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March 11, 2014

The BP Wayback Machine

Rick Ankiel and Guillermo Mota: Two Careers in Player Comments

by Baseball Prospectus


While looking toward the future with our comprehensive slate of current content, we'd also like to recognize our rich past by drawing upon our extensive (and mostly free) online archive of work dating back to 1997. In an effort to highlight the best of what's gone before, we'll be bringing you a weekly blast from BP's past, introducing or re-introducing you to some of the most informative and entertaining authors who have passed through our virtual halls. If you have fond recollections of a BP piece that you'd like to nominate for re-exposure to a wider audience, send us your suggestion.

Last week, both Rick Ankiel and Guillermo Mota announced their retirements. Both position-switching players appeared in the Baseball Prospectus annual well over 10 times, so as a career retrospective, we've collected the comments our book authors have written about them over the years. As a reminder, annual comments through 2013 are available to BP subscribers on our player cards. Baseball Prospectus 2014 is on sale now.

Rick Ankiel
Position: P/CF
DOB: 07/19/1979
Height/Weight: 6’1” 210 lbs
Bats/Throws: L/L
Drafted/Acquired: Second round, 1997 draft (Cardinals)
Teams Played For: Cardinals, Royals, Braves, Nationals, Astros, Mets
Career Stats as Pitcher: 51 G, 41 GS, 242 IP, 3.90 ERA, 13-10, 10.0 K/9, 4.8 BB/9
Career Stats as Hitter: 653 G, 2115 PA, .240/.302/.422, 76 HR, 21 SB

Year Comment
2014 Rick Ankiel was released by the Astros, signed with the Mets four days later and rushed to Busch Stadium to hit leadoff and play center field, even though his bats and glove were still in Houston. The Mets have outfield problems.
2012 Now 32, Ankiel has enough left to be a platoon outfielder for a few more years. He plays all three positions well enough to hold a job, but has a hard time controlling the strike zone well enough to get good pitches to hit. In the right circumstances, such as a team looking for a left-handed fourth outfielder, he could help a club as the pinch-hitter off the bench who can hit a bomb and stay in to be another outfielder's legs. If the Nationals don't re-sign him, he'll likely get an NRI from someone.
2011 When Nate McLouth turned his last name into a synonym for "massive disappointment," the Braves made a quick deal to bring in Ankiel, who served them no better save for one dramatic post-season home run. He plays hard, maybe too hard, as it leads to injuries and too many strikeouts. Over the last two seasons, he hasn't hit well even against right-handed pitchers (.240/.308/.433), but he's a good defender with one of the better outfield arms around. Atlanta declined his $6 million option with good reason, but he'll be in the league for a while as a good fourth outfielder.
2010 The game's real-life answer to The Natural, Ankiel's '09 was an obvious setback, but it was also the first time he was trying to overcome injuries as a hitter, in just his fourth full season as a hitter at any level. Given La Russa's decision to start him in barely more than half of the team's games after he returned from injuries suffered colliding with a wall in early May, combined with Ankiel's own comments indicating he still wasn't feeling right a couple of months later, it was clear that he was at less than his best. Ankiel's career path was guaranteed to be unusual at the outset, and good luck separating whether last season's declining rates of pitches per PA and homers to fly balls was due to his injuries, his reserve role, or pitchers adapting to a relative neophyte of batsmanship. A free agent as we go to press (changing from pitching to hitting didn't re-set his service time, after all), somebody's going to take the chance. Given his fly-ball tendencies, heading to a homer haven would put wind beneath his wings.
2009 Forget those names above: perhaps Ankiel's top comparable from a historical perspective is Lefty O'Doul, who washed out as a pitcher mound by age 26 in 1923, returned five years later as an outfielder, and went on to hit .349 over seven seasons. Ankiel's numbers last year would have been even better had he not strained an abdominal muscle on July 26, after which he hit just .169 in 77 PAs before getting shut down in early September. His power is prodigious, and Ankiel also increased his unintentional walk rate by nearly 60 percent from 2007, a rise that could continue given that his batting eye is likely still evolving. Thanks to Ankiel's formative years as a pitcher, he is now in his last season of arbitration eligibility, which is why the Cardinals were open to trading him over the winter. The front office couldn't find value, so he'll be back in center field for at least one more season.
2008 Back up three steps from The Rick Ankiel Story and take a look at Rick Ankiel, baseball player. At 28, he's a low-contact, high-power lefty bat who can play a plus corner or an average center field. Think Russell Branyan minus walks and plus a little defense. The thing most in his favor is that his unique career path makes him a "younger" 28 developmentally; because he has so few pro at-bats, you can expect him to still have some growth left, and he's in a range of production in which even a little improvement-such as cutting his strikeout rate while adding average and OBP-will be worth tens of millions of dollars.
2006 Ankiel`s second career as an outfielder is off to a pretty good start. He`s shown power at the plate and fair plate discipline. His swing generates the coveted backspin-of-death, and he`s shown surprising prowess with the glove. Yes, he`s old for his level, but it`s not out of the question that he`ll develop quickly and end up in the Cardinals outfield later in the season. There`s definitely an opening for him if he performs.
2005 Are better days ahead? It's possible his grievous control problems of yore were at least in part of a physical origin. In his first season back from Tommy John surgery, in 33.2 innings spread across four different levels, Ankiel struck out 32 and walked only three. In tandem with an excellent performance in the Puerto Rican winter leagues, it points to his being back on track. In all likelihood, he'll work exclusively out of the bullpen in 2005, but if all goes well, he could be in the St. Louis rotation the following season.
2004 There's no doubting his raw ability, but injuries and grievous control problems continue to conspire against him. He'll likely miss most of the 2004 season after undergoing Tommy John surgery in July. Since control problems often follow reconstructive elbow surgery, a meaningful evaluation of his progress in that regard can't be made until he's at least 12 months, and more likely 18-24 months out. Contrary to rumors, shifting him permanently to a hitting role isn't presently on the organizational radar.
2003 On any college campus anywhere, you can see ghosts. Not the paranormal kind, but the kind that’s 18 and away from home and reacting to newfound responsibilities and pleasures and challenges. All sorts of people operate poorly in the free-form environment college offers to raging minds, hormones, and beerbellies. Even kids with a world of talent flop, try, drift out of school...and then they don’t really leave. They just haunt the scene of their failure, waiting and wondering what comes next. Welcome to the Ankiel Zone. He’s still here. He’s still talented. And who knows what comes next?

