April 24, 2014

Touring the Bases With Brian Bannister

February 25, 2009 by · 1 Comment 

In an industry that’s getting brainier by the day, Brian Bannister is the epitome of the thinking man’s pitcher. After an unexpected breakout season in 2007, he shared an interesting sabermetric theory to which he attributed some of his success. Unfortunately, his sophomore campaign did not go quite as well, as he lost 16 games. Here, Bannister discusses what went wrong in 2008 and what he’s learned from the experience.

Justin Murphy: Last winter, you suggested that a pitcher could lower his BABIP against by throwing in more favorable counts, particularly with two strikes. In 2008, you did manage to get into more two strike counts, but your BABIP in those situations rose considerably [stats are listed for reference at the bottom of the article]. Does that disprove your theory, or do you see another explanation?

Brian Bannister: It wasn’t a formula for how to beat it, it was more like how it could be beat. I think I was one of the first guys to attempt and see if it could be tweaked, the stuff that Voros [McCracken] said. It was just me hypothesizing if it could be beat, if a pitcher was going to attempt to beat it. Obviously I tried and it didn’t work, I don’t know if that invalidates it or if it’s just one season. It was fun to do though, to try and bridge statistical analysis and the actual players.

JM: Also in 2008, your K/9 ratio was 5.6, a significant improvement from 4.2 in 2007. What do you attribute that increase to?

BB: It’s something I strived to do, definitely. I was just more familiar with the hitters, but at the same time, they were more familiar with me, which led to more home runs and line drives, and that hurt me, so I don’t think my strikeout rate in 2008 was high enough.

JM: If you look at all the changes in your numbers from 2007 to 2008—higher K/9 ratio, more home runs, higher BABIP—was there an approach that contributed to that whole constellation of effects?

BB: Well, in any given year, you tend to be somewhere around the historical averages. There are so many pitchers  that throw so many different ways—sidearm, overhand, sinkers, splits, that once you average it all you you get a general picture of how to stay in the game. In 2008 I fell in line with historical averages, which happens to most guys. The idea is to identify weaknesses in your game and try to improve on them.

JM: What did you learn about pitching in 2008?

BB: The biggest thing was flyballs turning into home runs. That shows me the importance of keeping the ball down and getting more ground balls, with less vertical movement on my pitches. In general, 10-11% of fly balls are going to get out of the ballpark, so that hurt me last year. The pitches I threw were up in the zone more, lent themselves to upward ball flight. I didn’t make good pitches in 2008.

JM: Was that a matter of pitch selection, or of not executing well on your pitches?

BB: Not executing. I can think of several situations where I didn’t make a good pitch, whereas in 2007 I did. There are several facts and circumstances, weather, anything, that can vary from year to year. You have to look at historical circumstances and norms and ask yourself if it’s a fluke year or what, or look for the upside.

JM: Which season was a truer indicator of your pitching ability, 2007 or 2008?

BB: Well, obviously neither. I came up in ‘07 and really had a good year. I don’t think the way the batted balls went was sustainable, but the way I located my pitches was sustainable. In ’08, I couldn’t locate my pitches as well.

JM: How have you changed as a pitcher over your professional career?

BB: I know that right now I pitch nothing like I did in Double-A, which was as recently as four years ago. It’s a process of finding out what works at the major league level, what’s effective and what’s not. Major league hitters have a much different style of hitting than minor hitters do. It’s a lot more refined. They don’t chase out of the strike zone, partly because they have the benenfit of better umpires and a consistent zone.

Then there are things like Questec. As the game evolves, the advantage will always go to the hitter. You can’t expand the strike zone like they did in the ‘80s and ‘90s. The mound is lower. Of course, they used to doctor the baseball, you can’t do that. Every time the ball hits the ground it’s thrown out. The pitcher will always lose the edge that he has, and it’s up to him to find ways to fight back, especially groundball/flyball ratio, things like that.

JM: Have you noticed statistical analysis gaining credence in the clubhouse? Have you had discussions with other players, on the Royals or on other teams, about the statistical concepts you’re interested in?

BB: It’s definitely creeping more and more into the game. From a mainstream prospective, Moneyball was one of the things, but just the internet and the proliferation of things out there. Players hear about it, and front offices use it in their evaluations of players. As some of the old baseball cliches get weeded out it’s gaining more and more acceptance. I’ve heard about some guys in the minors, guys I’ve read about, but as far as the major leagues, I don’t know of anyone who’s into it as much as I am.

JM: In baseball analysis circles, you’ve become something of a celebrity. Do you get many comments from fans, positive or negative, on your cerebral approach to the game?

BB: It was something I debated doing. It [statistical analysis] does make it more interesting as a player. I’m a huge fan of the game of baseball, but at the same time I knew it opened up opportunities for criticism. If I didn’t pitch well, they’d say, “oh, he’s thinking too much.” Sabermeteric jokes about me and things like that. I wanted to be a more interesting player that fans could relate to, though, so people knew I had a purpose and enjoyed the game like the fans do.

JM: What changes have you noticed in Zack Greinke over the last few years, on or off the mound, that might explain his emergence as a dominant starter after struggling for a few years?

BB: Nothing to do with his physical talent, just his enjoyment of life in general. The medication he’s been on has allowed him to shake off the insecurities he had before hand and just let the world see what a great pitcher he is.

Thanks very much to Brian for taking the time to talk, and also to Joe Hamrahi of Baseball Digest Daily for working his connections. Here are some of Bannister’s statistics, for context.

 

Year BABIP 2 strike count (% of PAs) BABIP, 2 strike count GB/FB HR/9 HR/FB% K/9
2007 .262 305 (45%) .244 0.73 0.82 13.6% 4.2
2008 .310 395 (49%) .320 0.59 1.43 12.0% 5.6

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