Sunday, August 12, 2007

Rick Ankiel the Slugger??

That has to be one of the strangest things I have ever heard. After all, not 7 years ago Ankiel was one of the best up and coming young arms to hit the scene - he was talk and lanky and he could throw the rock. But hit the rock? No one would have even thunk it!

Ankiel's life story is quite impressive, he was a highly touted pitcher who after having a great rookie season in 2000 where he struck out 194 in 175 innings, fell upon some tough times. Injuries, wildness and a loss of confidence drove Ankiel damn near out of baseball. After giving up on pitching in the spring of 2005, and making it through waivers the Cardinals resigned Ankiel and put him in the minors - this time as an OF. No one really gave him a shot - he was injured all of 2006 and in 2007 he seemed to have come to Spring Training with a miracle of a dream. The Cardinals stuck him in AAA, and after hitting 31 HRs there, the Cards gave him a call up last Thursday.

Well, Ankiel made the most of his debut - hitting a HR off Doug Brocial of the Padres. This was not his first HR ever - he had 2 HRs in 2000 as a pitcher. Ankiel did however strike out 2 times that game, and 2 times the next game as well. If anything is going to hold Ankiel from being a MLB player it will be his plate discipline and high strikeout rates.

This leads to his 3rd game back as a hitter - last night Ankiel hit 2 HRs in a game for the first time in his career. Which wouldn't be amazing for a young hitter - but when you consider his past history as a pitcher - that makes this sort of miraculous. Ankiel hit the HRs off Derek Lowe and Roberto Hernandez.

So why can't/shouldn't this happen? I mean, both hitters and pitchers are both great athletes - otherwise they wouldn't be playing at this level or any level above college. There have been several great two way athletes who have done well - Babe Ruth being the first notorious pitcher/slugger. But major league baseball has changed - over the last couple of decades especially - when a player is drafted they are pushed to pursue one position - usually causing their skills to diminish at the other position. I think the last great two way college player and pro was Brooks Kieschnick - a two way spuerstar at the University of Texas was a very promising hitter - he had pop and average and in his thrid year of pro ball was tearing up AAA. He eventually made his MLB debut, but was just an average hitter from then on. In 1999 (6 years after he was drafted) he switched to a full time pitcher. AT the age of 31 (2003) he made his pitching debut (almost the exact opposite of Ankiel) and was average at best. The Brewers loved him because he offered them a PH and a long arm out of the bullpen as the 12th pitcher. Be he didn't burst onto the scene as Ankiel has.

What seems amazing to me is the differences between hitters and pitchers. Most hitters you think of as big burly home run hitters, while big pitchers lend you visions of David Wells and El Guapo. Skinny hitters you don't think of as power guys (the occassional Richie Sexson changes that), and you think of skinny pitchers as the norm - think Pedro & RJ. It's also a wasted AB in the NL, where pitchers flail at opposing pitchers fastballs as they whiz past them 1-2-3. Pitchers just aren't meant to hit.

Hitters and pitchers are so different, that I almost think of them as different sexes. Pitchers just don't have the muscle or the hand eye coordination to smack the ball around the park. I think they are wired differently, actually afraid of the ball once it touches the bat (obviously there are a few great defensive pitchers - but not a lot).

So how is this happening? Is Ankiel a blast from the way past - Babe Ruth style, but 100 lbs lighter? He's an uber-athlete, a sort of freak of nature in a game where only 1 out of every 10,000 little leaguers make the pros.

I guess I don't have any answers, but I will be following this story closely as it is one of the most interesting to date in the majors.

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