Ankiel showing Royals power in arm, bat
Outfielder already impressing new team with early play
SURPRISE, Ariz. -- Rick Ankiel, as much as anyone, appreciates being mentioned in the same breath with Stan Musial.
Musial became a baseball legend as a St. Louis Cardinals hitter after starting out as a wild-throwing left-handed pitcher. Ankiel also chucked his pitching career with the Cardinals to become an outfielder. Of course, Musial made his switch to the outfield while still in Class D ball; Ankiel has achieved both occupations in the Majors. But they have that in common.
At any rate, Ankiel got to know Stan the Man in St. Louis.
"He's awesome. He did a couple of cool things for me," Ankiel said. "He sent me a recorded video of him doing 'Happy Birthday' on the harmonica. That was pretty nice. And he signed a baseball and said, 'Happy Birthday and Good Luck.' "
Approaching Musial at bat, of course, would be a tall task for anyone and Ankiel, 30, is really just getting under way as a pitcher-turned-hitter. He's been installed as the Royals' center fielder, assigned to give the team an improved defense and more power.
His defense has been celebrated in the past and has already been on display in Spring Training.
Royals pitcher Brad Thompson, an Ankiel teammate with the Cardinals, is a believer.
"Did you see the couple of throws he made in Colorado a couple of years ago? Look that up," Thompson said. "He made two throws from the warning track and gunned two guys out -- it was unbelievable. He's got a cannon. I think he was Web Gems 2 and 3 on the same day."
The Royals saw the Ankiel firepower in an early game against the Texas Rangers when he snatched up a sinking liner in center field and threw out Nelson Cruz at the plate.
"It was pretty impressive," Royals manager Trey Hillman said. "Just about as accurate as you can be. It's as good a throw as I've ever seen."
Certainly, as a pitcher, Ankiel demonstrated an arm that could deliver blazing fastballs although, as he demonstrated so famously in the 2000 playoffs against Atlanta, he didn't always know where they were bound.
"It was God-given," he said. "It just like guys that throw hard or guys that have power. It's just God-given. I don't know why. I did grow up surfing and swimming quite a bit so maybe that had something to do with it."
Ankiel is capable of covering considerable ground and has no reluctance to approach the wall despite his crunch into the Busch Stadium barrier last year, a violent crash that injured his shoulder and later affected his hitting.
"I wouldn't recommend it, but I tripped," he said. "Those things happen and what are going to do? I tripped over my own feet. It's not like I just ran into it."
Ankiel also sees himself as a thinking man's center fielder.
"I think I'm a good communicator," he said. "I try to pay attention to where my players are and who's pitching and who's hitting and wherever you think the ball's going to go. Try to get everybody going in the right direction."
At the plate, Ankiel is really a work in progress. He's drastically altered his stance, which last year, albeit with that troublesome right shoulder, delivered some less than impressive stats -- .231, 11 homers, 38 RBIs. This followed a .264/25/71 line in 2008.
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"I'm just more upright than I was last year," Ankiel said. "I was a little more spread out. I just feel freer and that's basically what it came down to. I just felt last year that I got locked up and was only good on certain pitches. Now, in this position, I feel free to cover a lot more of the plate."
The stance is more akin to what he used in high school at Port St. Lucie, Fla., and was refined over the winter with Rick Eckstein, who was Ankiel's hitting coach at Triple-A Memphis and is now with Washington.
Ankiel already has hammered two home runs in an intrasquad game and a homer and a triple in Cactus League play.
George Brett, in his role as camp batsmanship guru, wasn't so sure about Ankiel's approach in which he drops his hands low.
"Awkward stance but it works for him," Brett said. "You don't see many guys hold their hands where he does -- he holds them behind his back at his belt. It's awkward but it seems to work. He's got tremendous hands, he's got tremendous power. He's a tremendous athlete."
The Hall of Famer did have another observation about Ankiel's approach.
"If he can just get to a point that he realizes that you don't have to swing as hard as you can on every pitch to get a hit or hit home runs, I think he's going to be a pretty good player," Brett said.
Ankiel is 6-1, very lean and fit. He doesn't look like your typical brawny power hitter. It just seems to come naturally.
"I think you have to work on your swing and I was fortunate enough to be blessed with power," he said. "You can go back in time and look at all your power hitters and not all of them were necessarily big guys."
There's a theory that being a former pitcher might help Ankiel as a hitter because he knows how those guys think.
"They know I was a pitcher so who knows what they're thinking now?" he said. "Are they going to try to reverse it because they think that I'm thinking that? So who knows?"
To quote the baseball adage: Don't think too much, you'll hurt the ballclub.
"That's what I try to do, take the brain out of the there," he said. "I think the old cliché holds true. You've got to go up and there and look for the heater and adjust to anything else. Because if not, the heater goes right by you."
When Ankiel ripped a triple to left-center in an early game, Hillman was pleased.
"Any time he hits with a lot of authority that way, it's going to mean good things for him," Hillman said. "We know he can hit the ball over there. We want to utilize that left-center-field gap. When he does that, he's keeping his bat head through the zone pretty good."
Hillman also believes that Ankiel, who seems to be a quiet type, can make himself heard when necessary.
"If I see something that can be done in a little bit better way, I might pull somebody off to the side and say something," Ankiel said. "I'd never want to embarrass anybody in front of somebody. Other than that, I'm just going to come here and do what I do and hope that rubs off a little bit."
What will rub off, apparently, is his penchant for hard work. Brett noticed that when Ankiel attacked practice "at game pace" back in camp on Wednesday while the Royals were away for a game at Tucson, Ariz. Ankiel is also open to more new things.
"Here's a guy who's been a pitcher, looks like a really good center fielder -- he can run and he can throw, he gets good jumps on balls -- and he asks me one day, 'Do you think they'll let me ever play first?'" Brett said.
"I was hitting him ground balls at first yesterday at the end of practice and he looked like he'd been playing first his whole career, that's how good an athlete he is."
Brett should know. He spent some time at first base. Come to think of it, so did Musial.
Dick Kaegel is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.