Ankiel bringing rocket-powered arm to Astros
Pitcher-turned-slugger brings reputation as having one of the game's best cannons
KISSIMMEE, Fla. -- Rick Ankiel was brought here by the Astros for his leadership abilities, with the hope he could somehow find the power stroke he had when he mashed 25 home runs for the Cardinals five seasons ago. He's here because of his history with general manager Jeff Luhnow in St. Louis and manager Bo Porter in Washington.
Of all the things the veteran outfielder brings to the Astros, his rocket-powered arm might make the biggest difference. It has long been considered one of the game's best and a great neutralizer.
"You will see him make some throws and you'll go, 'Wow!'" said Porter, who spent the previous two seasons with Ankiel in Washington.
The former pitcher-turned-slugger is a non-roster invitee who has a great shot to make the Astros Opening Day roster, and perhaps even start in right field. If he makes the team, he'll be paid $750,000 with incremental bonuses based on plate appearances.
His strange career, in which he was one of the top young pitchers in baseball before he lost his ability to throw strikes, is more about what happens next and not the past, he says.
"It's just easier to focus on that," he said.
Ankiel takes great pride in all aspects of his game, not just throwing the baseball. But that's the one skill that, at 33 years old, he can still do as well as when he was 21. He can still throw with the best of them, and that could be a boon to an Astros team stressing fundamentals and trying to tighten its defense.
"It can be big," Ankiel said. "You stop guys from going first to third, and stop guys from taking that double. Sometimes a ball is in the gap and you can help shut down the running game and get to where they don't want to take another base. It's big for a lot of things. We keep the double play in order and can stop a run from scoring. It can, defensively, be a good weapon."
He's one of just 12 players in history to hit their first career homer as a pitcher and later hit one as a full-time player. And he's only one of only four players to make at least 40 starts as a pitcher and hit 40 home runs, a group that includes Babe Ruth.
Ankiel hit .228 with five home runs and 15 RBIs in 68 games for the Nationals last year as he battled injuries and was eventually released. He's a lifetime removed from his pitching days, when he went 11-7 with a 3.50 ERA as a starter for St. Louis in 2000, and five years removed from his biggest offensive year, hitting .264 with 25 homers and 71 RBIs in '08.
Ankiel knows he's battling for a spot in a crowded outfield that includes Justin Maxwell, Fernando Martinez, J.D. Martinez and Brandon Barnes. He's played mostly center field in his career, but the Astros are trying him in right field.
"I'm a competitor, and I want to play," he said.
Porter was the third-base coach with the Nationals last year, so he understands how cognizant teams have to be of strong arms in the outfield. A player with strong arm could save a few runs by the throws he doesn't have to make based on reputation.
One of the most impressive throws Ankiel made last season came against the Astros in April, throwing a strike to home plate. The speedy Jordan Schafer, who was on third base, didn't even bother trying to test him though the fly ball wasn't shallow.
"As a third-base coach, one of the things that we do is before we start every series, you go around the diamond and look at arm strength and range, and it factors in your decision making when it comes to, 'Do I send this guy? Do I not send him?" Porter said. "A lot of times when you have a reputation of an Ankiel, it could be worth 15-20 runs a year just because the third-base coach, he will stop a guy he normally would send knowing he's out there."
Ankiel, who was mentored by the late Darryl Kile early in his St. Louis pitching days and later in the outfield by Jim Edmonds, keeps his arm strong by keeping his shoulders strong and adhering to a stringent long-toss program. It's a routine he's kept for years. A routine that's led to a reputation.
"People are going to test it, as they should," he said. "It's baseball, and you want to be aggressive and you still want to make a good throw. There are definitely times they don't send [the runners]. That's the ultimate compliment."
Ankiel certainly appears to be in a good place and is comfortable as one of the elder statesman in an Astros clubhouse full of pups. He was one of them once, too, trying to make his mark. Perhaps that's why he's having so much content.
"We joke around and can be funny when the time is right," he said. "It's been a good mix, and I'm happy with it."