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Rick Ankiel faces huge obstacles in comeback bid

What he must overcome to make it back to MLB makes it a longshot.

Cincinnati Reds v New York Mets

There’s no good reason to write about Rick Ankiel in 2018. Of the thousands of men to reach the major leagues, few are noteworthy enough to recount their tales of glory, and he isn’t one of them. Most simply fade into obscurity, relegated to a forlorn Baseball-Reference page and occasional barroom recollection.

The intrigue of Rick Ankiel’s story however, is that it involves more drama than most. There’s the epic rise of a teenage pitching phenom, an even more spectacular collapse at age 20, the unprecedented return and sustained success as an outfielder, and the steroid allegations. If baseball was a TV network, Ankiel would be nothing more than the midday soap opera. Sure, he was around for a long time and often kept us in suspense, but there’s not much worth talking about after we change the channel.

Except “The Ankiel Show” isn’t cancelled after all. He just announced that he’s planning a comeback...as a pitcher. He recently turned 39-years-old, last pitched professionally in 2004, and was last seen in professional baseball as the life skills coordinator for the Washington Nationals.

The obstacles between him and a big league mound are probably insurmountable. Let’s look at what he’ll need to overcome to reach the majors once again.

Precedent for a Comeback?

Ankiel is hardly the first retired player to attempt a comeback. For a while, it seemed like Roger Clemens made a “comeback” every year. So did Andy Pettitte. But the former never actually missed more than a few months of Spring Training and regular season baseball, and the latter only skipped one year. Not to mention both these pitchers were productive major league hurlers for years earlier in their career.

The kind of comeback Ankiel will attempt is much more drastic. By 2019, he won’t have played in the majors in six years, and even then, he was an outfielder. A 15-year absence from pitching is unheard of.

One of the longest gaps between MLB pitching appearances was 12 years by the inimitable Satchel Paige. His last full year in the majors was 1953, his age-46 season. In 1965, Charlie Finely’s Kansas City Athletics brought him back for one more start at the age of 59! Facing the soon-to-be AL Champion Boston Red Sox, Satch faced ten batters, retired nine, and allowed just one baserunner- a Carl Yastrzemski double!

Obviously, there are a few key differences between Ankiel and Paige. Ankiel is twenty years younger than Paige was at the time of his comeback (59...wow). But more importantly, Paige was arguably the greatest pitcher ever. Less arguably, he was more durable than anyone in baseball history, and probably threw more pitches than any other human being that ever lived. In fact, it wasn’t even a true comeback: Paige continued pitching throughout his 40s and 50s in minor and independent leagues. Unlike Ankiel, he had never really left the mound. (His biography is highly recommended reading.)

There have been others. Elbow problems forced Jose Rijo to retire in 1995 at age 30. He actually appeared on the Hall of Fame ballot in 2001, then came back to pitch 94 more innings for the Reds from 2001-02. Paul Schreiber went 22 years between MLB appearances, but only made it back as a fill-in during World War II.

Perhaps Jim Palmer’s comeback attempt best summarizes how difficult it is to make it all the way back after so long an absence. He was already in the Hall of Fame when he tried to make the Orioles in the spring of 1991. Lyle Spatz of Seamheads.com described his March 11 Spring Training appearance:

“(Ben) McDonald came in to pitch for Baltimore in the third, and the contrast between his 93-mile-per-hour fast ball and Palmer’s, which barely broke 80, was painfully obvious. Craig Worthington’s sacrifice fly eventually gave the Orioles a 3-2 win, and afterwards everybody said the requisite kind things, but Palmer’s comeback was over. He had thrown 38 pitches, 19 of which were balls, and many of which had been hit extremely hard. Besides the lack of speed on his fast ball, he was wild high, his curve balls hung, and while warming up he had injured his right hamstring.”

Succeeding at 39

Even without a 15-year absence from pitching, it’s rare to find a successful 39-year-old. Since 2015, there have been just 16 pitchers age-39 or older in MLB (not counting Ichiro Suzuki, who threw an inning at age 41). That by itself should tell you how difficult it is to pitch at an advanced age. There were 1,276 total pitchers in MLB over the last four years, and just 1.3 percent were 39 or older.

While just making it back to the majors would be an incredible accomplishment, pitching well is always the goal. Here’s the bWAR leader board for pitchers age-39 and up:

Pitching bWAR Leaders, Age 39+

Player WAR Age From To G
Player WAR Age From To G
R.A. Dickey 5.2 40-42 2015 2017 94
Bartolo Colon 3.1 42-45 2015 2018 117
Koji Uehara 2.2 40-42 2015 2017 142
Fernando Rodney 1.8 39-41 2016 2018 173

Only one pitcher over age 39 has more than 3.1 bWAR, and that’s knuckleballer R.A. Dickey. Not shown on this table, seven of the 16 pitchers have negative bWAR. Most of the time, older pitchers just can’t get the job done anymore, including those long since retired.

One of the main reasons why so few pitchers last through age-39 is velocity. Nearly everyone slows down as they approach 40, and the fastball just can’t light up the radar gun the way it used to. In lieu of a blistering fastball, most older pitchers rely on locating pitches to limit damage.

Velocity and Walk-Rate, Age 39+

Year 39+ Fastball Velo (MPH) MLB Fastball Velo (MPH) 39+ BB% MLB BB%
Year 39+ Fastball Velo (MPH) MLB Fastball Velo (MPH) 39+ BB% MLB BB%
2015 88.2 92.1 5.5% 7.7%
2016 89.1 92.3 7.8% 8.2%
2017 88.9 92.8 7.7% 8.5%
2018 89.4 92.8 7.0% 8.5%
2015-18 Average 88.9 92.5 7.0% 8.2%

Over the last four years, the average fastball velocity across MLB is 92.5 MPH. For pitchers 39 and older, it’s just 88.9 MPH. For Rick Ankiel to make the majors again, he has to prove not just that he’s better than an average 39-year-old, but better than the 23-year-old flamethrower who’s competing to make the roster. Simply because of his age, Ankiel is already at a 2.6 MPH disadvantage.

The walk-rate also spells trouble for Ankiel. Age-39+ pitchers walk 1.2 percent fewer batters. This isn’t just because they’re older and wiser, it’s because of experience and repetition. Unlike his chronological peers, Ankiel hasn’t pitched at all in fifteen years! The chances of him finding the strike zone consistently after so much inactivity are extremely low.

When Orioles first baseman Chris Davis made a pitching appearance in 2012, it was the first time he took the mound since high school. Jim Palmer, who was broadcasting the game, figured, “He must be well-rested.” Perhaps the lack of wear on Ankiel’s arm will benefit him in some way. He’s got a lot less mileage than most 39-year-old pitchers. After all, Davis threw two scoreless innings!

Odds are, Ankiel will never make it back to the big leagues. Palmer had a much better career and shorter pitching layoff, but even he couldn’t come close. If Ankiel is lucky, he’ll get a Spring Training invite, then wash out after a week or so.

Nevertheless, maybe his arm feels good and he’s got one more surprise left for us. As Satchel Paige once said, “Age is a question of mind over matter. If you don’t mind, it doesn’t matter.” If Ankiel somehow does get to the majors, that will be a story worthy of a Daytime Emmy.


Daniel R. Epstein is an elementary special education teacher and president of the Somerset County Education Association. In addition to BtBS, he writes at www.OffTheBenchBaseball.com. Tweets @depstein1983