As a Royals fan, it’s really been quite amazing to watch over the past few months as the baseball blogosphere has picked up on what we’ve known since last season: that Brian Bannister is one of the smartest players in baseball, and certainly one of the game’s deepest thinkers.
A year ago, when the Royals acquired him from the Mets straight up for Ambiorix Burgos, even baseball insiders weren’t aware of Bannister’s intellect (or if they were, they didn’t think it mattered.) The immediate reaction from other front offices at the winter meetings was that the Royals got the short end of the stick, that they traded a potential closer for a potential #5 starter. The stats bore that impression out: namely, that Burgos was 22 years old and struck people out, while Bannister was 25 and didn’t.
There have been many advantages to being a baseball outsider for all these years. You’re not likely to be swayed by bias because you don’t know the players well enough to be biased one way or another, and you’re not likely to miss the forest for the trees because you’re not close enough to see the trees. (Bill James’ classic piece “Inside-Out Perspective”, which ran at the beginning of the 1984 Abstract, explains this phenomenon far better than I ever could.)
Only sometimes it helps to see those trees, because sometimes they tell you something of value. We may not have been quite so negative about the Bannister trade at the time if, say, we had had the opportunity to talk to Bannister for half an hour and found out what makes him tick. Though I think it’s interesting that the people who are baseball insiders – the guys who work in the game and know these players better than you and I ever will – were not any higher on Bannister than we were.
We quickly learned that we were wrong about Bannister, a lesson we thoroughly enjoyed. One of the better fringe benefits of a Brian Bannister start last season – the main benefit being that he, you know, generally pitched well – was getting to read some of his post-game comments. Most guys are cliché factories; Bannister talked likes he’s instructing kids at a pitching clinic. Smart kids at that.
We were intrigued; we wanted to find out more about the guy. We found out Bannister graduated magna cum laude from USC, and that none of his grades came in ballroom dancing (or accepting favors from an agent, then stabbing him in the back, for that matter.) We found out that in the offseason, he pulls himself away from the hunting and fishing pursuits that are mandated of all ballplayers long enough to run his own photography studio in Arizona. He’s like Curt Schilling without the blog or the ego.
We found out from Joe Posnanski’s blog that he reads Baseball Prospectus, and that he not only has familiarized himself with modern sabermetric analysis, but that he has dabbled in some statistical analysis himself. And then we – along with most every baseball writer – read this astounding interview he gave Tim Dierkes of MLBTradeRumors.com. If you haven’t read it already, I really can’t recommend it enough.
I’ve simply never heard a pitcher say things like “whether you like it or not, baseball is a game of randomness. We play outdoors (mostly) in changing elements and field dimensions, and each pitch results in a series of events that can go in either teams favor…Therefore, as a pitcher, I study and play to put the percentages in my favor more than anything because I know that I can't control the outcome in a single game or series of games, but over the course of a season or a career I will be better than average.” Well, maybe I have, but certainly never so articulately. But what makes the interview special is Part 3, when Bannister not only states his understanding of DIPS theory, but points out a potential flaw in the theory that he can exploit. For those of you who are not familiar with DIPS theory (or BABIP), I recommend this column. Essentially, Voros McCracken argued seven years ago that the ability to prevent hits once contact is made (except for home runs) is entirely in the hands of the defense, and the pitcher has no ability to influence opposing hitters’ batting average on balls in play (BABIP). That theory has since been adjusted to state, essentially, that the pitcher has very little ability to influence opposing hitters’ BABIP. In modern baseball, the average BABIP is about .300, but can range from .270 for a team with a tremendous defense to .340 or .350 for a team with the equivalent of Billy Butler at every position. And even the best starters in baseball might be able to sway that figure in their favor by no more than ten points. It’s probably the most important sabermetric advance so far this decade.
Here, I’ll let Bannister explain it: “I think a lot of fans underestimate how much time I spend working with statistics to improve my performance on the field. For those that don't know, the typical BABIP for starting pitchers in Major League Baseball is around .300 give or take a few points. The common (and valid) argument is that over the course of a pitcher's career, he can not control his BABIP from year-to-year (because it is random), but over a period of time it will settle into the median range of roughly .300 (the peak of the bell curve). Therefore, pitchers that have a BABIP of under .300 are due to regress in subsequent years and pitchers with a BABIP above .300 should see some improvement (assuming they are a Major League Average pitcher). Because I don't have enough of a sample size yet (service time), I don't claim to be able to beat the .300 average year in and year out at the Major League level. However, I also don't feel that every pitcher is hopelessly bound to that .300 number for his career if he takes some steps to improve his odds - which is what pitching is all about.”
