The Curious Case of Rick Ankiel

Social facilitation and the undoing (and redemption) of greatness

Posted Nov 02, 2017

If you ever wander to the Baseball Reference page for Rick Ankiel, be sure to click on all of the tabs. Otherwise, you will miss out on the body of work produced by one of the most curious cases in recent baseball memory. Ankiel broke into Major League Baseball in 1999 as a 19 year old left-handed pitcher for the St. Louis Cardinals. He struck out 39 batters in 9 games at the end of the 1999 season and came back in 2000 to pitch a full season, striking out 194 batters in 175 innings across 31 games (30 games started). In the post-season of 2000, he pitched in 4 innings across 3 games, walked 11 batters, and struck out 5. If you blink looking over the statistics you will miss it, but those three games were where it came unraveled. In 2001, he pitched 24 innings in 6 games, walking 25 and striking out 27. Perhaps more impressive was that the only other major league pitching he did was in 2004 when he pitched 10 innings in 5 games, where he walked 1 and struck out 9. All told, he pitched in 54 Major League games from 1999-2004 (with two years out of the majors during that span). He went from his unbelievable 2000 season to a pitching career that fizzled out quickly. What happened?

Remember that I identified the 2000 post-season as the point where it came unraveled. For baseball fans during that time, it is easy to remember. Suddenly he couldn’t throw strikes. He wasn’t just missing the strike zone by being too careful. He was flinging baseballs over the catcher’s head all the way to the backstop (see linked video). As a baseball player, it was one of the most uncomfortable events I’ve ever experienced watching happen to any player. There are always stories of guys, such as Chuck Knoblauch, who suddenly couldn’t throw accurately without mechanical explanation, apparently for psychological reasons. But Ankiel was different, because the onset of his event wasn’t at the end of his career but at the beginning of what was poised to be a dominant career.  

As a social psychologist, I always wanted to know more about what happened. I suspected a degree of social facilitation. Social facilitation occurs when a person sees increased performance on easy, well-practiced tasks when other people are around and can evaluate the performance. But the dark side of social facilitation is that the person sees decreased performance on difficult, less-practiced tasks when other people are around and can evaluate the performance. Breaking that down, social facilitation occurs because of arousal (Bond & Titus, 1983) and evaluation (Aiello & Douthitt, 2001). My assessment from afar had always been that Ankiel had found pitching during the regular season to be an easy task, but the pressures of the post-season led to pitching being a much more challenging task. Simply put, pitching under the pressure of play-off baseball created a level of arousal and evaluation (public scrutiny) that was sufficiently different from the conditions in which he had prepared. A short stint in the minor leagues and pitching on a team bound for the play-offs has its challenges, but facing the best of the best day in and day out in the play-offs with elimination on the line and a national spotlight proved to be too psychologically daunting for Ankiel.

Recently Ankiel wrote “Letter to My Younger Self” in The Player’s Tribune. In his letter, Ankiel pours out his heart and draws a very clear picture of that event (the wild pitches linked in the video above), how he got to that event in life, and how it affected him. He described becoming aware of the millions of people across the nation who saw him throw the first wild pitch. He described thinking of his family, friends, hometown, and teammates who he had let down with the first wild pitch. The dark side of social facilitation reared its ugly head.

Ankiel never recovered from that event. He continued to throw wildly until he couldn’t pitch in the majors any longer. He described trying any advice people would give him and how his teammates stayed away from him for fear that his problems were contagious. For those of us who know that ballplayers are humans who play baseball, with thoughts and feelings, it was a sad series of events. In 2005 he retired from baseball. It was as if his extraordinary talent evaporated right in front of our eyes and he vanished from the game.

But the only thing better than stories of giants falling is a story of redemption. Four hours after he retired, his agent convinced him to try to make a career as a professional baseball player—as a hitter, not a pitcher. For those of you unfamiliar with professional baseball, that is something that does not happen very often. To be the best of the best and play in the major leagues requires rare talent, rare work ethic, and a lifetime of sustained practice. For the scientists reading this I would say it had an “extremely, extremely low probability of success.” For the baseball fans reading this I would say “it never happens.”

But son of a gun, Ankiel made it back to the majors as an outfielder in 2007 with the St. Louis Cardinals, whose fans welcomed him with open arms and cheered his first home run. He played for 7 more seasons as a hitter, in 604 more major league baseball games after that terrible event in the post-season of 2000 led to his brief retirement. He hit 25 home runs in 2008.

So if you see Rick Ankiel on the street, remember him as the player who overcame great performance adversity to do some psychologically incredible things. Think of him as psychological resilience embodied. Shake his hand and know that he possesses the most important skill in life—the ability to pick yourself up, dust yourself off, and fight on.

References

Aiello, J. R., & Douthitt, E. A. (2001). Social facilitation from Triplett to electronic performance monitoring. Group Dynamics: Theory, Research, and Practice, 5, 163-180.

Ankiel, R. (2017, September 28). Letter to my younger self. The Players Tribune (online).

Bond, C. F., Jr., & Titus, L. J. (1983). Social facilitation: A meta-analysis of 241 studies. Psychological Bulletin, 94, 264-292.