Rick Ankiel’s Epic Contact Problems

Rick Ankiel‘s season began in about the best possible fashion. With the Astros holding on to a 4-2 lead on Opening Day, Ankiel was sent up to hit for Brandon Barnes in the bottom of the sixth inning. Derek Lowe threw him a meatball, and he responded by hitting said meatball 373 feet, good enough for a three run homer that would essentially put the game away. It’s hard to do much better than that on your first at-bat of the season.

Since that at-bat, though, things haven’t gone so well. Here’s Ankiel’s play log for the 2013 season.

Date  Pitcher Inn. Play
31-Mar D Lowe 6-B Rick Ankiel homered (Fly). Justin Maxwell scored. Matt Dominguez scored.
31-Mar J Ortiz 8-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.
2-Apr Y Darvish 2-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.
2-Apr Y Darvish 5-B Rick Ankiel lined out to first (Liner).
2-Apr Y Darvish 8-B Rick Ankiel struck out looking.
3-Apr A Ogando 2-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.
3-Apr A Ogando 5-B Rick Ankiel struck out looking.
5-Apr D Straily 2-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.
5-Apr D Straily 5-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.
5-Apr D Straily 7-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.
5-Apr E Scribner 9-B Rick Ankiel struck out looking.
7-Apr E Scribner 9-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.
8-Apr J Saunders 6-T Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.
8-Apr C Furbush 8-T Rick Ankiel struck out swinging.

Yes, that’s 12 strikeouts in 14 plate appearances, including each of his last 10. But, as Jeff noted this morning, a strikeout isn’t always the batters fault. Maybe Ankiel has just gotten screwed by an epic collusion of bad calls and/or amazing framing?

Via TexasLeaguers PITCHF/x tool, here are the pitches Ankiel has taken for strikes this year:

AnkielZone

Well, there is one that he looks like he got jobbed on a bit. Of course, there’s also one that looks more in the zone than out that got called a ball, so no, there’s no umpires or catchers to blame here. Instead, the blame lies solely with Ankiel.

For the season, Rick Ankiel has made contact with just 35.5% of the pitches he has swung at, which is not surprisingly the worst mark in baseball. But, that’s not the astonishing number here. The shocking number is Ankiel’s contact rate on pitches in the strike zone, which currently stands at just 37.5%. How low is that? Well, here’s a plot of every hitter with at least 10 plate appearances in 2013, and their respective Z-Contact%. See if you can spot the outlier.

Ankiel

Even in a tiny sample, the spread between the best and worst (non-Ankiel division) hitters on in-zone contact is pretty small, because this is the skill that Major League position players are essentially selected on. Or, at least, in zone contact rate is a pretty good proxy for that skill. There’s some variation allowed for power, which is why you see guys like Mark Reynolds down at 66%, but Major League hitters are expected to hit pitches in the strike zone more often than they miss them. In fact, they’re expected to hit them a great majority of the time.

The lowest Z-Contact% of 2012 among batters who were allowed to hit even 100 times was 71%, belonging to Brett Jackson of the Cubs. He’s starting the season back in Triple-A, by the way. The second lowest belonged to Jim Thome, at 72% — he’s involuntarily unemployed, as no team saw fit to give him a roster spot again. We have to go to the third lowest Z-Contact% of 2012 before we find a player who is actually in the big leagues now, and that’s Chris Carter at 75%. Needless to say, there’s a lower bound at which teams will no longer accept further contact issues, even in an attempt to get additional power.

You would need to double Ankiel’s current Z-Contact% in order to get him near that lower bound.

How astonishingly bad has this stretch been? Well, to put it in context, I decided to look at the Z-Contact% for every season since 2008, but only for pitchers. This is the class of Major League players that are not selected for their hitting skills. How have they done swinging at strikes?

Since 2008, there have been 611 pitcher hitting seasons of at least 10 plate appearances. Here’s the graph of the Z-Contact% for those 611 data points, along with Ankiel’s 2013 season to date.

PitcherContactEdit

Even in tiny sample sizes, even among a class of players who are chosen for skills other than hitting a baseball, Ankiel’s numbers stand out. In fact, only one of those 611 pitcher hitting seasons resulted in a lower in-zone contact rate than Ankiel’s current 37.5%. His savior? Jo-Jo Reyes, back in 2009. In 11 plate appearances, he made contact on just 30.8% of the strikes he swung at. Which is kind of incredible, because in 2008, Reyes made contact on 96.0% of the strikes he swung at, in 34 plate appearances. While his 2009 season is the worst Z-Contact% of any pitcher hitting season since 2008, his 2008 season was actually the 23rd best. So, yeah, Jo-Jo Reyes, reminder of how much numbers — even highly stable ones — can fluctuate in samples of a dozen plate appearances.

