The story on the news feed is that Rick Ankiel has signed with the Nationals on a one-year $1.5M contract, but the story of Rick Ankiel cannot be told without the letter K. Though moving from the rotation to the lineup is an amazing feat, it’s worth wondering where Ankiel would have been without that special K.
In three seasons in the Cardinal rotation, Ankiel averaged a clean 10 Ks per nine – and the wunderkind placed second in the Rookie of the Year voting. He managed an 11.3 K/9 in the postseason, too. Though it’s tempting to say that those other two letters (BB) were the reason for his downfall (and Ankiel does have a lifetime BB/9 of 24.8 in his four postseason innings), no team would have spent so much time attempting to remove the Steve Blass from his arm if it didn’t also hold bushels of K.
Or maybe it’s actually sort of surprising the team didn’t try harder with the pitcher Rick Ankiel – his 2003 stint at Double-A seems to have been the nail in the coffin (8.1 BB/9), but it only lasted 54 1/3 innings. Perhaps his elbow injury in 2002 sapped whatever control he might have had and talented observers were sure it wasn’t coming back. In 2004 he began the transition to full-time position player.
And wouldn’t you know it, the letter ‘K’ has done a lot to inform his work at the plate as well. As Ankiel has made his way around the league with the position players, his strikeout percentage has slowly climbed upward. In his re-debut in 2007, he struck out 23.8 percent of the time and looked fantastic at the plate. That went up to 24.2 percent the next year, 26.6 percent the year after, and then a whopping 33.6 percent last year. His wOBA has declined accordingly.
Sure, it’s not all about the strikeouts for Ankiel the position player. Although his UZR/150 hasn’t stayed consistent, after almost three full years of data we can trust that he’s not a great defensive center fielder (-8.7 UZR/150), but he can handle the glove reasonably well and would be a positive on the corners. His career ISO (.194) is still well-above average, so he has some pop. It’s interesting that he hit a career high in walk percentage (the good kind) last year (10.8), but it was only in 211 plate appearances, and he’s more like the 2010 Royals version (6.9% BB, 31.5% K, .207 ISO) than the 2010 Braves version (13.7% BB, 35.3% K, .118 ISO) anyway.
The Nationals – who owned the fourth-worst strikeout percentage in the National League last year – have a hole in left field and backup center field. They will look to fill it with Ankiel, Roger Bernadina, Corey Brown and Justin Maxwell – but there’s little opportunity for a straight platoon among this bunch. Ankiel, Brown, and Bernadina are all lefties that have struggled against lefties in the past, and Maxwell has strikeout issues of his own (37.9% K in 260 career MLB PAs) to deal with before he can be considered an every-day player.
In any case, Ankiel will have a fighter’s chance at regular playing time considering the crew. If the newly acquired Brown is the new hope for the future hoping to overcome poor contact rates in the minors in order to take advantage of his athletic tools, Maxwell is the old hope for the future hoping to overcome poor contact rates in the minors in order to take advantage of his athletic tools. Bernadina is the ‘just enough of everything’ guy – but there’s not really one skill you can point to and say, yes – that’s what he can do for you. Ankiel? He’ll get you some power, and some strikeouts.
Ankiel the batter has now struck out in 27.1 percent of his at-bats. Ankiel the pitcher struck out 29.7 percent of the batters he faced. Somehow, this all makes sense.