Last Thursday, I started my series on the "yips" by examining Chuck Knoblauch's career. You can read that post here. Today, we move on to Rick Ankiel (Mackey Sasser is next week). Tim Brown's book on Ankiel came out earlier this year if the topic interests you further.
Which two players have both started a playoff game as a pitcher and hit a home run in another game as a position player? Babe Ruth and Rick Ankiel. That's just one of many stats you could use to describe Ankiel's fascinating career. That career began when the Cardinals took him as a high school pitcher in the 1997 draft. Before the 1998 season, Ankiel had shot up to the 18th best prospect in baseball (Baseball America). His numbers in 52 minor league games were incredible.
Rick Ankiel Minor League Stats
Overall, Ankiel struck out 12.5 batters and walked just 3.37 per nine innings. That's why he was the number one prospect before the 2000 season. At the age of 20, Ankiel made his major league debut in August of 1999. In 33 innings that year, he maintained his good strikeout and walk numbers: 10.6 K/9 and 3.8 BB/9.
By 2000, Ankiel was a permanent member of the Cardinals rotation. He, along Darryl Kile, Garrett Stephenson, Pat Hentgen, and Andy Benes, combined to win 74 games. The team won a total of 95, good for a division championship and a spot against the Braves in the NLDS. Ankiel went 11-7, striking out 194 in 175 innings (2nd in NL ROY voting behind Rafael Furcal).
In Game One of the 2000 NLDS, Tony La Russa chose to start Ankiel against Braves ace Greg Maddux. The pressure of starting the game drove Ankiel to drink a bottle of vodka beforehand. Maddux pitched poorly, giving up six runs in the first inning. Ankiel threw two scoreless innings before the yips took over. He walked four batters and uncorked five wild pitches before getting pulled with two outs in the third. It's painful to watch.
The Cardinals eventually held on to win that game and the series. In the NLCS against the Mets, La Russa went back to Ankiel for Game Two. Mets leadoff man Timo Perez struck out to start the game. Everything is good again, right? Negative. Three walks and another wild pitch later, and Ankiel was out of the game before finishing the first. In Game Five, La Russa brought Ankiel in as a reliever. Two more walks and two more wild pitches. That's the last postseason game Ankiel ever pitched in.
Ankiel started 2001 in the Cardinals rotation, just like the year before. Still just 21, he had so much potential. But in 6 starts (24 IP), Ankiel gave up 21 runs on 25 walks and 7 homers. After a demotion to the minors, things only got worse. In 4.1 innings at Memphis (AAA), Ankiel walked 17 and threw 12 wild pitches. Ankiel was done as a pitcher, only appearing in the big leagues for a handful more games in 2004.
Of course, the story of Rick Ankiel doesn't end there. He reinvented himself as a power-hitting outfielder. From 2007-2009, Ankiel belted 47 homers for the Cardinals. In his debut as an outfielder, he hit a home run and brought Cards fans to their feet.
I have so much respect for Ankiel's perseverance. Scott Van Pelt had a segment on Ankiel from SportsCenter earlier this year that I thought was great.