Originally written on Fangraphs  |  Last updated 11/14/14
Rick Ankiel‘s season began in about the best possible fashion. With the Astros holding on to a 4-2 lead on Opening Day, Ankiel was sent up to hit for Brandon Barnes in the bottom of the sixth inning. Derek Lowe threw him a meatball, and he responded by hitting said meatball 373 feet, good enough for a three run homer that would essentially put the game away. It’s hard to do much better than that on your first at-bat of the season. Since that at-bat, though, things haven’t gone so well. Here’s Ankiel’s play log for the 2013 season. Date  Pitcher Inn. Play 31-Mar D Lowe 6-B Rick Ankiel homered (Fly). Justin Maxwell scored. Matt Dominguez scored. 31-Mar J Ortiz 8-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. 2-Apr Y Darvish 2-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. 2-Apr Y Darvish 5-B Rick Ankiel lined out to first (Liner). 2-Apr Y Darvish 8-B Rick Ankiel struck out looking. 3-Apr A Ogando 2-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. 3-Apr A Ogando 5-B Rick Ankiel struck out looking. 5-Apr D Straily 2-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. 5-Apr D Straily 5-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. 5-Apr D Straily 7-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. 5-Apr E Scribner 9-B Rick Ankiel struck out looking. 7-Apr E Scribner 9-B Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. 8-Apr J Saunders 6-T Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. 8-Apr C Furbush 8-T Rick Ankiel struck out swinging. Yes, that’s 12 strikeouts in 14 plate appearances, including each of his last 10. But, as Jeff noted this morning, a strikeout isn’t always the batters fault. Maybe Ankiel has just gotten screwed by an epic collusion of bad calls and/or amazing framing? Via TexasLeaguers PITCHF/x tool, here are the pitches Ankiel has taken for strikes this year: Well, there is one that he looks like he got jobbed on a bit. Of course, there’s also one that looks more in the zone than out that got called a ball, so no, there’s no umpires or catchers to blame here. Instead, the blame lies solely with Ankiel. For the season, Rick Ankiel has made contact with just 35.5% of the pitches he has swung at, which is not surprisingly the worst mark in baseball. But, that’s not the astonishing number here. The shocking number is Ankiel’s contact rate on pitches in the strike zone, which currently stands at just 37.5%. How low is that? Well, here’s a plot of every hitter with at least 10 plate appearances in 2013, and their respective Z-Contact%. See if you can spot the outlier. Even in a tiny sample, the spread between the best and worst (non-Ankiel division) hitters on in-zone contact is pretty small, because this is the skill that Major League position players are essentially selected on. Or, at least, in zone contact rate is a pretty good proxy for that skill. There’s some variation allowed for power, which is why you see guys like Mark Reynolds down at 66%, but Major League hitters are expected to hit pitches in the strike zone more often than they miss them. In fact, they’re expected to hit them a great majority of the time. The lowest Z-Contact% of 2012 among batters who were allowed to hit even 100 times was 71%, belonging to Brett Jackson of the Cubs. He’s starting the season back in Triple-A, by the way. The second lowest belonged to Jim Thome, at 72% — he’s involuntarily unemployed, as no team saw fit to give him a roster spot again. We have to go to the third lowest Z-Contact% of 2012 before we find a player who is actually in the big leagues now, and that’s Chris Carter at 75%. Needless to say, there’s a lower bound at which teams will no longer accept further contact issues, even in an attempt to get additional power. You would need to double Ankiel’s current Z-Contact% in order to get him near lower bound. How astonishingly bad has this stretch been? Well, to put it in context, I decided to look at the Z-Contact% for every season since 2008, but only for pitchers. This is the class of Major League players that are not selected for their hitting skills. How have they done swinging at strikes? Since 2008, there have been 611 pitcher hitting seasons of at least 10 plate appearances. Here’s the graph of the Z-Contact% for those 611 data points, along with Ankiel’s 2013 season to date. Even in tiny sample sizes, even among a class of players who are chosen for skills other than hitting a baseball, Ankiel’s numbers stand out. In fact, only one of those 611 pitcher hitting seasons resulted in a lower in-zone contact rate than Ankiel’s current 37.5%. His savior? Jo-Jo Reyes, back in 2009. In 11 plate appearances, he made contact on just 30.8% of the strikes he swung at. Which is kind of incredible, because in 2008, Reyes made contact on 96.0% of the strikes he swung at, in 34 plate appearances. While his 2009 season is the worst Z-Contact% of any pitcher hitting season since 2008, his 2008 season was actually the 23rd best. So, yeah, Jo-Jo Reyes, reminder of how much numbers — even highly stable ones — can fluctuate in samples of a dozen plate appearances. Given time, Ankiel’s contact rate will regress to the mean. His career mark is 82%, and he came in at 77% last year, just barely clearing the bar for minimally acceptable rate of contact on strikes. I wonder, though, whether Ankiel will ever get that time. The Rangers have to make a decision on Julio Borbon‘s roster spot today, and the Mariners have until tomorrow to decide what to do with Casper Wells after they DFA’d him before the season started. It’s not hard to see either or both Wells and Borbon ending up in Houston, and Ankiel’s brutal start to the season might just put him at the front of the line for cuts should they decide they want a roster spot for a new outfielder. Given that he’s now 33, was a replacement outfielder last year, and any scout who has watched him during the first week of the season is going to have filed a very negative report on his current skills, this might be the last we ever see of Rick Ankiel. If it is, at least he’s going out with a bang.
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