I was listening to the Giants game this weekend when Rick Ankiel came to the plate. Giants’ announcer Duane Kuiper enthused that the only parallel to what Ankiel had done – moving from major league pitcher to feared slugger – was the great Bambino, Babe Ruth himself.
I think there’s a better analogy, but let’s get through some background first.
Ankiel’s first full season pitching for the Cards was a sensation.
In 2000, he started 30 games, won 11, and struck out 194 batters.
But the love of the baseball Gods is fickle. In the third inning of the first game of the NL division series, came his comeuppance. He walked four and threw five wild pitches in two-thirds of an inning.
He never made it back to the pitching heights.
In 2001, back down in AAA, he threw 12 wild pitches in 4 1/3 innings. In 2002, Ankiel sat out the season with an elbow injury and in 2003 had Tommy John surgery.
Finally, a practice outing in March 2005 where he threw only three strikes out of 20 pitches convinced Ankiel to give up pitching and try to make the club as an outfielder.
Since being called up to the Cards at mid-season last year, Ankiel has had 221 at bats and hit 15 home runs, about one home run per 15 at bats. By way of comparison (in an admittedly off year), his teammate Albert Pujols hit a homer per 18 at bats in 2007.
Of course, as Kuip knew, no one has made the switch from pitcher to slugger with more success than Babe Ruth.
Ruth was a fantastic hurler before changing to an everyday outfielder. His lifetime ERA was 2.28 and his winning percentage of .671 is, I believe, the highest in the Hall of Fame.
As a slugger, he was nonpareil. In 1920 at age 25, he hit more homers than any of the other seven American League teams. Ankiel, who will be 28 this year, is very good but he is no Ruth.
Another player whose career bears some similarity to Ankiel’s was the longtime Yale baseball coach, Smoky Joe Wood.
In 1912 at age 22, he pitched 344 innings and won 34 games with an ERA under 2.00. He finished off the year with three World Series wins.
No wonder his arm practically fell off the next year!
He came back as an outfielder for the Indians in 1917 with a best year in 1921 where he hit .366. He was good, but not a star.
OK, let’s try someone else.
What about San Francisco legend Lefty O’Doul?
He broke into the majors as a pitcher in 1919 and appeared in 23 games as a reliever for the 1923 BoSox, but his arm went dead by age 26.
At age 31, he returned to the Giants as an outfielder and hit .319. The next year he hit .398 with an NL record 254 hits and knocked in 122 runs for the Phillies.
His .349 career average (in 3,264 at bats) is the fourth-best ever. He never made the Hall of Fame, but he was a heck of a hitter.
Ankiel got back to the majors when he was four years younger than O’Doul.
A career like O’Doul’s would be amazing indeed. But one like the Bambino’s would be impossible.