After missing the entire season with elbow tendonitis, the Cardinals say that they might look at him in a relief role this spring. It’s just as well that they already have Kline and Fassero for lefty situational and late-inning situations. Ankiel will be better off getting multi-inning assignments and situations where he doesn’t inherit baserunners. If you’re an optimist, you can hope that if he shows that he’s under control in those situations, he may yet work his way back into the rotation. If you’re a pessimist, you’ll note that some former athletes warn that once you start thinking too much about what you’re doing as you’re doing it, you’re never the same.
2002 After his brutal April in the bigs, Ankiel pitched well at Johnson City. He seemed to relax a bit and by all accounts was enjoying playing the game, both on the mound and in the batter's box. Everyone knows he has the physical skills to pitch, but there is no road map back from where he's gone. Until he's on a major-league mound, pitching in a high-pressure situation in front of a hostile crowd after facing countless questions from the press about his confidence, no one knows what's going to happen. Ankiel is young enough that he'll get ten years and countless chances to try to come back, probably in a variety of roles. We're rooting for him, but we have no idea what's going to happen. Well, we know he'll likely outhit Doug Glanville. Beyond that, anyone who tells you they know how Ankiel will do once he returns is either an idiot, lying, or both. You have to root for him, though.
2001 He's a tough SOB with a golden arm. Rick Ankiel demonstrates maturity well beyond his years both on and off the field. Few left-handed pitchers do a good job of working right-handed hitters inside with anything except "show me" fastballs. Ankiel, like Randy Johnson, has a nasty hard breaking ball that he uses down and in against righties with great effectiveness. Righties his .213 against him, lefties .253. There are a lot of young pitchers who are one walk per nine innings away from having a nice career. Ankiel is already a monster; he's one walk per nine innings away from turning into a left-handed Pedro Martinez.

