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Friday, August 10, 2007

Ankiel and Bressler

Back in September of 2005 I wrote a column titled "Rube Bressler Redux?" for The Hardball Times that chronicled the first season of Rick Ankiel's transition from pitcher to hitter. At that time Ankiel had completed a 2005 season that I summarized this way:

This was the second [his demotion to low-A Quad Cities in late May] stop for Ankiel as he started the year at Double-A Springfield, but did not fare well in his first 60 at-bats, getting off to a 1-for-20 start and hitting around .160 before getting sent down. With the Swing he continued to improve and wound up hitting .270/.368/.514 with 10 doubles and 11 homeruns in 212 plate appearances. His strikeouts were a bit high (37), though he showed a little patience at the plate, collecting 27 walks.

That good showing in the Midwest League earned him a trip back to Springfield on August 3, and this time it appears he took advantage of it. In the remainder of the season he would hit .300 with 10 homeruns and drive in 28 runs in the 28 games he played, including a 3-for-4 performance with two homeruns and three RBI on the final day of the season. His late season surge even prompted some talk of a September call-up.

His combined line at Springfield was .243/.295/.515 while overall for the season he hit .259 with 17 doubles, 21 homeruns, and 75 RBIs in 321 at-bats and 85 games. Although he still has a long way to go, I'm sure he and probably the Cardinals viewed this season as a success.

Late in June Ankiel was asked about making the transition from pitching to the outfield.

"Not very many people have been successful at it," he replied. "To conquer that quest would be very self-fulfilling."

Well, after a 2006 season in which he was shelved all year with patellar tendonitis, it appeared that perhaps his window was slipping away. This season, however, he came back at the AAA level and belted 32 homeruns in just over 400 plate appearances before being called up on Thursday and hitting a three-run homer in last night's 5-0 Cardinals victory.

When I wrote the original article I was interested in how many players had successfully made the transition from full-time pitcher to full-time position player in the history of baseball. It turns out that only five others have ever totaled more than 50 games pitched and 50 games played at other positions in the major leagues. Click on the link above to read about their stories, including that of Rube Bressler for whom the article is titled, but suffice it to say that Ankiel appears as if he'll become the sixth. Whether he goes on to be as successful as any of the others remains to be seen and given his age and plate discipline still seems somewhat remote.

The interesting thing is that all five of the other players completed their transition before 1940. The final section of the Bressler article details an explanation of just why it is more difficult today to make such transitions than it was in the days of Rube Bressler. Simply put, the argument, first detailed by Stephen J. Gould in an essay discussing the disappearance of the .400 hitter, is that these transitions essentially ended after the war because of the increasing level of play that comes closer to the "right wall" of human ability, coupled with the stabilization of the game itself. In other words, over time baseball players, like other athletes, including sprinters and swimmers, have become better and as the level of play has increased, it has had the side effect of decreasing the variation among players. For players like Bressler and company there was therefore more opportunity to make the transition because good athletes of their ilk could more easily excel beyond the more numerous lesser athletes that populated baseball in the early part of the century.

The evidence for an increasing level of play was the topic of a column I wrote earlier this year on Baseball Prospectus titled "The Myth of the Golden Age" and in particular one line of evidence fits nicely with Ankiel and Bressler. As described in that column:

Pitchers are increasingly selected from the amateur ranks based on their extreme right-hand-tail-of-the-distribution excellence in pitching. While there is certainly some athletic and experiential crossover that allows them to hit better than the general population (as evidenced by the best players at early ages being both the best hitters and pitchers), their hitting skill is not selected for in the evolutionary sense and so should remain relatively constant over time. In other words, pitchers simply don't hit as well in the modern game, not because they are not just as skilled (or slightly more so) with the bat as their predecessors, but because the selected skills of all players have increased over time.

What this all boils down to is that by measuring the relative success of pitchers at the plate we can at the same time, at least indirectly, measure the increasing level of play. The following graph documents that relation using OPS normalized by park and breaks it up by league.

What I find fascinating about this graph is that it not only shows the increasing difficulty that pitchers have when competing against their peers from the batter's box, it simultaneously gives some information on the relative level of play amongst competing leagues. You'll notice that the American Association and the Union Association of the 1880s and 1890s record higher relative values ostensibly because the leagues were not as difficult. The same applies to the Federal League (1914-1915) and American League relative to the National League from from 1901-1920 and again after integration through the early 1970s. Obviously, after the introduction of the designated hitter in 1973 the league differences can't be measured and so the graph doesn't reflect the subsequent time period. However, if one were to plot those just in the NL, the decline would continue to the point where today the relative production is well under .500.

All of this has conspired to make Rick Ankiel's story even more compelling and so I for one am going to enjoy it while it lasts.

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