Prospect Retro Redux: Rick Ankiel
Per reader request, a Prospect Retro Redux for Rick Ankiel.
I reviewed Rick Ankiel's minor league career five years ago, right when he was giving up pitching in favor of hitting.
Reviewing his career as a pitcher:
Rick Ankiel was picked in the second round of the 1997 draft, out of high school in Port St. Lucie, Florida. He was considered a definite first-round talent, but fell to the second round due to his perceived bonus demands. He signed with less-than-expected acrimony, then made his pro debut in '98, posting a 2.06 ERA in 7 starts for Peoria in the Midwest League, then a 2.79 ERA in 21 starts for Prince William in the Carolina League. He combined for a 222/50 K/BB ratio. I rated him as the Top Pitching Prospect in baseball heading into 1999, and gave him the rare Grade A rating. I also warned that he "could get hurt or lose his command." There was no particular insight there, just the standard caveat that even the best pitching prospects can fail.
Promoted to Double-A to begin '99, Ankiel went 6-0, 0.91 in 8 starts, earning a move up to Triple-A, where he went 7-3, 3.16 in 16 starts, fanning 119 in 88 innings. Excellent performance, especially considering that he was just 20 years old. He posted a 3.27 ERA in 9 games, 5 starts for the Cardinals down the stretch. He retained his Grade A rating, but once again I gave a specific caveat in his profile, writing that "the only two things that will keep Ankiel from being a star: mental adjustment problems or injury."
Anikel pitched well for the Cards in 2000 as a 21-year-old rookie, going 11-7, 3.50 in 30 starts, fanning 194 in 175 innings. His numbers weren't perfect: he walked 90 guys, showing the need for better command. But his stuff was so outstanding that no one was really worried. . .until his late-season control meltdown in the playoffs.
This turned into a serious problem in 2001, as Ankiel completely lost the touch with his control and ended up way back in the Appalachian League trying to get his confidence back. Then he blew out his elbow and had to have Tommy John surgery. He returned to the mound in '03, pitching horribly in Double-A. He showed some signs of recovery in '04, until eventually deciding to give up mound work altogether and concentrate on hitting.
So, what happened? Ankiel is an extreme case, a combination of injury and emotional problems crippling a player with enormous potential. He could have been one of the best pitchers of the early 2000s, could have, should have. But he wasn't. In an alternate quantum reality somewhere, Ankiel is a perennial Cy Young candidate. But not in ours. The only negative in his minor league record was an occasionally higher-than-wonderful walk rate, but there were no real clues that he would collapse like this. He is the poster child for the risks that even the very best pitching prospects run.
Picking up where his pitching career left off, Ankiel hit .270/.368/.514 in 51 games for the Quad Cities River Bandits in 2005, then .243/.295/.515 in 34 games for Springfield after moving up to Double-A. Although he wasn't a rookie obviously, I put him in the 2006 book in response to reader requests, giving him a Grade C and writing "Ankiel can probably hit .240-.250 at the major league level, with enough power to be useful, though he is probably best-suited to be a pinch-hitter and platoon player rather than a long-term regular."
He spent most of 2007 with Triple-A Memphis, hitting .267/.314/.568 in 102 games, then put a charge in the ball with a .285/.328/.535 mark in 47 games for the Cardinals. He followed that up with a productive .264/.337/.506 campaign in 2008.
Last year he slumped down to .231/.285/.387, hampered by shoulder and groin injuries, and the Cardinals let him go. Moving across Interstate 70 to Kansas City this year, he's hitting .255/.308/.511 through 13 games, about what should be expected when he's healthy.
In his career, Ankiel is a .251/.311/.455 hitter with a +99 OPS, though that is a bit misleading: he hat a +119 OPS in both '07 and '08 before slumping down to 76 last year when injured. At age 30, he is as good now as he's ever going to get. He strikes out a lot and will never hit for a good average, but his power is genuine. He's not a bad defensive outfielder at the corners.
Similar Players (as hitters):
By PECOTA: Darrin Jackson, Geoff Jenkins, Don Demeter, Tom Grieve, Richard Hidalgo, Gus Zernial, Preston Wilson, Richie Zisk, Jim Edmonds, and Craig Monroe. Greg Vaughn is 11th, Tom Brunansky 13th, Cliff Mapes 14th.
Basically, these comps are all low-batting-average guys with substantial power, which makes perfect sense. Many of them aged poorly, so there's a chance that Ankiel may fade out pretty quickly.
It is interesting to speculate what would have happened with Ankiel if he'd been a hitter all along...would more hitting reps when younger have resulted in a different shape to his hitting skills, or would he be the same as he is now but with 100 more homers on his record? I don't know of any way to answer that question.
Personally, I root for the guy: it took some mental and emotional fortitude to rebuild his career after the pitching collapse.