The 2011 Major League Baseball season, like any year, has had its share of surprises, from Ian Kennedy's emergence as a possible Cy Young Award candidate to a slew of players who returned to the big leagues after years of absence. One of the most surprising turns, though, is the presence of three outfielders who have found big league jobs after starting out and spending a large part of their careers as highly-touted pitching prospects. Part two of this series will appear next week.
Mound to the Outfield Part 1 - Rick Ankiel
Wednesday September 21st, 2011
Rick Ankiel - OF, Washington Nationals
2011 Stats: 349 AB, .246 AVG, .307 OBP, 9 HR, 35 RBI, 10 SB
Career Pitching Stats: 242 IP, 13-10 record, 3.90 ERA, 1.36 WHIP, 269 K
Last Year as a Pitcher: 2004
Former Cardinals pitcher Rick Ankiel is the most well-known among this select group of pitchers-turned-outfielders and was a bit of a trailblazer for the other two. Pitchers turning to the outfield is not a strictly modern convention, of course, since 1920's and 1930's all-stars Babe Ruth and Lefty O'Doul made the move well before Ankiel did, but the 32 year-old lefthander's decision to convert to hitting was met with great skepticism seven years ago. This was because Ankiel wasn't simply a good pitcher/ he was a dominant one and one of the top lefthanded pitching prospects in baseball history. He finished the 2000 season with an 11-7 win-loss mark and a 3.50 ERA, and his season total of 194 strikeouts ranked among the National League leaders. Rick was the runner up to Rafael Furcal for the NL Rookie of the Year Award and, at age 21, was expected to become St. Louis' pitching ace for the next decade-plus.
However, Ankiel's performance for the Cardinals in the 2000 playoffs signaled that the youngster's pitching future may not be as smooth as first expected. He managed just four innings of work in three outings (two starts) and tossed a remarkable nine wild pitches in the NL Championship Series and Divisional Series. That dismal performance could have been attributed to immaturity or a young phenom simply feeling the pressure of a post-season atmosphere, but his control problems carried over into 2001.
After a rough start in 2002, Ankiel was demoted to the low minors to sort things out. He thrived there and dominated his competition, but he struggled badly to toss strikes at higher levels and his career was put in serious jeopardy. His inability to repeat his pitch release point were attributed an unofficial and baseball-exclusive disorder known as "Steve Blass Disease", named after the one-time Pirates ace who went from ace to liability when he couldn't find the strike zone back in the 1970's. This problem is also called the "yips" and has afflicted many big leaguers over the years, including Steve Sax and Chuck Knoblauch .
During that span, Ankiel also began working as a hitter on his non-pitching days and displayed impressive home run power, which planted the seed for his eventual move to the outfield. After some injury woes and several stops and starts on the mound, Ankiel and his agent Scott Boras officially announced after the 2004 season that Ankiel would be giving up pitching and working solely as a hitter.
Despite commendable home run power, Ankiel's transition to hitter was not a quick one, though he did make it look fairly seamless. He started his outfield career in the low minors for St. Louis' class A affiliate Quad Cities in 2005 but finished the season for Double-A Springfield. The Florida native hit a combined .259 with 21 home runs, exhibiting legitimate home run power and gaining serious attention as a slugger.
Rick Ankiel's comeback looked fruitful during spring training with the Cardinals in 2006 but hit a roadblock when he missed the entire season due to a knee injury. In 2007, his biggest test came when he played 102 games for Triple-A Memphis, where he thrived. His throwing arm was, as expected, superb, but his athletic ability allowed him to excel defensively and he proved that he was capable of playing all three outfield positions. More than that, though, his 32 home runs for Memphis prompted a call-up in August and Ankiel once again impressed for the Cardinals by slugging 11 long balls and batting .285 in just 47 major league games. The following year, Ankiel worked as the Cards' primary centerfielder and hit an impressive .264 with 25 home runs and 71 RBI. Thus, his major league career was officially reborn.
Since then, Ankiel has battled injuries and has struggled with strikeouts and sub-par batting averages (he's hit just .237 with the Cardinals, Royals, Braves, and Nationals since 2009) but he has carved out a solid career as a big league power bat and defensive whiz. His propensity for throwing out runners has helped him make many highlight reels, and a nice collection of his video clips can be found here, courtesy of The Flagrant Fan.
Overall, his free-swinging plate skills may limit him to duty as a marginal starter or a fourth outfielder, but Ankiel has done remarkably well for himself, especially considering his psychological collapse as a pitcher. Furthermore, his transition and ability to prolong his career may have served as an example to two other current big league players, both of whom will be profiled in part two of this article.
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