Commentary

Rick Ankiel strikes gold with his arm

Nationals center fielder arguably the best left-handed-throwing outfielder in decades

Originally Published: May 4, 2011
By Tim Kurkjian | ESPN The Magazine

I have been tracking this for 30 years, wondering about it for 40, waiting for the right guy to come along or, in this case, the left guy. And now it is here; granted, a subjective observation, but we believe that the best-throwing outfielder in the major leagues, for the first time in perhaps decades, is a left-handed thrower -- Nationals center fielder Rick Ankiel.

"He's amazing," Nationals pitcher Jason Marquis said. "I can't wait to see what happens every time the ball leaves his hand. As a pitcher, I watch him throw and I think, 'Why can't I have that arm and use it on the hill?' When a ball is hit to him in a throwing situation, our whole team rushes to the top step of the dugout to see what throw he'll make."

[+] EnlargeRick Ankiel
Al Bello/Getty ImagesIn 27 games this season, Rick Ankiel has thrown out two runners on the bases.

I've maintained for years that almost every great-throwing outfielder of all time is right-handed: Roberto Clemente, Reggie Smith, Ellis Valentine, Dwight Evans, Jesse Barfield, Mark Whiten, Dave Parker, Dave Winfield, Carl Furillo, Willie Mays, Al Kaline and Ichiro, to name a few. I have maintained that some years, and some eras, you can name 25 great-throwing outfielders before you get to a left-handed thrower.

"I can't remember too many left-handed-throwing outfielders with great arms," Kaline said. "How good was Babe Ruth?" He could really throw; maybe he was the best-throwing outfielder in the game in, say, 1920. Ken Griffey Jr., Claudell Washington, Mark Kotsay and Tony Gwynn could really throw, but they weren't as good as the best from the right side.

Why is that? Is it as simple as the fact that there have been far more right-handed throwers in the game? Of the 429 active (or on the disabled list) non-pitchers in the major leagues, only 61 of them throw left-handed, or 14.2 percent. Of the 86 players who have started at least 15 games in the outfield this season, only 29 throw left-handed, or 33.7 percent.

Or is it as simple as the idea that, in baseball history, when someone is left-handed and can really throw, he is routinely put on the pitcher's mound, as was the case with Ruth and Ankiel?

Is there another factor? I once asked former Yankees outfielder Paul O'Neill. He was a left-handed thrower and a very good one. O'Neill said, "Most great, right-handed-throwing outfielders throw straight over the top. With that motion, the ball goes straighter, truer and holds its line. Most left-handed-throwing outfielders throw closer to three-quarters: Left-handers have natural movement on their throws and a tailing action at the end. It doesn't hold its line as well. I thought I threw straight over the top. But when I looked at myself throw, I don't throw from straight over the top. My arm angle had dropped."

Kaline agreed. "Every great right-handed-throwing outfielder throws straight over the top," he said. "When you throw that way, the ball spins, it carries. When it hits the grass, it jumps, it picks up speed. You don't see left-handed throwers going straight over the top."

You don't see as many great-throwing outfielders today from either side, in part because major league teams rarely if ever take infield, which means outfielders take very little time practicing throwing to the bases at game speed. And like many defensive statistics, it's hard to quantify outfield assists because the league leader doesn't always reflect the best outfield arm -- Gene Richards and Mickey Rivers, each left-handed, led their league in outfield assists in 1980 in part because they threw so poorly that runners routinely tested their arm.

But things are changing. Ankiel, Baltimore's Nick Markakis, Colorado's Carlos Gonzalez and Cleveland's Shin-Soo Choo, all left-handed, are among the top throwing outfielders in the game. (To a slightly lesser degree, Texas' Josh Hamilton is in that group.) But no left-handed or right-handed outfielder throws better than Ankiel, 31. You know his story. He won 11 games and struck out 194 batters in 175 innings with the Cardinals in 2000, but soon after, he lost all ability to throw the ball over the plate. He had Tommy John surgery in 2003 and finally ditched pitching in 2005 because of acute control issues. Now he's throwing better than he ever has and has no mental block about throwing from the outfield.

"I just let it fly," Ankiel said. "And I play a lot of long toss to help preserve my arm."

You've made a good throw when it comes out of your hand clean.

-- Rick Ankiel

"He really works at it," Marquis said. "Pitchers do it all the time, but position players lose sight of the benefit of long toss. Rick does it all the time, day after day after day. It helps. He doesn't just throw the ball hard; he is really accurate. It's hard to throw a ball as hard as he does, 200 feet on a line, directly to a spot. His arm is an asset, a weapon for us."

On April 15 against the Brewers, Carlos Gomez singled in the tying run in the ninth inning but tried to stretch his hit into a double. Ankiel threw him out at second, and the Nationals won the game, 4-3, in the 10th inning. "That's as good a feeling as I can have, making a throw like that and help us win a game," Ankiel said. "That one really came out hot. You've made a good throw when it comes out of your hand clean. That was clean."

Those who were there will never forget the two throws that Ankiel, then with the Cardinals, made in Colorado on May 6, 2008. In the first inning, from deep center field, he threw out speedy outfielder Willy Taveras, who had tagged up at second base and was trying to get to third. "I looked at the play later," Ankiel said, "and I was deeper than I thought. I wasn't very far from the warning track." Later in the game, Omar Quintanilla doubled to deep left center but was gunned down at third by Ankiel. It's debatable which throw was better.

"The next day, Matt Holliday and I went to the outfield and threw the ball to third from where he threw the first one," Rockies outfielder Ryan Spilborghs recalled with a laugh three years later. "We didn't even come close. I think I eight-hopped it to third base. The ball rolled to the base. On the first throw that night [by Ankiel], Willy Taveras could really run, it was like, 'Oh, my gosh.' And then he made the second one. Quintanilla could run, also. Every ball that's hit to that part of Coors Field is a triple every time, regardless of who is running. And he threw Omar out. I've never seen anything like that."

And I've never seen anything like this. The best-throwing outfielder in the game is left-handed.

"Awesome," Ankiel said.

Tim Kurkjian is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine. His book "Is This a Great Game, or What?" was published by St. Martin's Press and became available in paperback in May 2008. Click here to order a copy.

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