March 13, 2014

#Cardinals legend Rick Ankiel retires - correcting part of the story

Over at Sports on Earth, Will Leitch has a good piece on Rick Ankiel, the Cardinals pitcher-cum-outfielder, probably most notable for the NINE wild pitches he threw in two playoff games in his rookie season in 2000, the first being in Game 1 of the Division Series after Tony LaRussa made a surprise managerial decision to have him start Game 1. Commenters on the one video clip note that he may have missed the presence of the injured Mike Matheny behind the plate, replaced by Eli Marrero.

From there, Ankiel eventually reinvented himself as an outfielder. As one might expect, he had a gun for an arm, not just on strength, but on accuracy he might have wish he could have shown on the mound.

He was a decent power hitter with massive holes in his swing ... and power that was somewhat tainted, as Leitch notes, by the fact that he took HGH rehabbing from Tommy John surgery, leading to questions about whether he was using it for more than that.

I doubt the HGH did that much. There's a few exceptions like Barry Bonds, but a smaller strike zone, maple bats, and possibly even a juiced ball likely helped players who took this stuff more than the chemicals did.

That said, there's one other part of the myth I want to correct.

TLR didn't "ruin" Ankiel as a pitcher, and this is one of the few times in my life I'll cover LaRussa's back back. Ankiel had a 4.6 BB/9 in the regular season in 200 and 12 wild pitches, fifth in the National League. That walk rate doubled to 9.4 next year, with five WPs in just 25 innings.

But, lest anybody say, 2000 was a rookie year aberration and LaRussa's playoff decision made it worse in 2001? He had a climbing BB/9 rate, and some problem with WPs, in his time in the minors before coming up to St. Louis, too. Something like this was waiting to happen from him, at least without the team insisting on more minor-league seasoning. Even then, I'm not sure. You look at the one clip that Leitch has, from a minor league All-Star Futures game, and his control was problematic there, too.

Here's that video:

It's laughable for the one announcer to talk about "his great control." That said, said announcer a minute later has Ankiel's then-agent, one Scott Boras, as saying that Ankiel shouldn't be called up too early. Boras was worried about a young arm picking up too many MLB innings too quickly. He should have been worried about a young arm learning more control in the minors. 

Another video reinforces that. You can find plenty of 2000 NLDS vids; the NLCS one is harder to find. But, here's a piece of it.

Unfortunately, Joe Buck, who I wish would do no more baseball, even more than I'm glad over McCarver's retirement, also claims at about the 7:30 mark that Ankiel had no control problems in the minors. I don't know about his high school, but that's simply not true in the minors. It's because of that, not in spite of that, that Dave Duncan worked on his mechanics.

In that sense, maybe getting called up fairly quick was his best hope after all.

Should you have problems with the second video, or want to see Part 2, they're at this Mets blog. Contra the blogger there, I don't think the game call of Buck and McCarver was unfair to Ankiel or unduly harsh.

Also there is Ankiel's relief appearance in Game 5. 

From what he showed there, on occasional flashes of greatness still, you can't blame the Cards, or Ankiel himself, still holding on to hope, even with the additional problems.

On the other hand, as many have noted, he had a "similar" in Sandy Koufax, who had the same wildness for half a dozen years, including three full seasons.  

And, therein is a still missing bit of the story. Did Ankiel get hints from Walt Jocketty, or TLR or Duncan, that their patience factor had time limits? Or did he, at some point in 2004 realize that the Tommy John surgery had set him further back on mastering control issues? Or that it had affected his overall pitching? (His K/9 ratio has, in higher levels of the minors, a notable drop-off post-surgery.) Perhaps, the beginnings of the Internet, online videos, etc., and how it fired up fans at road games, led to the decision, too.

He seems personable enough; I wonder if he will talk more about this in the future.

Leitch is right that there's a mythos, a story, here, of tragedy and redemption (HGH aside). But, while Leitch himself doesn't directly say it, others hint at an antagonist, per stereotypical story line, one Tony LaRussa. Not true. The antagonist, if anything, was part and parcel of Ankiel's pitching.

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