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Ankiel, Santos and the Uncommon Positional Transition

May 18, 2010

Every now and then we see a player skyrocket through the minor leagues with seemingly unstoppable success only to then see them struggle upon reaching The Show. Some of these players are able to figure things out with an allowed patience from their parent organization. Others need to return to the minor leagues for a short period of time before they return to the Majors for good. And some find that they are completely overmatched, despite their successes in the minors, and receive the dreaded 4A label (as in not good enough for the Majors but too good for AAA).

For a few, the ultimate path to success means changing positions – either from the mound and to the field, or vise-versa.

Perhaps the most well-known example of this transition from recent memory is that of Rick Ankiel. Ankiel burst onto the scene in August of 1999 and quickly made an impression in St. Louis. The following season, the young right-hander would make 30 starts for the Cardinals in which he put up fairly respectable numbers for a 20-year-old rookie: 11-7 record, 175.0 innings pitched, 3.50 ERA, 134 ERA+, 10.0 K/9, and a 5:2 strikeout/walk ratio. Ankiel would come in second in National League Rookie of the Year voting and inspired hope amongst all Cardinals fans for things to come.

However, those hopes would quickly seem all-too ambitious as Ankiel would fall apart mentally once the playoffs started. Ankiel was called upon to start Game 1 of the Division Series against the Atlanta Braves. The first two innings went smoothly but in the third, the wheels feel off completely. After walking four batters and throwing five wild pitches (the only player to do so in one inning since 1890) he was finally removed from the game with the Cardinals in a deep, early hole. Ankiel would make one more start that postseason, against the New York Mets in the League Championship Series. After five more walks and four more wild pitches, he was done.

Naturally many assumed there was something wrong with him physically but this sudden inability to throw strikes was determined to be purely mental. He would return to the Cardinal rotation the following season but would only last 24.0 innings in which he walked 25 batters and threw five more wild pitches. He’d spend the remainder of the 2001 season and all of 2002 trying to regain his confidence while fighting an elbow strain that would eventually lead to Tommy John surgery and a lost 2003 season.

Shortly after finishing the recovery process, Ankiel again started to experience control issues at which point in time he decided it was time to move to the outfield in an effort to reclaim his once promising career. It would take until 2007 for Ankiel to reach the Majors again for good as he would prove to be a serviceable outfielder for the Cardinals through the end of the 2009 season. He would reach free agency for the first time and would end up signing a one year with the Kansas City Royals where he is currently struggling to adapt to the American League.

The biggest lesson we learned from Ankiel, however, is that it is possible to shine at one position only to eventually thrive at another. And over the past few years, such a move seems to be a growing trend as there have been a number of examples of position players moving to the mound to resurrect/prolong their careers, and fewer following the same path as Ankiel.

Ironically, one of the teams with multiple attempts at making such a conversion happens to be the very team where Ankiel is currently playing – the Kansas City Royals. Tony Pena Jr. reached the Majors in 2006 as a shortstop with the Braves before being traded to the Royals the following Spring. That season, 2007, he would appear in 152 games in which he put up a .267 BA with little power, minimal speed, and league average defense. Over the course of 2008 he would shuttle back and forth between Kansas City and their AAA affiliate in Omaha with little improvement in performance. Eventually, the Royals decided not to let his strong arm go to waste and opted to convert him into a pitcher near the beginning of the 2009 season. He would only end up pitching 19.1 innings over the course of the season but posted decent numbers across three minor league stops: 2.33 ERA, .176 BAA, with a 3:1 strikeout/walk ratio. The Royals allowed him to leave as a minor league free agent after the season and he is currently pitching for the San Francisco Giants’ AA affiliate in Richmond where he is 2-0 with a 1.47 ERA, 4 saves, and a 14:5 strikeout/walk ratio in 21.1 innings.

This past Spring Training, the Royals announced that a second player would move from the field to the mound as former outfielder Brian Anderson would begin the same transition. Anderson had more Major League success than Pena but still struggled to put things together well enough to earn a consistent role. From 2005-2009 with the Chicago White Sox and then half a season with the Boston Red Sox, Anderson would essentially serve as a fourth outfielder and put up a career batting line of .227 in 883 plate appearances, with 22 HR, 80 RBI, 13 stolen bases, and an OPS+ of 69. He was an adequate defender with a decent arm, and thus the Royals decided he should try pitching when it was determined he wouldn’t make the team out of Spring Training. Anderson was assigned to their Rookie League affiliate but has yet to pitch this season as the Rookie League season hasn’t begun yet.

The Houston Astros drafted Brian Bogusevic in the 1st round of the 2005 Draft and had high hopes for the left-handed pitcher. Yet, after four seasons on the mound and a 14-21 career minor league record, 5.05 ERA, and poor peripheral numbers it was time to let Bogusevic go back to his other talents as the was a standout batter throughout his collegiate career. So, he moved to the outfield, like Ankiel, and has done well over the past two seasons in AAA Round Rock. In 665 at-bats through today, he’s batting .280, showing decent plate discipline, and hitting a lot of doubles (35 total over the past season+). For an organization with as little minor league depth as the Astros have, Bogusevic will get his chance in Houston if he continues to produce.

Finally, there is the story of Sergio Santos, who Dave Cameron profiled earlier today over at Fangraphs.com. Santos was originally drafted as a shortstop by the Arizona Diamondbacks, would eventually be traded to the Toronto Blue Jays, and would then spend some time with the Minnesota Twins AAA affiliate. Over eight minor league seasons Santos would struggle offensively and nearly called it quits after the 2008 season. Prior to the start of 2009 he received a call from a scout with the White Sox organization who had once been responsible for the D’backs drafting him and received an offer to join the Sox as a pitcher. Over 28.2 innings he would put up some unimpressive numbers (8.16 ERA, 3:2 K/BB ratio, 6 wild pitches and 4 hit batters) but those within the organization clearly saw something in his raw ability on the mound. Santos was invited to Spring Training this year and ended up making the team as a relief pitcher. So far, the results have been solid: 0.68 ERA over 13.1 innings, 17 strikeouts, and he’s shown promising command of three pitches. Cameron even went as far as to say that Santos has “closer-like” abilities. It’s still early but he seems to have a natural feel for pitching that is uncommon, especially for a converted shortstop.

Ankiel wasn’t the first player to move from the mound to the field (or vise-versa) and surely Santos won’t be the last to make such a transition. Yet they, and others, have shown that such a transition is possible even in the most unlikely of circumstances.

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