Could Rick Ankiel Engineer a Successful Pitching Comeback in MLB?
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Are Rick Ankiel's days as a major league outfielder over?
Ankiel played the past two seasons with the Washington Nationals before the Nats designated him for assignment in mid-July. By batting .228 with a .694 OPS, five home runs, 15 RBI and one stolen base, Ankiel didn't make it a difficult decision for the Nationals.
There were rumors that Ankiel might catch with another team late in the season. The New York Yankees were a team that reportedly showed interest, but that never materialized.
And in a strong market for center fielders this offseason, Ankiel might have trouble finding regular employment, let alone a starting job.
Could that compel Ankiel to consider a return to pitching? The St. Louis Post-Dispatch's Joe Strauss said in a recent mailbag column that he hears Ankiel is indeed mulling over such a switch with how the open market is developing. Strauss also speculated that the St. Louis Cardinals might give him another shot as a pitcher.
At one time, Ankiel was considered a top prospect for the Cardinals. In 1999 and 2000, Ankiel looked like the next great left-handed starter, averaging 10 strikeouts per game with a 3.46 ERA.
But then Ankiel became one of those heartbreaking stories, as he suddenly couldn't find the strike zone. He had all the physical talent a pitcher could ever want, but could not control where the baseball was going.
In 2001, Ankiel had 25 walks in 24 innings. No pitcher is going to keep his job very long while doing that. Sure enough, he was sent down to the minors.
After it looked like he pulled himself together pitching 14 starts in a rookie league, Ankiel was promoted to Triple-A Memphis and it all fell apart for him again. He threw 17 walks in 4.1 innings. That averages out to 35.3 walks per nine innings, which toes the line between comical and truly sad.
Ankiel missed the 2002 season after suffering a torn ligament in his elbow that required Tommy John surgery. But he returned in 2004, worked his way through each level of the Cardinals' minor league organization and earned a September call-up.
Unfortunately, Ankiel didn't pitch so well in his five appearances. He gave up six runs and 10 hits in 10 innings, resulting in a 5.40 ERA. He only walked one batter, which was surely encouraging.
But during spring training the next year, Ankiel's familiar control issues developed in spring training. That prompted Ankiel to convert to an outfielder, which he's been for the past eight seasons (he missed all of 2006 with a knee injury that eventually required surgery).
So is eight years just too long of a break for Ankiel to try pitching again?
It would seem less difficult of a transition than from pitcher to position player. No need to worry about timing with a swing or reading the ball and positioning in the outfield. This would be a matter of building up arm strength and stretching an arm out for a pitcher's workload.
Of course, even if Ankiel got the feel back for pitching, the old issues of his pitch location would have to be addressed.
Would the eight-year break have given him some perspective? Maybe after so many seasons of trying to succeed as a batter, Ankiel would realize just how hard it is to hit a baseball. Maybe that would help him relax and he wouldn't try to overthrow.
I will admit, however, that I'm giving a layman's point of view.
This might be a moot point, however. That is, if we're to believe what Scott Boras told Yahoo! Sports' Tim Brown:
Not for nothin', but Scott Boras on Ankiel possibly returning to mound: "Rick Ankiel is a position player. He's not pitching."
— Tim Brown (@TBrownYahoo) November 2, 2012
So much for that, then? Realistically, Ankiel likely does have a far better chance of catching on with a major league team as an outfielder and Boras is trying to establish that.
He's not going to win a starting job with anyone, but perhaps he could be a defensive replacement on certain rosters. There's probably not much of a future for him as a left-handed pinch-hitter. His inability to hit put him in this predicament.
But if Ankiel can't find work as an outfielder, can he and Boras really rule out a return to pitching? Dallas Braden defined the market for left-handed pitchers quite well in speaking with the San Francisco Chronicle's Susan Slusser (via Big League Stew):
Braden has made good progress in coming back from shoulder surgery, believes he will find a job: "I'm left-handed and have a heartbeat."
— Susan Slusser (@susanslusser) October 30, 2012
Ankiel fits both of those criteria. We'll see if Boras holds the same stance on his client come January or February. Ankiel might still have a future as a pitcher.
Given the strikeout stuff he had early in his career, he could profile as a left-handed reliever. Of course, he'd need to control his pitchers. No team will show patience to a pitcher who comes in and walks batters. So maybe he'd still be better suited as a starting pitcher.
Regardless, even just the promise of Ankiel's ability could be enough for some team to give him a look.
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