There's a lot of speculation that his loss of command in the postseason is indicative of major troubles, a la Steve Blass or Mark Wohlers. We all hope not, but look at it this way. Let's say Ankiel has a complete psychological disaster and loses the strike zone for two years, then slowly makes his way back over the course of another year. Then he'd be Tim Hudson with better stuff. Personally, I don't think he'll miss a beat. There is no more fun pitcher to watch in baseball except possibly Martinez or Randy Johnson. Larry Walker is already figuring out ways to duck this guy.
2000 He’s as good a pitching prospect as you're going to find. Ankiel can throw into the mid-90s, but he doesn't do it very consistently. His out pitch is a hammer curve. His problem so far is that he hasn't learned how to put batters away quickly, so that he runs through his 110-pitch limit early in games. They say he's coachable and will iron that out in time, but what pitching prospect has time working under LaRussa? After the winter shopping spree, Ankiel isn't guaranteed to be in the rotation but should win the fourth spot. Between his youth and the LaRussa/Duncan track record, you can't help but worry.


Guillermo Mota
Position: P
DOB: 07/25/1973
Height/Weight: 6’6” 240 lbs
Bats/Throws: R/R
Drafted/Acquired: Amateur Free Agent, 1990 (Mets)
Teams played for: Expos, Dodgers, Marlins, Indians, Mets, Brewers, Dodgers (again), Giants
Career Stats: 743 G, 0 GS, 856.7 IP, 3.94 ERA, 39-45, 7.3 K/9, 3.5 BB/9

