On the heels of a season in which he was released twice and saw less time at the major league level than in any year since 2006, Rick Ankiel has decided to retire. Word of the 34-year-old outfielder's decision was announced during the broadcast of the Cardinals' Grapefruit League game on Wednesday. Thus ends one of the strangest careers in recent memory, a career that saw a rookie pitching sensation forced to reinvent himself as an outfielder — and succeeding.
Indeed, for as sudden and shocking the dissolution of Ankiel's control on the mound was, he showed remarkable persistence in working his way back. As a pitcher, he lost both the 2002 season and about a full year between mid-2003 and mid-2004 due to injuries, and he missed all of 2006 after converting to the outfield but before making it back to the majors. While his return didn't turn out as well as those of George Sisler, Babe Ruth, or even Lefty O'Doul and Rube Bressler, his conversion from pitcher to position player was still the most successful one of the past half-century.
Drafted by the Cardinals in the second round in 1997 out of Port St. Lucie High School in Florida, Ankiel showed enough in his first professional season that he entered 1999 ranked second on Baseball America's Top 100 Prospects list. He edged up to No. 1 after splitting that year (his age-19 season) between Double-A, Triple-A and the majors, putting up a 2.35 ERA and whiffing 12.4 per nine in the minors, and making five starts and four relief appearances late in the year with St. Louis just after his 20th birthday. Even before he reached that milestone, a Tom Verducci article in Sports Illustrated labeled the teenage southpaw as "The Can't-miss Kid," with veteran scout Mel Didier telling Verducci, "He's one of the best lefthanders I've ever seen. I can't recall seeing a 19-year-old do what he does. He has a good delivery, he's a good athlete and he has great poise."
Ankiel became a full-fledged member of the Cardinals' rotation the following spring and started living up to the hype. His 3.50 ERA and 194 strikeouts across 175 innings helped him finish second in the National League Rookie of the Year voting behind Rafael Furcal and suggested a bright future ahead. Unfortunately, things had already begun to unravel. Tabbed to start the 2000 Division Series opener against the defending NL champion Braves and quickly staked to a 6-0 lead opposite Greg Maddux, Ankiel wobbled through two innings, aided by a caught stealing and a line drive-induced double play. The nightmare arrived in the third, as he walked four hitters and threw five wild pitches in a 35-pitch span before being hooked.
When the Cardinals advanced to the NLCS against the Mets, Ankiel got another chance in a Game 2 start, but his performance was even more harrowing. Via three more walks and two wild pitches — and a total of five out of 33 pitches going to the backstop — he didn't even make it out of the first inning. He threw two more wild pitches and walked two in a Game 5 relief cameo, leaving the baseball world to wonder what had happened. The inevitable comparisons to pitchers Steve Blass and Mark Wohlers, and infielders Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch, arrived amid an avalanche of armchair psychology but no definitive answers. Was it a miscalculation by manager Tony LaRussa? The absence of regular catcher Mike Matheny when he was most needed? Sheer performance anxiety? A nervous disorder? Elbow trouble? A manifestation of his complex relationship with his ex-con father?
Under the microscope all winter — check this New York Times Magazine piece from Pat Jordan, who himself had endured similarly inexplicable wildness as a minor leaguer from 1959-61 — Ankiel was intermittently serviceable at the start of the 2001 season, but after 25 walks in 24 innings over six starts, he was sent back to Triple-A. When he threw 12 wild pitches and walked 17 in 4 1/3 innings, the Cardinals dropped him all the way down to the rookie level Appalachian League. With the pressure off, he dominated the peachfuzz set, whiffing 158 hitters and posting a 1.33 ERA in 87 2/3 innings, and belting 10 homers in 118 plate appearances as a part-time designated hitter. That showing at least offered some hope, but elbow tendonitis cost him all of 2002, and he threw just 54 1/3 innings of ugly minor league ball in 2003 before undergoing Tommy John surgery. When he showed better control during his 2004 rehab outings and finished the year with 9/1 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 10 late-season innings with the Cardinals, there was reason to hope that whether his woes had been physical or mental, he had turned the corner.
The 25-year-old Ankiel threw the baseball world one more curveball in the spring of 2005, when he announced a decision to convert to the outfield. He went back to the minors and hit .259/.339/.514 with 21 homers in 369 PA at Single-A and Double-A, but his progress was interrupted yet again by a strained patellar tendon that required surgery and cost him all of 2006. It didn't deter him, though; after mashing 32 homers in 102 games at Triple-A Memphis in 2007, he earned a late-season recall and belted a three-run homer off the Padres' Doug Brocail in his first game back. He continued to show ample power, finishing the season with a .285/.328/.535 line and 11 homers in 190 PA, but that winter, his name surfaced in the Mitchell Report as having received a 12-month supply of human growth hormone dating to 2004, when he was rehabbing from elbow surgery.
Despite the controversy, Ankiel opened 2008 as St. Louis' starting centerfielder and hit .264/.337/.506 with 25 homers before a sports hernia ended his season in early September. After he slumped the following year, the Cardinals let him depart via free agency, beginning an odyssey that took him through five teams: Kansas City and Atlanta in 2010, Washington in 2011-12, and finally Houston and the Mets in 2013. Exposed for his lack of plate discipline, he hit a combined .228/.291/.387 in that span, though the period wasn't without its highlights. Perhaps the biggest was his game-winning homer for the Braves in Game 2 of the 2010 NLDS against the Giants:
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Almost as unforgettable was this run-saving throw home from centerfield on the fly for the Nationals on April 16, 2012, serving to remind anyone watching of his still-powerful arm. It drew a standing ovation from fans:
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As Ankiel's prospects for a roster spot dwindled, agent Scott Boras shot down a rumor about him pondering another spin on the mound in November 2012. With that avenue closed, it became fairly clear that the end was near when he whiffed 35 times in 65 plate appearances for the Astros early last season, leading colleague Cliff Corcoran to dub him a One True Outcome player. After drawing his release, he caught on with the Mets, but his performance didn't improve; he ended the season with a .188/.235/.422 line and a dismal 60/8 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 136 PA.
Via Dan Fox of The Hardball Times (and later of the Pirates' front office, as the man behind their success in defensive shifts), most of the success stories of major league pitchers converting to successful hitters date back to the 1915-1925 period; the end of the Deadball Era and the subsequent rise in scoring made work as a position player more appealing than it had been before. The most successful transition since that time period was Johnny Lindell, who after pitching 52 2/3 innings for the Yankees in 1942, worked as a position player for the next eight years at the major league level; after a two-year detour to the Pacific Coast League, he spent 1953 as a pitcher/first baseman/outfielder and finished his career with a .273/.344/.429 batting line (113 OPS+). Even if Ankiel (.240/.302/.422, 92 OPS+) couldn't match that or reach the stardom that his potential suggested was possible, his incredible persistence in returning from the outskirts of oblivion to carve out a credible major league career was something to behold. Here's wishing him the best as he searches for a front office job; he's got more insight into the full spectrum of a pro ballplayer's career than most.