Rick Ankiel did something with very little precedent in major league history. He came up a precocious pitcher, flamed out on baseball's biggest stage and then bounced back by switching careers and becoming an outfielder.
That was five years ago, and what better way to show Ankiel's transformation than in a YouTube clip collection:
The Ankiel that joins the Astros is neither the phenom pitcher who threw so impressively in that Futures Game in the early portion of the video above. Nor is this the Ankiel who hit that bomb of a home run for the Cardinals and then proceded to be a perfectly reliable outfielder for a few years.
No, the Rick Ankiel that has joined the Astros is nearing the end of his strange, twisting career. He joins a number of former Astros who did the same, becoming a part of this franchise at the tail ends of once famous careers. Will this year's Ankiel make an impact? Does he have anything left? Let's explore one of Jeff Luhnow's more polarizing minor league deals of the past two years.
Ankiel played in 68 games last season for the Washington Nationals. The start to his season was slightly delayed as he dealt with a balky quadriceps muscle, but he was back by the Nats home opener. He never hit very well with a batting average of .228, an on-base percentage of .282 and a slugging percentage of .411 in 171 plate appearances.
That line was right in line with his 2011 season, when he played in 122 games and got 415 plate appearances. Still, if you want a slight sign of home, Ankiel did hit .333/.389/.485 in a nine-game stretch starting on May 4 and ending May 13. Ankiel got 36 plate appearances over that stretch, hitting one home run and striking out 10 times with three walks.
The strikeouts proved very problematic for him in 2012. After posting strikeout rates anywhere from 21 percent to 25 percent in his other seasons as a hitter, Ankiel's rate jumped to 34.5 percent. That's a big reason why his batting average stayed low despite posting a career-high batting average on balls in play of .330.
Ankiel's line drive rate actually improved a little from 2011 and was higher than most of his career, suggesting it's not a loss of bat speed that caused his struggles with strikeouts. He hit less balls on the ground than in either of the two previous seasons and had good rates on his homer per fly ball percentage. He wasn't hitting more infield fly balls, wasn't swinging at pitches out of the zone more often but was seeing less first-pitch strikes and making less contact in the zone.
That led to a second straight abnormally high swinging strike rate. After staying around 14 percent for much of his career, Ankiel's whiff rate rose to 17.9 percent last season, as his zone contact rate plunged to 74.6 percent, almost six percent lower than his career average.
Given his small number of plate appearances, there's a good chance his problems making contact in the zone were statistical anomalies that could work themselves out given more playing time. However, it's never a good sign for an older player to start missing balls in the strike zone.
And that's not even looking at his defense. While Ankiel's time in right field didn't lead to any big numbers, his big arm has been a huge asset for him in center. Ankiel has positive arm ratings in Defensive Runs Scored for every season he's seen time in center field. His range isn't great there, but it more than plays in right field. If the Astros want to platoon him in right, he should provide above average range with a decent throwing arm out there.
The Nationals released Ankiel in July of last season and he didn't latch on anywhere else until the offseason, when he signed the minor league deal with the Astros.
Bill James' projections for Ankiel are positive, but then again, James' projections are usually positive. He's set to have a .227/.288/.402 line in 311 plate appearances with 11 home runs and a strikeout rate of 28.9 percent. That's similar to his line from 2011, when he was worth 1.4 fWAR to the Nationals. For perspective, only three batters topped 1.0 fWAR last season for the Astros.
Ankiel wasn't on the Astros at the time that their ZiPS projections were released by FanGraphs, but we can assume they'd be worse than the Jamesian ones.
The Steamer projections over at FanGraphs are less bullish on his playing time, showing Ankiel with 240 plate appearances and seven home runs with a line of .233/.297/.398. That'd put him right in the range of 1.4 WAR he totaled in 2011.
The Oliver projections at FanGraphs are more optimistic almost across the board, saying Ankiel will get 397 plate appearances with a line of .232/.306/.388 and 2.1 Fielding Runs, good for a projected WAR total of 1.3.
Many have suggested that if Ankiel gets regular starts, it'll be a failing by the Astros, but I think he has value. Maybe not as an every day player, but two or three starts a week could benefit the club.
At the very least, Ankiel should be a very effective fourth outfielder and power bat off the bench. With Justin Maxwell sliding into the starting center field role (presumably), Ankiel should do a good imitation of what JMaxx did last season on the bench: filling in at multiple outfield spots, providing pop off the bench in late inning situations and being a veteran leader.
Well, Maxwell wasn't that, but it sounds like Ankiel is embracing that role. Losing so many veterans in recent years, the Astros could definitely use a few guys like that. With a pre-set relationship with both Bo Porter from their time in Washington and one with Jeff Luhnow from St. Louis, Ankiel should also have a good grasp on what the new front office wants out of the "Houston Astros Way."