Clap Clap ClapClapClap / What Rick Ankiel Hath Wrought: The Era of the Two-Way Baseball Player h
Posted by Andrew Unterberger on July 22, 2008
Bisexuality puns forthcoming
In the Post-Game conferences after the All-Star Game this year, official NL manager Clint Hurdle joked about the possibilities that awaited his team if they had burned through their last pitcher, Phillies closer Brad Lidge, and still had more of the game to play. Hurdle claimed that if they in fact needed to go a couple more innings, he would’ve called on David Wright–the Mets 3B that Hurdle hand-picked as the NL’s last man in–to pitch from there. Later, AL manager Terry Francona admitted to have been contemplating similar desperation measures with one of his players (his own J.D. Drew, if I remember correctly). Both managers were joking–probably–but not only would something like that have had to happen had Justin Morneau not scored on that sac fly in the 15th (it was later made clear that MLB wasn’t going to permit the 2nd tie ASG of the decade under any circumstances), would it even have seemed that out of the ordinary?
Tonight, in the last inning of a 19-4 rout at the hands of the Detroit Tigers, Kansas City Royals manager Trey Hillman decided to give shortstop Tony Pena Jr. a shot at closing out the meaningless top half of the 9th inning. This was met with bemused incredulity by the game’s home announcers (“He has a curveball, supposedly,” was about the best explanation they could come up with), since in a situation of such little consequence, anything less than a seven or eight-run inning would have to be seen as acceptable. But TJ was, incredibly enough, by far the most effective of the five pitchers for the Royals that night, working the game’s first 1-2-3 inning, getting his fastball in the low-90s, and even striking out future-Hall of Famer Ivan Rodriguez. The really remarkable thing about this, though, was that as a hitter, Pena has been utterly useless to the Royals this season, hitting .152 with a single HR. “I don’t want to get ahead of myself, but…” one of the KC announcers started as Pena was halfway through striking out Pudge. “Then don’t,” the other snapped back.
And this isn’t even unprecedented in baseball this season. A couple months back, back in the Long Ago when the Phillies could actually manage to score consecutively, the boys did dirt to the St. Louis Cardinals to the tune of 20-3. Mopping up at the end of the game, though, was 2B Aaron Miles, in his third career pitching appearance. Miles was and is having a significantly better hitting season than Pena, but his pitching did not suffer for it, providing a clean, three-up, three-down ninth for the Cardinals, the only St. Louis pitcher to do so. True, these are hardly representative sample sizes, and hitters might not be on their A games in the dwindling hours of a blowout, but they’ve met with enough success to come dangerously close to being a trend.
More notably, it goes the other way, too. Diamondbacks hurler Micah Owings caused a stir with a game-busting pinch-hit dinger earlier this year, at which point he briefly held one of the five highest career OPSs of any hitter in history (albeit with a minimum of 75 plate appearances). In addition to striking out 10 batters over the course of the game, newly added Brewers ace C.C. (err, CC) Sabathia also provided his team’s only offense for the first seven innings of his National League debut with a one-run blast in the third. And Cubs ace Carlos Zambrano currently has his team’s highest batting average (of players with at least 50 ABs, anyway), hitting .351 with a pair of HRs to go with it.
Friend of IITS Erick Bieritz recently referred to the fruition of this trend as the “Rick Ankiel Era,” after the Cardinal who saw his prodigious pitching career (11-7, 3.50 ERA in 2000, finishing 2nd in Rookie of the Year voting) slide away after a bizarre loss of pitching mechanics resulted in a stunning meltdown in the ’00 post-season (five wild pitches in one inning, yikes). Five years later, Ankiel decided to switch to being an outfielder, and the returns were staggering–especially this season, in which he’s hitting .278 with a tied-for-team-leadCentering 22 HRs. He’s even found decent use for his ex-pitching arm in Center, where he’s become a SportsCenter Top Plays fixture for his remarkable outfield assists. Basically, he showed that not only was it possible for an ex-pitcher to bounce back as a hitter, he showed that it was possible for an ex-pitcher to turn out as having been more natural as a hitter all along.
Ankiel’s example–which, to my mind, is significantly more impressive (or maybe just more interesting) than Josh Hamilton’s much-ballyhooed comeback–is now being used as a model for other pitchers unable to hack it on the hill anymore. Adam Loewen of the Baltimore Orioles recently blew out his arm for good, but rather than simply hang up his spurs, Loewen is going to attempt a return to the O’s as either a 1B or an outfielder. I mean, why not? He’s got nothing to lose, and Baltimore could always use a new bat, so what’s wrong with giving it a shot from one of the other eight positions on the field? Hell, back in the day, Bo and Deion could play two completely different sports successfully simultaneously–how hard could it possibly be to just work two sides of the same coin?
I’m not sure why this all excites me so much–and yes, I know, this is all far from unprecedented, Babe Ruth and all that. Maybe it’s just that the improbability of the whole thing is so damn novel, and once enough players actually prove themselves successful at being two-way threats (which certainly seems to be the way the league is going), it’ll no longer be particularly of interest. But now, I wonder who else would be wise to take a page from Ankiel, Pena, Owings and the rest. Barry Zito still has a couple hundred million on his contract left to justify; maybe San Fransisco should give him a few BP lessons and trot him out to their recently vacated position at 2B. Much-hyped Detroit newbie Dontrelle Willis was disastrous in his last few starts; give him a bat and see if he can work his way back up the Tiger farm system. Andruw Jones isn’t hitting anything but the concession stands as a Dodger; see if Jonathan Broxton can teach him the art of being a fat reliever in L.A.
Baseball is a sport full of possibilities, and to me, it seems like it’s only a matter of time that the sport’s schrewder tacticians start to take advantage of the possibilities here. At the very least, it’ll gear us up for the real era of the two-way threat–y’know, 10-20 years from now when we reach Gattaca time and ballplayers start to be genetically engineered from birth to be as proficient as possible in all positions. Might as well get a jump on the future now, huh?