The Houston Astros released Rick Ankiel on Thursday evening, likely signaling the end of the 33-year-old’s major league career. If so, it was an ugly finish — Ankiel struck out 35 times in 65 plate appearances, and the result was an ugly .194 batting average and .231 on-base percentage.
But even this year, as his bat speed and contact skills have deserted him, his arm remains a spectacle. Ankiel connected on three outfield assists in just 17 games worth of innings in right field, with the last a game-saving laser in the 11th inning against Detroit on May 2:
The Astros went on to lose the game an inning later, because of course they did, but that’s beside the point. Ankiel’s arm is no less a spectacle now than it was when he came up in 2007. There are great outfield throws in baseball on a weekly, if not daily basis. But Ankiel is on another level.
Cardinals fans probably have earlier memories, but my first Ankiel Moment is an obvious one: May 6, 2008, at Colorado. In the first inning, Todd Helton pushed Ankiel about 380 feet back in dead center field with a fly ball. Willy Taveras, one of the fastest men in baseball — he went on to steal 49 bases in 55 attempts in 2008 — tagged at second base, and it was a foregone conclusion he’d be safe at third. Troy Glaus just stood over the base for the Cardinals. And then the ball was in his glove, no movement necessary. And then Taveras was out.
Ankiel wasn’t finished with the Rockies that night. Seven innings later, Omar Quintanilla ripped what looked like a sure triple just left of center field. Ankiel picked the ball up with his back foot on the warning track, turned and fired another strike to Glaus. This time, Glaus had to jump about six inches off the ground, but it hit his glove right over third base, and Quintanilla was Ankiel’s second outfield assist of the night.
Ankiel’s arm is appointment viewing. Last season, he stopped the sports world in its track with a throw from center field to home plate. Nobody was out. But it was the Perfect Throw, and it was celebrated:
Ankiel’s arm is great in a utilitarian sense, of course — few get the ball from outfield to infield as effectively as him. But the aesthetics trump the utility. So many outfielders use an absurdly exaggerated crow hop or fall over themselves in attempt to put extra velocity on the ball. Not Ankiel. He collects the ball, takes a calm, understated step, and then he just … throws it. He doesn’t launch. He doesn’t strain himself. It just goes. It looks like the outfielders playing long toss before a game, not a scrambling effort to throw a ball 250 feet before a man can run 90.
Rick Ankiel was supposed to be a special pitcher. He was Baseball America’s top prospect heading into the 2000 season. And then he just lost it.
Ankiel made the most of what he had left, though. We can always wonder what could have been. But what Ankiel did upon his return was special in its own way. And if this is indeed the end, I know I’ll miss his left arm, the greatest I’ve ever seen in a major league outfield.