March 2, 2017

ELDEN | What Ever Happened to Pitcher-Turned-Outfielder Rick Ankiel?

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Last week, a video of Boston Red Sox catcher Blake Swihart surfaced. Swihart was used as an outfielder last season, and this spring has been in the process of transitioning back to catcher. The video showed Swihart catching a routine bullpen session; however, when he went to throw the ball back to the pitcher, he missed wildly.

This led some anxious fans to wonder whether Swihart had developed a case of the “yips” — a mental block that professional athletes sometimes develop which leads them to fail at previously routine plays. Fortunately, it was reported that Swihart is now performing normally as a catcher and should be ready to start the season. Swihart’s scare may be over, but this invites memories of former Cardinals’ player Rick Ankiel, one of the more interesting stories in baseball history.

In 1997, the St. Louis Cardinals drafted a Florida high school pitcher, Rick Ankiel, in the second round. In 1999 and 2000, he was widely considered a top-5 prospect in baseball, and at times, the singular top prospect.

In 1999, at age 19, he made his Major League debut with the Cardinals, putting up a 3.27 ERA in 33 innings, striking out 39 batters. These numbers in a small sample were phenomenal, and earned Ankiel a spot in the Cardinals rotation for the 2000 season.

That season, Ankiel was one of the most productive starters in the major leagues, starting 30 games and posting a 3.50 ERA. He was the team’s best pitcher, and finished second in Rookie-of-the-Year voting to infielder Rafael Furcal. This led to the Cardinals starting him in the 2000 playoffs — but the pressure got the best of Ankiel. In three playoff appearances, he struggled to pitch accurately. In four innings, he walked 11 batters and threw nine wild pitches.

The seeming fluke did not deter the Cardinals from making Ankiel their opening day starter in 2001. He was able to keep himself together in his first start, however his next five led to a demotion to the minors. He later admitted to drinking vodka before his first start of the 2001 season, to help quell the anxiety he felt. It worked for the first game, but it could not reign him in after that.

He posted an 8.05 ERA in those next five starts, walking 22 in as many innings. After a demotion to AAA, he pitched even worse, walking 17 in under five innings. He was again demoted, this time to Rookie Ball. He pitched well, but did not return that season. He reached the majors again in 2004, but as a reliever.

In a recent interview, he revealed that he had tried many exercises and tricks to attempt to beat his anxiety, and that it had affected his life and relationships in a way he did not feel comfortable. In the spring of 2005, Ankiel retired as a pitcher.

He came back as an outfielder. He was considered a strong hitter for a pitcher, but had no extensive experience as an offensive player while playing professional baseball. He worked his way through the minors and back to the major league team as an outfielder in 2007. He had his most productive season in 2008, hitting .264/.337/.506 with 25 home runs, providing the Cardinals with some much needed power behind superstar Albert Pujols.

He managed to spend parts of seven seasons in the Major Leagues as an outfielder, which would be impressive in its own right. He was able to completely start over his baseball career in a different position. It is extremely rare for players to succeed both as a pitcher and a hitter. He is only one of two major league players ever to hit more than 50 home runs and win more than 12 games as a pitcher. Who was the other? Babe Ruth.