Royals’ Bannister Sees His Craft in a Different Light
For a couple of decades now, MLB’s scouting community and the sabermetricians spawned by the studies of Bill James and others have butted heads.
Scouts and most front office types believe only tools and athletic skills matter when drafting and developing players. Statistical analysts have made the case that college and minor league numbers are indicators of a player’s potential success. The stat heads also have given us all kinds of new measures to evaluate players.
Despite the opposition of the traditional baseball establishment, James and other analysts have worked their way into big league organizations. There’s no way to know if, and how many, players have embraced sabermetics, but now someone has stepped up and confessed his belief in the new measures of the game.
Kansas City right-hander Brian Bannister believes the study of statistics will make him a better pitcher.
“I joke about it, but it’s almost like I’m watching the game from the Matrix,” the 27-year-old Bannister recently told Jeff Passan of Yahoo! Sports. “You’re not seeing what everybody else sees. You’re seeing the numbers that create it.”
Bannister, who was 12-9 with a 3.87 ERA as a rookie last season, isn’t a sabermetrician’s dream -- and he knows it. He doesn’t have overpowering stuff, lacks the strikeout totals of a budding star and tends to be a flyball pitcher. Scouts will say makeup or intangibles are behind Bannister’s early success, but it may have as much to do with his commitment and approach to learning his game, as well as a little luck in 2007.
The young hurler has tracked his batting average on balls in play -- or BABIP -- a stat devised by Voros McCracken a decade ago. McCracken postulated that pitchers had little effect on whether batted balls dropped for hits. James verified the randomness of a pitcher's BABIP from year to year. The average is roughly .300, and Bannister had a .264 mark that was one of the best BABIPs in the game last season.
“It’s tough because I’m a student of it, and all last year I was well aware I was among the league leaders in it,” said Bannister. “But what do you do? Just because you’re continuing to get outs, do you say, ‘Oh, this shouldn’t be happening’? I realize very well that I could regress to the mean.”
Melding a traditional axiom of the game and BABIP, Bannister believes he might avoid a regression by getting hitters into two-strike counts more often. Hitters have to expand their strike zone and take more defensive swings, and that often means a pitch that isn’t hit as hard.
Bannister’s theory has been proven correct to a degree using Pitch f/x, the two-camera system that tracks a ball from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove. Velocity at any point can be tracked, and pitch movement can be documented to within an inch.
The pitcher finds Pitch f/x more useful than video, as it allows him to see what pitches do as they arrive at the plate.
“Everybody can throw a fastball, but if one guy’s explodes in the last 10 feet and the other’s goes dead straight, there’s a huge difference” Bannister explained. “That’s where the magic lies: in tweaking your pitches in order to get the most out of your ability.”
Bannister found that when he took 5 mph or so off his fastball, his natural arm action caused the ball to cut sharply, moving away from lefties and in on righties. That’s only the beginning of his discoveries. He wants to know which of his pitches get hit for home runs, while tracking them for velocity, movement and game situations. That would help him figure out how best to get hitters into two-strike counts.
The second-year pitcher believes the learning possibilities are endless. No stone will go unturned.
“I’m willing to be the guinea pig,” Bannister told Passan. “A lot of people would look at me from a scouting standpoint and go, ‘He doesn’t belong in the major leagues.’ I want people to never be able to question how much time and preparation I put into what I do.”
That’s old school meeting the new math. Being a guinea pig suggests passivity. With his aggressive approach to learning, it would be more accurate to call Bannister a pioneer in his field.