Rick Ankiel’s Comeback

This one is for Darren (AKA the legendary Repoz of Baseball Think Factory—hey, he’s a legend to us primates): Right now Rick Ankiel is trying to become the next Johnny Lindell.

Who?

First things first, as we all know, Ankiel was a one-time pitching prospect with a lively—though untamed—arm who enjoyed early big league success with the St. Louis Cardinals. In 2000, at the tender age of 20, Ankiel was 11-7, 3.50 ERA (133 ERA+) with 194 K in just 175 IP.

He seemed to be destined for greatness. A little more command and an injury-free career might have put him on a Hall of Fame trajectory.

The Cardinals made the playoffs and had big hopes for Ankiel. Then he lost it. He lost it the way Mark Wohlers lost it, the way Steve Blass did as well. He couldn’t hit the broad side of Prince Fielder. His teammates made sure he was at least three urinals away. He made love to his girl friend and a lady three blocks over bore his child. The safest place in the ballpark was home plate, 60 feet, six inches away from Mr. Ankiel.

He looked through. The tragic “what might have been” story. The story of Pete Reiser’s aggressiveness, Tony Oliva’s knees, Joe Jackson’s ethics and the Negro Leagues—tremendous careers tragically shortened by circumstances.

However, one thing Rick Ankiel always could do was hit. In his minor league debut in Double-A, he got 10 AB and garnered four hits and a home run. In 2000, when he made his stamp as one to watch, he batted .250 with a double, triple and two homers—not bad for a 20-year-old pitcher.

So Ankiel decided to see if he could make it back to the bigs as an outfielder. He’s gotten as far as the Pacific Coast League (Triple-A) where, as of this writing, he is batting .282/.324/.573 with 9 HR and 32 RBI.

He’s 27 now, which shouldn’t be viewed as the end of the world. Some terrific hitters didn’t really get going in the majors until they were 27, for various reasons. Notables include Dolph Camilli, “Indian Bob” Johnson and Edgar Martinez.

There is precedent for what Ankiel is doing. Back in 1936, John Lindell signed a Yankee contract for, as he termed it, “a handshake, a comb, and a bar of Lifebuoy” (it was actually $150) and was sent to Joplin of the Western Association. He pitched six years in the Yankee organization before becoming a member of Joe McCarthy’s bullpen, although he got a single at-bat coffee in 1941.

In ‘42, he pitched 52.2 innings, walking 22 and striking out 28 with a slightly below league average (3.44) ERA of 3.76. Lindell was your typical “good-hitter-for-a-pitcher,” batting .250 that year. When WWII decimated the Yankee roster (Lindell himself wasn’t inducted until June 1945) McCarthy sat down with Lindell and told him he’d serve the Yanks better as an outfielder. He obviously had a good arm, he had good speed (he led the AL in triples in both 1943 and 1944) and he could hit, so why not?

So Lindell opened 1943 as Joe DiMaggio’s replacement in center field. He was a league average hitter that year (102 OPS+). Unfortunately, league average included players who were 4-F, too old (42-year-old Cleveland Indian Joe Heving), too young (16-year-old Philadelphia Athletic Carl Scheib), or, in coming years. lacking a limb (Pete Gray in 1945). Still, it was good enough for an All-Star nod that year.

The following season Lindell distinguished himself. At the same age Ankiel is now (27), he batted .300/.351/.500 (139 OPS+), hitting 18 HR and driving in 103; he set an AL record in August, doubling in four consecutive plate appearances. In 1947, subbing for an injured Charlie Keller, Lindell batted .500/.625/.778 in the World Series against Brooklyn in 18 AB. He ended up with three World Series rings in pinstripes (1943, 1947, 1949).

Relegated to the bench after DiMaggio’s return, he hung around the Yankees until 1950, when he was sold to (coincidentally enough) the St. Louis Cardinals. As a Yankee he hit 63 HR and added five more in St. Louis that year.

Come July 1950, Lindell was traded to the Brooklyn Dodgers for Glen Moulder, but he never donned the uniform. Before the 1951 season, the Dodgers sent him to the Hollywood Stars of the PCL after the expiration of their minor league working agreement.

There he resumed his pitching career, copping MVP honors (his second such award in the minor leagues; he’d been “Minor League Player of the Year” with the Newark Bears of the International League in 1941). He won 24 games for the Stars in 1952, pitching with Mel Queen, who’d be Blue Jays pitching coach during their glory years. During that stretch, the Pittsburgh Pirates obtained Lindell as part of a minor league working agreement. On Aug. 31, 1953, the Phillies bought him. That year, Lindell pitched 199 innings between both clubs, finishing 6-17, 4.66 ERA (95 ERA+). Perhaps foreshadowing Ankiel, he walked 139 that year (and struck out 118).

