Rick Ankiel's 12 strikeouts don't stand out amidst the flurry of whiffs compiled by the Astros to date, at least, not until you take a moment and realize that those have come in just 14 plate appearances. Now, I'm not one to make a big deal out of early-season performances. I don't believe Chris Davis is going to lead the league in home runs any more than I believe Buster Posey is going to hit around .200, but it's impossible to see Rick Ankiel's struggles in the early part of 2013 and not come away with the conclusion that he's pretty much had it. Even the most prolific strikeout artists don't fan 12 times in 14 trips. At some point in the very near future, even the Astros will be forced to release him, and at that point he will almost certainly have worn his last major league uniform.
Back in 1999, such a thing hardly seemed possible. Ankiel was a 19-year-old phenom that Sports Illustrated called "The Can't-miss Kid." That June, Walt Jocketty told Tom Verducci he was "almost hoping that he struggles a little bit [at Memphis].... I'd rather see him learn from adversity in Triple-A than in the big leagues." But he did not struggle. Over 16 starts, Ankiel struck out 119 batters in 88.1 innings and had a 3.16 ERA. By late August, Ankiel was up, in the rotation, and pitching well. The Cardinals were relatively careful with him too. He topped 100 pitches twice in five starts, but followed those appearances up with starts of less than 90 pitches, before heading to the bullpen to finish out the year.
Ankiel was dominant in 2000, posting a 3.50 ERA (134 ERA+) in 175 innings, while striking out 194 batters. There were some concerns about his command, given that he also walked 90 batters, but it was clear that Ankiel was a young man with a huge future -- right up until the third inning in Game 1 of the NL Division Series. And then, as Ken Fueson told Ira Glass on This American Life, the wheels came off:
I don't know where the first wild pitch went, but it was like-- you thought to yourself, you know, it's slipped out of his hands. It's like one of those scenes that they show, like the pitcher stumbling and the ball goes up in the air. And then it happened again. You're still kind of thinking, OK, maybe the nervousness of the moment, or whatever. But you're not thinking, this is going to be a big problem. He's going to settle down. And then, it keeps happening.
Despite Ankiel's six walks and five wild pitches, the Cardinals pulled out the game and the series, but went back to the young starter in Game 2 of the NLCS. Somehow, impossibly, he was even worse. Ankiel faced six batters, walking three of them, and throwing another two wild pitches. Even as a Cardinals fan, Fueson empathized with the 20 year old, "On a human level -- that's the other horrible part of this -- he's naked in front of the world. He's out there trying to get this back. And it ain't coming back. You feel horrible for him."
That Rick Ankiel, the one who went into the postseason in 2000, never made it back to the majors. What emerged was a different Ankiel, more tentative, with reduced stuff and horrendous control. That, in and of itself, is not what is tragic about Rick Ankiel's journey. After all, pitching prospects fail. It happens every year to guys like Brian Matusz, Luke Hochevar, Brien Taylor, Todd Van Poppel, and David Clyde, to name only a few. But to have it happen so suddenly and so publicly, to watch a young man who can't even legally drink crumble in the span of a few pitches and become a kind of cruel joke after such a tremendous start? It was a frightening reminder of how (to steal from the Joker) one bad day is sometimes all that stands between us and utter ruin.
Even as we mourn over what might have been, there is much about Rick Ankiel that we should celebrate. In 2001, after being sent back to the minors, he walked 17 batters and threw 12 wild pitches in less than five innings at Memphis. Then came Tommy John surgery in 2002, and an aborted attempt to be a reliever in 2004. At that point, his chances of pitching again in the majors dwindling, he fought his way back as an outfielder.
Now, Ankiel was never a particularly good outfielder, mind you. He had been a decent hitter in high school, but his talent with the bat was always dwarfed by his ability on the mound. Since baseball is a game of specialization, Ankiel had never really worked on his hitting against professional players. He was raw and had atrocious (and poetically appropriate) strike zone judgment, but he had tremendous power and was a decent fielder with, of course, an amazing arm from right or center field. It doesn't seem like a lot, but that is so much more of a career than the vast majority of players who have ever played the game. Rick Ankiel not only endured, but he persevered. Regardless of what might have been, he deserves accolades and celebration for what he is.
Soon, we won't have Rick Ankiel to kick around anymore. Before he goes, I just want one more thing. Lord knows the Astros are going to be on the wrong end of some truly lopsided contests, and Ankiel is quickly flailing his way out of a starting role, so the opportunity is there: I want so badly to see him pitch again. I want to see him stand on the mound, and strike somebody out, and recapture, if only for a moment, what almost was. It's selfish, really, and has the potential to go horribly wrong, but, as pretentious as it sounds, Rick Ankiel makes me believe that there’s always a way back from the abyss. I can’t think of a better way to put a point on his inspiring career than for him to take the mound one last time and prove it.