“Can I throw harder than Joe Wood? Listen my friend, there’s no man alive (that) can throw harder than Smokey Joe Wood”
– Hall of Famer Walter Johnson in a 1912 interview*
Sometimes I think we forget how special the Rick Ankiel story really is. One of the most promising pitching prospects in all of baseball, he truly dominated the National League in his rookie year of 2000. He did this at the tender age of 20 with a great fastball and a cartoon curveball. His future looked as bright as anyone in the majors.
Everyone knows what happened next. During the first round of the playoffs that year, it all came apart. Suddenly he couldn’t find the plate and lost all of his confidence in pitching. There was no cure or remedy for his wildness and he never came back to form.
Through years of trials and tribulations, Ankiel finally gave up on pitching, seemingly heading into retirement, a tragic story of wasted talent and promise unfulfilled. Then suddenly, he changed his mind and decided to make a comeback. He was going to be a hitter. What started out looking like a joke, Ankiel began a slow climb back to the majors as a “born again” power hitter, culminating in his return to the majors as an outfielder. In 2007-08 he expanded on this promise to become a very good hitter and fielder and an integral part of the Cardinal offense.
Since Ankiel signed a new contract with the Cardinals yesterday, I thought it would be a good time to be reminded of this amazing feat. While preparing for his arbitration hearing, many experts were saying how difficult it was to compare Ankiel to his peers. No modern day player has made the switch, and you can look back through history and there is very few players who have successfully made the conversion from pitching to hitting. Sure, Babe Ruth was an All-Star pitcher before he became one of the greatest hitters who ever lived, but how do you compare anyone to him?
I am currently reading “The Glory of Their Times” and was surprised to find a story about a player who converted from pitcher to outfielder, after showing much of the same promise of Ankiel. Of course this happened 90 years earlier, but I wanted to learn more about him. I had heard of Smokey Joe Wood before, but I had forgotten about his hitting career and what he went through to make it again. With Ankiel’s arbitration case fresh in my mind, I thought I’d take a look at how they compared at similar ages.
This is what Rick Ankiel and Smokey Joe Wood did in their age 20 seasons. It was Wood’s second full year (his first was as an 18 year old) and Ankiel’s rookie year.
Now these two pitchers were different in a lot of ways, but in their age 20 seasons they were quite comparable. I’d like to highlight one statistic in specific. ERA+ is not your run of the mill baseball card statistic. To give you a basic idea of its purpose, it compares players from different eras and different ballparks and puts them on a level playing field. So if you played in the deadball era (as Wood did) where strikeouts were more uncommon (but your ERA was lower), you can compare them to someone in the “juiced ball era” of 2000. Anything over 100 is above average and both Ankiel and Wood were very good pitchers at 20. Wood was a little better.
Unfortunately this is where the two pitchers diverge on the pitching side. While Ankiel showed promise, he didn’t have the ensuing seasons that Wood had. In fact, for a short period of time, Smokey Joe Wood was one of the best pitchers in all of baseball. In 1912, he led the league in wins with a 34-5 record, pitched 344 innings, was 2nd in the league in strikeouts with 258 and second in the league in ERA with a miniscule 1.91. He led the league with 10 shutouts and tied a record for the most wins in a row with 16. He also won 3 more games in the World Series and helped the Boston Red Sox to the championship.
In 1913 Wood hurt his arm and was never the same. You can speculate that he threw too many innings in 1912 at a young age, or that modern medicine would have put him back on track, but he would never pitch a full season again. While he pitched effectively over the next 3 years, he was in constant pain and had to take extra days off between starts. He finally retired in 1916 and was out of baseball.
Like Ankiel, Wood decided to make a comeback as a hitter. Now we get to the spooky part. Ankiel and Wood both made their full season hitting comebacks at age 28 and this is what they did:
OPS is defined as on base percentage plus slugging percentage. OPS+ is an advanced statistic that measures OPS against the league average, and adjusted for ballpark factors. An OPS+ over 100 is better than average, less than 100 is below average. Rick Ankiel and Joe Wood were almost IDENTICALLY effecitive hitters with 119 and 120 OPS+ scores in their age 28 seasons. Now Ankiel had more power, but Wood had more on base ability and played in a tougher era for hitters. Wood’s 5 home runs were actually 5th in the league.
Wood played 4 more seasons. Over the next three years he was a part time player, but in his last season he was again a solid regular with a 109 OPS+. Curiously he retired after that season to coach at Yale University, even though he was offered another contract to play. He had a 20 year career coaching at Yale and had no regrets about retiring early from major league baseball at 32. He felt he accomplished something through his comeback, and was ready for the next phase of his life.
We don’t know what twist or turn is going to happen in the Rick Ankiel story. Like 2000, the future holds a lot of promise for the former pitching phenom. Will he follow the same path as Joe Wood, or continue his progression and become an All-Star? Lucky for Cardinal fans, we have a front row seat to the action. Hopefully this fairytale movie has a happy ending.