Both Lindell and Ankiel have shown themselves terrific all-around athletes. So, if Ankiel becomes a productive major league outfielder, keep in mind the name of Johnny Lindell—both a major league All-Star hitter and a minor league MVP pitcher.

Did You Know?…

Joe Carter is my favorite player of all time. He’s also the proud owner of what might be the greatest, most unlikely achievement of all time.

There is an elite club in MLB. Before Joe Carter came along, only eight players had careers with 10 100-RBI seasons. All are inner-circle Hall of Famers. Since Joe Carter, five players have turned the feat and absent steroids all five would be slam dunk Hall of Famers. That’s 14 players with 10 100-RBI campaigns.

Joe Carter retired with 398 HR and 1,445 RBI. The average (non-Joe Carter) players on this list have averaged 535 HR and 1,850 RBI (and both figures will continue to grow substantially). Yet there’s good ol’ Joe, his 396 HR and 1,445 RBI right among them. What’s amazing is that he was career-wise a little bit better than league average (104 OPS+). It’s my favorite statistical oddity of all time.

It’s a “he’s in the group” type argument guaranteed to make Bill James’ head explode. Here’s the full list as of this writing (plus some contenders to join the club—some as soon as this year):

Player        YR/w 100+ RBI    HR   RBI  OPS+  
Babe Ruth           13        714  2217  207
Lou Gehrig          13        493  1995  179
Jimmie Foxx         13        534  1922  163
Al Simmons          12        307  1827  132
Hank Aaron          11        755  2297  155
Barry Bonds         11        745  1953  183
Manny Ramirez       11        477  1544  156
Frank Thomas        11        492  1597  159
Goose Goslin        11        248  1609  128 
Joe Carter          10        396  1445  104
Willie Mays         10        660  1903  156
Stan Musial         10        475  1951  159
Alex Rodriguez      10        482  1390  146
Rafael Palmeiro     10        569  1835  132

Two others who will join this group with a 100-RBI season in 2007 (or later) are Sammy Sosa (597 HR, 1,607 RBI, 129 OPS+) and Jim Thome (477 HR 1,312 RBI, 150 OPS+).

Players with an excellent chance of reaching are Vladmir Guerrero (eight 100-RBI season at age 31) and Chipper Jones (good start on 100-RBI season No. 9 at age 35). Having an outside shot are Ken Griffey Jr., Carlos Delgado, Gary Sheffield, and, if he becomes a DH, Jeff Kent with a very outside shot.

In case you were wondering, if Royce Clayton and Neifi Perez play 10 more years and have 100+ RBI in each of those seasons, they too will join the group.

The Whine Cellar

Since we’re looking into some of baseball’s quirks, we’ll open our Blue Jays discussion with one: Cliff Johnson was involved in one of Toronto’s all-time greatest odd transactions. Johnson got the Jays: Cliff Johnson and Tom Henke for Matt Williams (not that Matt Williams, this one was a pitcher), Jeff Mays and Greg Ferlenda.

A little background. After the 1981 strike, the owners and union agreed on a free agent compensation pool program whereby every team could protect 24 players on its roster and the rest were eligible to be drafted by a team that lost a free agent.

After the 1984 season, the Texas Rangers signed Blue Jays free agent Cliff Johnson. As their compensation pick, the Jays took unprotected Tom Henke.

In 1985 the Jays traded Williams, Mays and Ferlenda to Texas for Johnson in late August for the stretch run and playoffs.

So the Jays traded two nonprospects and a reliever who’d go on to pitch 26 more major league innings and got Cliff Johnson and Tom Henke in return.

Henke, of course, was the final piece of the Jays’ puzzle for that young team (closer). Henke pitched 40 innings in 1985 and went 3-3 with 13 saves and a 209 ERA+ with 8 BB/42 K. Johnson was .368/.400/.474 in 19 AB in the ALCS for Toronto.

“The Terminator” would go on garner 311 saves, striking out 861 in 789.2 IP with an ERA+ of 156. He finished his career on top, too, saving 36 games, striking out 48 in 54.1 IP and compiling a 232 ERA+ with the St. Louis Cardinals in 1995 before retiring to spend more time with his family.

He turned down several overtures to return. He was the Jays’ closer from 1985-1992. Since then Toronto has tried 13 different pitchers in that role with mixed success at best (ERA over 4.00).

He might have been a Hall of Fame candidate if he’d pitched a few more years or if class had more weight in the voting process.

We miss you, big guy!