Year Comment
2013 It's probably safe to say it was a wise move shifting Mota from shortstop to pitcher in the minors, as he's stuck around the majors for over a decade. Last year was a tough one for Mota. He served a 100-game suspension for testing positive for a banned substance, Clenbuterol. It was Mota's second drug-related suspension, and he claimed it was the result of taking a children's cough syrup. A third failed drug test would result in a lifetime ban, but that might be a moot point. Mota's fastball velocity has been sliding for years, and he may have reached the end of the line.
2012 Mota pitched in the lowest average leverage of his career in 2011, but that disguises how important he was as the Giants' designated rubber arm. Thrice he was asked to throw more than 50 pitches in a game; seven times he went at least three innings, with a 1.46 ERA in those outings. There's a vast difference between being a team's mop-up man, as Mota had been at a series of stops since Paul DePodesta traded him away from the Dodgers in 2004, and being a team's long-man. He has now thrown more innings without a start than any active pitcher; only Mariano Rivera and Arthur Rhodes have thrown more relief innings.
2011 Mota is like that old shirt you can’t quite bring yourself to toss out. It’s ugly, stained, filled with holes, doesn’t fit right, you can’t really wear it out without looking unwashed, and your spouse hates it, but it sufficiently clothes you, you have to wear something when doing laundry or mowing the lawn, and every now and again you begin to think it would look cool in a thrift-shop-chic kind of way. You’re wrong, of course, but you keep putting it on. The Giants brought Mota to camp as a non-roster invitee, got suckered into bringing him north, and were briefly rewarded by a hot start, but things got ugly thereafter and he was a net negative per WXRL. Naturally, the Giants signed him to another minor-league contract, but while Mota is never quite bad enough to get thrown out, they really shouldn’t wear him in public.
2010 After a four-and-a-half-year walkabout, Mota returned to the Dodgers still able to pump his fastball into the mid-90s, and still maddeningly inconsistent. He began the year as part of the arson squad before the correction of a mechanical flaw enabled him to put the fire out. From May 22 through August 2—a span of 36 1/3 IP—he dominated, yielding a 0.50 ERA while holding hitters to a .143 average. Perhaps distracted by success, he apparently neglected personal hygiene; an ingrown toenail cost him half of September, and he was too rusty to make the postseason roster. Those hoping for a continued revival should note that his low BABIP (.244), high rate of allowing inherited runners to score (17 out of 38), and career-worst strikeout rate don't bode well.
2009 Acquired from the Mets for the similarly unpopular Johnny Estrada, Mota regained some of his former effectiveness thanks to a mechanical tweak: bullpen coach Bill Castro noted he had resorted to hunching over during his delivery, causing his pitches to flatten out. The results of the correction were compelling, save for a five-week stretch prior to the All-Star break in which Mota resorted to his old habits and was bombed for an 11.81 ERA while allowing five homers in 10 2/3 innings; over the rest of the year he put up a 2.43 ERA while allowing just two homers. Whether he can maintain consistency across a full season is anyone’s guess, but as long as he has that mid-90s fastball, somebody will pay to find out.
2008 Mota missed the first two months of the season while serving a suspension for performance enhancing substances. When he returned he wasn't very good, but he's big and throws hard and usually throws strikes. This combination proved too big a temptation for Willie Randolph to resist, and he kept going back to Mota looking for results that ultimately proved to be chimerical. The impact on the season was large-when talking about the team's collapse, Randolph put the blame squarely on the players rather than himself, but his handling of Mota makes him just as culpable. The Brewers too have heeded Mota's siren song, shipping Johnny Estrada to the Mets for him. They might even let him set up for Eric Gagne. They shouldn't; Mota may be a heck of a thrower, but as a pitcher he's marginal.
2007 After a rough patch with the Indians, Mota turned his season around in New York. Apparently performance-enhancing drugs had something to do with it, as he`s been suspended for the first 50 games of the 2007 season. Minaya decided to make it a paid vacation, re-signing Mota to a two-year, $5-million dollar contract. It was Dwight Gooden`s misfortune not to have this kind of forgiving enabler in the front office in the mid-nineties.
2006 Injuries and inconsistency cost Mota the closer`s job in the early going, which is why Mota has a one-year contract from the Red Sox and Todd Jones got two from the Tigers. Mota`s season was even worse than it looked; his Fair RA was 5.56. It`s unlikely that he will ever again approach the Superman numbers of his Dodgers years, but if health permits he might do some league-average relief work.
2005 Like Lo Duca, Mota was a bit of a disappointment after being acquired, although that was largely due to pitching in bad luck; his 4.81 ERA belied his improved post-trade peripherals. Mota is not likely to match his 2002-03 run again, but he'll have more fantasy value in 2005, as Jack McKeon has named him the closer. Think Octavio Dotel coming off of '01-'02, or maybe Duane Ward circa 1992. He's not young.
2004 In last year's book we said the following about Mota: "A converted shortstop, the Dodgers can always hope he's a late bloomer." Boy, did Mota bloom. He was among the best relievers in the National League in 2003, posting an ERA of 1.97 over 105 innings of work. Yes, this came virtually out of nowhere, but there are indicators to suggest that this wasn't a fluke: Mota's peripherals were outstanding, both at home and on the road, for instance. PECOTA thinks he'll take a bit of a step back, but we think the improvement is real. He's a taller, slightly older version of Octavio Dotel. Expect him to pitch that way going forward.
2003 Acquired last March with Wilkin Ruan for Matt Herges and Jorge Nunez, a trade that helped no one except a few real estate agents. Like Billy Koch, Mota’s main pitch is a hard fastball that’s dead straight. Like Koch, he walks too many hitters. Unlike Koch, Mota hasn’t posted great strikeout totals in any of his four big league seasons. He also hasn’t shown any consistent off-speed pitches in his arsenal. A converted shortstop, the Dodgers can always hope he’s a late bloomer. If not, they’ve at least got a shotblocker for their intramural hoops team.
2002 Mota was squarely in the running for the soon-to-be vacant closer’s job before rotator-cuff tendinitis struck in early July. He threw less than ten innings in the final three months, yet nearly doubled what had been a tidy 2.70 ERA. The Expos believe that a restful winter will take care of his ailing shoulder. Mota still has good command of only one pitch, but it’s flaming high-90s gas and will earn him some save opportunities this season.
2001 Guillermo Mota’s fastball gets rave reviews, but it lacks movement, and, as an ex-shortstop, he’s still acquiring pitching instincts. Because of some past elbow problems he's had, I’d hold off trying to teach him a curve or slider. Maybe a change-up, maybe a forkball. Once he adds a second pitch and learns when and how to use it, he could be an effective setup man.
2000 Mota is the latest example of the trend of turning position players into pitchers, and potentially the best of them. Alou reserved him for mop-up duty, and he still has a lot to learn about setting hitters up, but doing this well on talent and very little experience is impressive. While he does have a good fastball, it remains to be seen whether it just isn’t the 98 mph heater that was advertised, or whether the elbow problems he struggled with all summer kept him from throwing it. Offseason surgery to remove a bone chip shouldn’t keep him out of camp, and he should be poised for a big year as a setup man.
1999 Here's a story: Mota was a shortstop in the Mets organization who hit like Rey Ordonez. Realizing they already had Rey Ordonez, the Mets left him eligible for the Rule 5 draft after '96. The Expos took him, made him a pitcher, and voila! he's throwing gas with great control. He missed some time this year after surgery, and moved to the bullpen to reduce the strain on his arm. The Expos see him moving up as a reliever, but hope he might return to the rotation a few years down the road. A great sleeper.

Related Content:  Rick Ankiel,  Guillermo Mota

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