Rick Ankiel And The Uniqueness Of Baseball

Washington, D.C., USA; Washington Nationals outfielders Xavier Nady (21) , Rick Ankiel (24) and Jayson Werth (28) celebrate after a game against the Cincinnati Reds at Nationals Park. The Nationals defeated the Reds 4 - 1. Mandatory Credit: Joy R. Absalon-US PRESSWIRE

Monday, Rick Ankiel made a really great throw that didn't change anything. Why are people still talking about this? Why is this even a highlight? Because baseball is why.

Depending on your perspective, Rick Ankiel's career has been either a great success or a great failure. On the one hand, Ankiel made the major leagues as a pitcher, and Ankiel made the major leagues as a hitter. People are lucky to make the major leagues as even one of those! On the other hand, Ankiel came apart as a pitcher and, as a hitter, he has a 93 OPS+. Ankiel turned a lot of raw promise into a mediocre product, and now that he's 32, he's probably not about to improve.

But Rick Ankiel: Position Player is not without his strengths. He has demonstrated that he can hit for power, sometimes. He's slugged .440 against righties. And he has this arm, see. It's a powerful, sometimes frighteningly accurate arm. It's not a great compliment to call someone's arm "sometimes frighteningly accurate", since something that's sometimes accurate is often inaccurate, but Ankiel's arm is a wonder. It's not a shock, given his background as a highly-touted pitcher. It is a shock, given his more recent background as a pitcher.

Dig into the numbers and Ankiel's arm is near the top of the leader boards. FanGraphs provides a couple measures of arm value. Let's go back to 2008. Since 2008 -- on a per-1000-innings scale -- Ankiel's arm has been the seventh-most valuable among outfielders by one measure, and the 24th-most valuable by the other measure. This is out of 159 outfielders, so even ranking number 24 is impressive. Ankiel hasn't quite been Alex Gordon or Jose Bautista. He also hasn't been Brian Giles or Adam Dunn.

People know that Ankiel can uncork some lasers. You don't uncork lasers! People know that Ankiel can fire some lasers. He's done it before. This all brings us to Monday night, as Ankiel's Nationals were playing the Astros. Ankiel was playing in center. In the top of the sixth, the Astros had the bases loaded with nobody out. Carlos Lee flied to center. This happened.

If you haven't seen the clip, watch the clip. It's kind of the foundation of this whole article. Ankiel made the catch. The runner on third - Jordan Schafer, who's quick - bluffed home. Accordingly, Ankiel threw home. It was an extraordinary throw. Look at the ease with which Wilson Ramos receives a throw from more than 300 feet away:

Ankielramos

Ramos didn't have to move. Ankiel was in center field, and he might have thrown a rulebook strike, on the fly. The pitcher might have missed his spot by more than Ankiel did. Schafer, obviously, didn't score. Schafer wasn't even going to try to score, being aware of Ankiel's arm. Not worth the chance.

Ankiel made a tremendous throw. It wound up being essentially for show, because it didn't change anything. It didn't prevent Schafer from scoring, because Schafer wasn't trying to score, pre-emptively afraid that Ankiel could gun him down. The crowd gave Ankiel a standing ovation. I've seen longer ovations and heard louder, but I've also seen shorter and heard quieter.

A standing ovation for a play that didn't matter. I'm trying to think of what the equivalent would be in another sport. Maybe a defensive back doing a great job of covering a wide receiver who was never going to be thrown the ball in the first place. Maybe a defender closely shadowing a dangerous forward in hockey. It's hard, because other sports don't work the way baseball works. That's kind of the thing: other sports aren't baseball.

Let's try football again. Let's say you have a quarterback who takes a snap, and then the play is blown dead because of a false start or whatever else can stop a football play. But the quarterback continues and heaves a long spiral bomb downfield to nobody. Maybe he splits the uprights. Does the quarterback get a standing ovation? Probably not. The quarterback probably just gets a penalty and a bunch of disapproving glances. This was a bad comparison.

Maybe it's as simple as saying baseball fans just understand the standing ovation here. Maybe I don't need to take it deeper. Maybe I'm not qualified to take it deeper. A cynic might say that baseball provides so few opportunities to cheer that we have to grasp at straws. I might say to that cynic, it's your own fault you root for the Pirates. This wasn't a standing ovation out of desperation. This was a standing ovation of appreciation. Rick Ankiel did an amazing thing, and it didn't matter that it didn't matter.

If you don't understand what I'm getting at, then just ignore all these words and watch the replay a few more times, because holy crap, what a throw.

***


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