On to more current matters: I know J.P. Ricciardi is loath to give up outs for runs or to sacrifice. I hope John Gibbons realizes he has to be pragmatic. Right now, due to injuries, the Jays may have as many as three major out-producers at the bottom of lineup. If Troy Glaus’ legs are being rested it’s entirely possible that your 7-8-9 hitters could be some combination of Jason Phillips (78 OPS+), Sal Fasano (27 OPS+), Royce Clayton (78 OPS+), Jason Smith (44 OPS+) and John McDonald (67 OPS+).

Thus far this season (as of this writing), this quintet has drawn just 19 BB in 322 AB and struck out almost as often as they get a hit (77 K/ 78 hits). Occasionally there will be runners at first and second with none out and one of these five players coming to the plate. Suffice it to say, the odds of a popup, strikeout or double play ball are much more likely than that of a hit or walk.

What Gibbons should do in this scenario is try to bunt the runners over. Every day, Gibbons should be giving these guys bunting practice. When the odds of an out (and possibly two) are so strong, a double play more probability than possibility, the Jays would be better served in making sure that the almost inevitable out (the aforementioned five players have an aggregate OBP of .292) at least moves runner along. That way a groundball or ball hit to the outfield at least gets you a run.

The Jays’ offense has been struggling for a while now and they should look at doing whatever it takes to gets runs across even if it means making an intentional out.

Jerry’s Kids

I was thinking (it happens) after another thread on Baseball Think Factory that led to the bashing of various baseball announcing teams (by the way, it was this column that started the discussion).

Being the father of two teenaged daughters, rare has been the opportunity for yours truly to actually watch a Blue Jays game in recent years. I’d say I get to watch maybe one, sometimes two, out of every six or seven games. For those Jays fans who spend a lot of time simply listening to games, realize that for all the organization’s faults, their radiocasts aren’t among them.

I miss Tom Cheek (I had a bit of a comical interaction with him a few years back—but that’s a story for another day) and am still ticked off at Mike Mussina for grousing over the time it was taking when the Jays decided to honor the then-dying Cheek. Now the duties fall to Jerry Howarth and Alan Ashby, a veteran catcher and original Blue Jay. Although it’s not quite the same with Jerry ‘n’ Alan as it was with Tom ‘n’ Jerry, I’ve been impressed with their work thus far.

Howarth (with whom I also exchanged pleasantries once, although I doubt it made as big an impression on him as it did on me) is a bit atypical for a broadcaster. While he roots for the home nine, he really comes across as a baseball fan first, Blue Jays fan second. A great play, regardless of which team makes it, gets Jerry excited. He seems to appreciate the game itself and is enthusiastic when it is played well.

Home runs are fun (“and there she goes!”), but defensive wizardry really seems to be his forte. I know he is a rabid San Francisco 49ers fan and during their terrific run through the early 1980s to the mid-1990s, the 49ers had a hugely underrated defense. While guys like Joe Montana, Jerry Rice, Dwight Clark, Roger Craig, Steve Young, John Taylor, Tom Rathman and Brent Jones got all the headlines, it was guys like Ronnie Lott, Eric Wright, Dwight Hicks, Pierce Holt, Fred Dean, Carlton Williamson, Merton Hanks, Jack “Hacksaw” Reynolds, Keena Turner, Charles Haley, Dana Stubblefield, etc. doing superlative work on the other side of the ball that helped them cop five rings in 14 years.

I suspect that Howarth appreciates defense because it’s so crucial, yet so overlooked.

Ashby comes across as, well, a catcher. Catchers have a unique perspective on the game. In Ashby’s case, he spent 17 seasons watching the game unfold in front of him. It’s hardly a coincidence that a lot of catchers went into broadcasting: Bob Uecker, Tim McCarver, Joe Garagiola. etc. What impresses me about Ashby is that despite his experience playing in the major leagues, he respects the fact that Howarth, although not a MLBer, has learned a lot about the game from his vantage point. Also in his favor is that despite his vast experience in the game, doesn’t feel the need to expound his opinion on every little matter as if it were the word of God (or Red Barber).

A quality about both that I like is that they’re not afraid to criticize but they never come across as being critical. When they critique something, they approach the subject matter from a logical, rather than visceral, point of view. One thing that I’ve noticed of this duo (and Jays’ broadcasts in general) is that they don’t feel the need to have chatter every second of the broadcast. They are content to let the sounds of the game filter through to the audience.

As a final note: One necessary evil of radiocasts is that during the game, the men in the booth have to do various commercials. It irritates the H-E-double hockey sticks out of me. Howarth makes it as painless as possible.

So, to the Toronto Blue Jays: Thanks for the men you’ve put in the radio booth, and to the men working inside it.

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