Bannister goes on to say that his idea for improving those odds is that, because BABIP can be shown to fluctuate depending on the count, a pitcher who can induce more contact in 0-1 or 0-2 counts will have a lower BABIP than a pitcher who typically falls behind 2-0 or 2-1 before contact is made. It’s a simple concept, and one I had given a fleeting thought to in the past, but to the best of my knowledge Bannister is the first person – pitcher or otherwise – to articulate the idea in print.
I can think of only one other time when a baseball player came up with a new theory for baseball analysts to think their teeth into, and that was when Sean Burroughs argued that among left-handed hitters, guys who also throw left-handed tend to develop power earlier (think Ken Griffey Jr.) than guys who throw right-handed (think George Brett.) The problem with Burroughs’ hypothesis was that the evidence to support it was minimal, as I discovered in this column. (The best evidence that his theory was wrong, unfortunately, turned out to be his own career.)
Bannister, on the other hand, turns out to be right, or at least partially right. It’s true that a pitcher could lower his BABIP by getting into more favorable counts (i.e. throwing more strikes) – but it turns out the effect is quite small, on the order of five to ten points at most.
And this is important, because Bannister owes much of his success last year to his own BABIP, which at just .262 was one of the lowest marks in the majors. (I believe it was the lowest mark of any qualifying starter, though I can't confirm that.) I have no doubt that Bannister has the ability to get the most out of his ability, as it were. But I refuse to believe that he can sustain a BABIP that low, for the simple reason that no pitcher in the history of baseball has sustained a BABIP that low relative to his league and team defense.
So we arrive at an impasse. As Bob Dutton put it recently, “There is a certain irony to it. The Royals pitcher most likely to understand the reams of quantitative analysis so dear to baseball’s burgeoning sabermetric community is the pitcher whose future draws so little love from its conclusions.” Those conclusions are this: that a pitcher who strikes out just 4.2 men per nine innings, as Bannister did last year, can not succeed consistently unless he does one of two things: he has impeccable control, or he is an extreme groundball pitcher who rarely gets nicked by the home run. If you have the first, you can be Carlos Silva; if you’re the second, you can be Scott Erickson. (If you’re both, you can be Dan Quisenberry.)
Bannister is neither. He walked 44 batters in 165 innings last year, which is very good but not in the Silva category. More worrisome, he’s actually a little more flyball-prone than the average pitcher; his career groundball/flyball ratio is 1.06, while the major-league average is around 1.20.
So I maintain that if Bannister pitches like he did last year, his effectiveness will almost certainly diminish in the long-run, and he’ll be hard-pressed to maintain even a league-average ERA.
But there’s the rub: if Bannister pitches like he did last year. Bannister’s pitching acumen will not allow him to maintain a .262 BABIP, or anything close to that. But it will allow him to improve in those areas where a pitcher really does have control of his destiny: his ability to limit walks and homers while striking out more batters.
In all the talk about how Bannister is a finesse pitcher because he didn’t strike anyone out as a rookie, what’s lost is that, in the minor leagues, his strikeout rates were far better than average. In 2004, he struck out 134 batters in 154 innings; in 2005 it was 142 Ks in 154 IP, including more than a man per inning (48 Ks in 45 IP) at the Triple-A level. For his minor league career he had 365 strikeouts in 417 innings, or 7.88 per nine. That’s not Dwight Gooden, but it’s not Jeff Ballard either.
And that’s why, while I’m a little leery of Bannister in the short term, I’m confident that he can make the adjustments to continue being an above-average starting pitcher in the long term. Put it this way: let’s say that Bannister can’t keep his BABIP at .262, but has the ability to keep his BABIP at .290, about 10 points better than league average. In that case, if his strikeout rate rises from 4.2 per nine innings to 7.04 per nine innings, he will surrender the exact same number of hits that he did last season.
The question is, can he do that? Most pitchers increase their strikeout rates in their second full season, but a leap of that magnitude is rare. On the other hands, Bannister’s strikeout rate last season appears almost as flukish – given his minor league resume – as his BABIP was. I don’t think he’s going to strike out 7 men per nine innings, but 6 or 6.5 is not unreasonable. Combine that with excellent control and even an average strikeout rate, and you’ve got yourself a heck of a #3 starter.
Brian, if you’re reading this, just remember that the numbers aren’t saying you can’t remain effective. What they’re saying is that you can’t remain effective the same way. So while your efforts to keep your BABIP at a low level are laudable, focusing your efforts on getting more strikeouts is going to yield a lot more bang for your buck.