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Is This Kid for Real?

The Cardinals’ Rick Ankiel has accomplished more in his six-year major league career than most. He’s won 13 games and sports a 3.90 career ERA. He’s averaged better than a strikeout per inning on the mound. At the plate, he owns a .470 slugging percentage and 67 career RBIs.

Ankiel has also earned enough criticism, empathy, praise and “What if … ?”s in six seasons to last him a lifetime. The role of pitching phenom is never an easy part to play. Just ask Kerry Wood or Mark Prior. But neither of their stories mimic the bizarre tale of Ankiel, which any recent baseball fan knows all too well. His progression has been a memorable one: “the next Sandy Koufax,” Game 1 of the 2000 NLDS, wild pitches, mental blocks, media scrutiny, failed comeback, Single-A ball, injuries, more failure, thoughts of quitting, rebirth as a position player, success in the minors, comparisons to The Natural in the majors, scandal, suspense.

The offensive stats are all anyone cares about these days. With his turbulent pitching career extinguished, Ankiel, who is still just 28 years old, is a month into his first full season as a major league outfielder. Ankiel’s abilities at the plate shouldn’t come as a surprise, given that he was quite a good hitter for a pitcher. In 2000, his rookie season, he clubbed two home runs, a double and a triple. Last season, between Triple-A and the bigs, he tallied 43 long balls as an outfielder. This year, he’s hit six in a month-plus.

What most Cardinals fans want to know is whether Rick Ankiel, major league outfielder, is for real. The answer lies in small sample sizes and is thus murky, but we can still find some valuable observations. On-base percentage is a good predictor of future success, as it often is an example of a patient hitting approach. In 258 minor league games, Ankiel posted a rather pedestrian .328 OBP. Last season in 172 big league at-bats his OBP was identical. However, this year, in just 122 at-bats, his OBP has increased to .371. In his first 18 games this season, he walked just six times while striking out 17 times. Over his last 17 games, he’s lowered his strikeout total (nine) while significantly bumping up his walk total (12). Over that same period, his batting average climbed just ten points, so it’s difficult to dismiss the trend as the byproduct of a hot streak.

Ankiel has also fared extremely well versus left-handed pitching, suggesting that the left-handed batter should not fear a platoon in his future. Against lefties, he holds a .907 career OPS, including a .564 slugging percentage. This season’s results are in line with those averages. Against righties, he has struggled more, posting just a .757 career OPS. This season he has improved that number by 90 points and tightened the pronounced difference in splits.

He is not without his areas of concern at the plate. First and foremost is a rather eye-popping home-road split that oddly favors Busch Stadium, a pitcher’s park. He has also displayed the tendencies of a hitter trying to do too much with runners in scoring position. This season, he has struck out 12 times in 47 plate appearances, or 25.5% of the time, with runners on second or third, compared to just 18.6% of the time in all of his at-bats. In the late innings of close games he has also struggled, reaching base just four times in 20 plate appearances.

In the field, Ankiel has made up for any inadequacies at the plate with stellar play out in center. Despite a few awkward routes to balls, Ankiel has showcased his athleticism as well as the one thing most outfielders lack: a million-dollar arm. This week in a game against the Rockies, Ankiel picked up his first two assists of the season by nailing a pair of runners at third. The second assist was simply astonishing: He threw from the warning track in the deep left-center gap of Coors Field to nail a runner trying to stretch a double into a triple. His throw did not need a cutoff man nor any bounce to complete its trek to third. See for yourself.

It’s hard to believe that a guy that good is going to be displaced to right field when super-prospect Colby Rasmus is called up later in the season. Of course, that may not happen until 2009, as Rasmus has struggled mightily in Triple-A so far (a .641 OPS and .200 batting average). I lobbied for Rasmus’ inclusion on the big league roster coming out of spring training. At the time I couldn’t fathom the Cards’ collection of outfielders performing so well. All, except for Chris Duncan, have exceeded expectations. Yet none of them have made as much of an impact on the upstart Cardinals’ young season as Rick Ankiel.

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