Given time, Ankiel’s contact rate will regress to the mean. His career mark is 82%, and he came in at 77% last year, just barely clearing the bar for minimally acceptable rate of contact on strikes. I wonder, though, whether Ankiel will ever get that time. The Rangers have to make a decision on Julio Borbon‘s roster spot today, and the Mariners have until tomorrow to decide what to do with Casper Wells after they DFA’d him before the season started. It’s not hard to see either or both Wells and Borbon ending up in Houston, and Ankiel’s brutal start to the season might just put him at the front of the line for cuts should they decide they want a roster spot for a new outfielder.

Given that he’s now 33, was a replacement level outfielder last year, and any scout who has watched him during the first week of the season is going to have filed a very negative report on his current skills, this might be the last we ever see of Rick Ankiel. If it is, at least he’s going out with a bang.




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Dave is a co-founder of USSMariner.com and contributes to the Wall Street Journal.


31 Responses to “Rick Ankiel’s Epic Contact Problems”

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  1. That is the loneliest chart-dot I have ever seen.

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  2. NatsLady says:

    Lots of good Ankiel memories for Nats fans, including him helping a lot when Harper first came up. But he was bad last summer when the Nats released him (Rizzo was willing to put him on the DL, but Ankiel declined). No one picked him up for the rest of the 2012 season, even though he still has that fantastic arm. In addition to a low contact rate in the zone, Ankiel was a noted sucker for a high outside fastball. It seemed like he adjusted his approach in spring training, maybe that “adjustment” was part of the problem?

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  3. Dan says:

    Teams are carrying 12 or 13 pitchers, and Jim Thome doesn’t have a job.

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    • Ruki Motomiya says:

      Thome is 42 years old, can’t really play the field (limiting his contract options to DH teams with no DH) and is a platoon player now.

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  4. nmh says:

    I was really disappointed when I found out this wasn’t an article about the benefits of Lasik surgery.

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  5. wjylaw says:

    Maybe he should give pitching a chance, he’s got such a great arm…. Oh wait, never mind.

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    • Dan Greer says:

      Joking aside, if Ankiel wants to meaningfully extend his career, it is probably the only option. And I’ll bet he could still hit the mid-90’s. Heck, if Dontrelle Willis was getting all of these chances, I’m sure someone would take a flyer on Ankiel.

      Actually, he might be one of the better pitchers on the Astros, like RIGHT NOW. And it would be a reason to watch that team.

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      • Hurtlockertwo says:

        I wonder if he would even consider it if his OF playing seemed over?

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        • joser says:

          Yeah, I was wondering that too: if Jeff Luhnow called him into the office and gave him the choice of getting cut or going down to the minors to work on being a reliever, which would he take?

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    • brendan says:

      I had this same thought! 33 isn’t old for a relief pitcher.

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  6. Taylor says:

    The Astros should hold onto Ankiel and trade him to the Royals at midseason.

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  7. Jaack says:

    But that BABIP of .000 is bound to regress!

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  8. Shlum says:

    Rick ankiel is an inspiration to us all an u should leave him alone!

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  9. chuckb says:

    He’d be going out with a bang if he retired after that first PA. Instead, he’ll be going out with a whiff.

    Pretty unintentionally funny article!

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  10. Adam says:

    It’s not the first time Rick Ankiel has lost the ability to hit the strike zone.

    For serious though, what if this is the yips manifesting again?

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  11. Mark says:

    Brett Wallace has 13 K’s in 17 AB and he’s the contact hitter on the Astros.

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  12. Rye Rye says:

    He really should think about giving pitching another chance, but maybe he hates it…who knows?

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  13. Jay Hernandez says:

    I can only imagine how frustrating it must feel to simply loose command completely at times.

    I’ll always remember as a giants fan watching in horror as Rick launched a Ramon Ramierez pitch into McCovey Cove in the 2010 NLDS to win the game.

    Hope he considers pitching before hanging em up.. What a talent.

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  14. Sort of blows Clete Thomas’ 2012 cup of coffee with the Twins out of the water, huh?

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  15. Thomas says:

    Ok, now do Brett Wallace, who seems to be doing more of the same…

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  16. Rick Ankiel says:

    Got all of that one, Beavan!

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  17. Hurtlockertwo says:

    As of today, 20 K’s in 27 PA’s, he’s down to striking out only 74% of the time.

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  18. Sandy Alderson says:

    Contact problems? Yes, yes, but does he have two legs and a pulse? … Really?!? Intriguing…

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