking, three-run homer in his first game back to the bigs.
  • He hit two bombs over the wall just two days later, then added a sprawling catch at the warning track in which he caught the ball over the wrong shoulder.
  • A few games later he barehanded a sure double off the wall, wheeled and threw a mind-boggling cannon shot into second base to nab the runner, reminiscent of Dave Parker’s throw in the ’79 All-Star Game. (Almost no one has dared take an extra-base on Ankiel since—the last who did got gunned down too.)
  • Then that weekend he accidentally walked to home plate without wearing his batting helmet, returned to the dugout to fetch it, then got back in the box, and yanked a low outside pitch over the wall in right center for a game-winning grand slam.

When I play these images back in my head, I can’t help but see Ankiel as some kind of Old West gunslinger. Not sure why—maybe it’s the chaw in his cheek or the perpetual wink in his right eye. Maybe it’s his coltish gait, his exposed stirrups, or his deadly left-handed gun . Or maybe it’s his vague resemblance to country singer Kenny Chesney. Whatever the case, he always seems to me like some rawboned young cowboy.

A few years back Bill James noted that you can judge a league’s overall quality of play by looking at various indices: fielding percentage, double plays, the average distance of teams from .500, the percentage of games that are blowouts, the condition of the field, and so on. And these measurements apply everywhere—not just across eras and countries, but also when comparing baseball in the majors to baseball in the minors or college or high school or Little League. And one of the key differences between big-league ball and sandlot ball is that, in the former, talent is very diffuse and specialized; in the latter, it is centralized. What that means is that the best pitcher on a Little League team is often his team’s best fielder and hitter. That doesn’t happen in the majors.

Obviously Rick Ankiel, despite his recent exploits, is not the Cardinals’ best fielder or hitter. But what he’s doing makes hash of the idea that major-league baseball is, you know, hard. For him, anyway. King Kaufman made this point a couple weeks ago over at Salon.

People ask all the time: Why can’t pitchers hit?

That question belies a lack of appreciation for the level of play in the major leagues. Because the answer is the vast majority of pitchers can hit, in any context but against major league pitching. Watch big-league pitchers take batting practice sometime and you’ll see what I mean. Most major leaguer pitchers can rake.

Just not against major league pitching.

Struggling to a batting average of .137 or .162 or even .089 against that handful of people at the very top of the pitching profession is a hell of a feat except for that handful of people at the top of the hitting profession. What’s amazing about Ankiel—one of the things, but the main thing—is that he’s reached the top of both professions. It’s like being a world-class architect, and also a world-class cellist.

In other words, what Ankiel is doing shouldn’t be happening. And yet it is. Which is why I’m so thrilled I was wrong about Ankiel’s chances back in the spring of ’05. Much like a team scoring 30 runs in a game, or Josh Hamilton wasting his formative years to drugs before returning triumphantly to the majors, the Rick Ankiel story is a reminder that the game is larger and more elastic than I thought possible.

And he couldn’t come at a better time. It’s been a very odd year for the Cardinals, most of it depressing. They began the season 1-7 at Busch, the worst home start by any world champion, then flopped to 20-29 overall, 10.5 back at the end of June. Off the field things have been worse. First their manager, Tony La Russa, was caught drunk and dozing behind the wheel of his car in spring training. Then reliever Josh Hancock—also drunk driving—killed himself in a car accident in late April.

Shortly after the All-Star break their ace pitcher, Chris Carpenter, learned he’d miss the next year and a half rehabbing from Tommy John surgery. Scott Spiezio entered rehab. Scott Rolen succumbed to season-ending shoulder surgery. And then, ghoulishly, Juan Encarnacion took a foul ball off his eye while in the on-deck circle, shattering his orbital bone and possibly ending his career.

Rick Ankiel doesn’t make up for all that, nor does the fact that he’s leading the Cards back into a September pennant chase. But he does give us something to shout about, something to lose our sweet heads over. Whatever happens to him from here on out, I’d say that’s already more than enough.

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