Thursday, April 3, 2008

Profile - Brian Bannister

Brian Bannister is getting a lot of publicity lately. This post by Joe Posnanski provides a good overview of why Bannister is a good player to root for. The short version is that Bannister does not have overwhelming "stuff" and has dedicated himself to studying statistics to find any edge he can to succeed. And he has found success at the major league level.

Brian is the son of former major league pitcher Floyd Bannister and presumably grew up around major league baseball. He was undrafted out of high school and went to USC. His Sophmore year at USC he put up decent numbers out of the pen, with a 2.83 ERA in 54 IP. Brian had elbow surgery the following season, which he red-shirted, but was drafted by the Red Sox in the 45th round anyway. He returned to school instead and put up sub-par numbers his Junior year (2003). He went 6-5 with a 4.53 ERA in 93.1 IP; his WHIP was 1.38 and his K/9 were only 5.4

The Mets drafted him in the 7th round after that season anyway, apparently believing that Brian's struggles were only due to his recovery from surgery. This time Brian signed and joined the Mets Brooklyn affiliate immediately and was successful, with a 2.15 ERA over his first 46 professional innings.

The following season, 2004, Brian started the year at Port St. Lucie, the Mets advanced A level club. Brian threw 110.1 innings with a 4.32 ERA at Port St. Lucie and was very stingy with the free passes, walking only 27 against 107 strikouts (that's a 2.20 BB/9 and a 8.65 K/9). He was promoted to AA Binghamton for his final 44.1 innings of the season and while his ERA improved slightly (to 4.06), his rate stats did not. His BB/9 increased to 3.45, his K/9 lowered to 5.68 and his WHIP rose to 1.40.

At 24 years old, he started the 2005 season back at Binghamton and dominated. He logged 109 innings and his ERA was only 2.56. His rate stats went back to the levels he had attained in Port St. Lucie, with a BB/9 of 2.23 and a K/9 of 7.76. The strikeout rate is what held Bannister back from ever being considered a top prospect. Regardless of minor league ERA or other measures of success, the K rate is viewed as being the best indicator of future success in the major leagues (and statistical studies have proven this to be true).

Nevertheless, the Mets promoted Bannister mid-year to their AAA affiliate at Norfolk and continued to impress. In his 45.1 innings he had a 3.45 ERA and improved his K/9 rate to 9.53, while keeping his BB/9 rate at 2.58 (although his WHIP jumped to 1.35). Brian was named the Mets Minor League Player of the Year for 2005.

2006 was an up and down year for Brian. On the down side, he was placed on the 60-day disabled list with a hamstring problem, which limited him to only 80.1 innings pitched the whole season. On the up side, however, Brian made his big league debut for the Mets early in the season and after rehabbing at Port St. Lucie and Norfolk, he stuck with the Mets for the rest of the season. His rehab stats were very similar to his previous minor league stats, but he struggled a little in the majors. While he had a 2-1 record with a 4.26 ERA over 38 innings, his BB/9 was 5.21 and his K/9 was only 4.50 and his WHIP was up to 1.47.

Scouts and statistical analysts alike believed (and many still believe) that Brian lacked the "stuff" to consistently get major league hitters out and considered him a marginal starter for the back of a rotation at best. Brian very rarely breaks 90 mph with his fastball, sitting at 86-88 usually - according to Josh Kalk's Pitch f/x database, the initial speed of Brian's fastball averages 89.48 mph. He throws curves, sliders and changeups in addition to his fastball, with a slight preference for the slider (19.89%), but he mixes in the curve and changeup at good rates also (13.98% and 12.98% respectively).

Prior to the 2007 season the Mets traded Brian to the Royals in exchange for Ambiorix Burgos, a flamethrowing reliever that had worn out his welcome in Kansas City with his lack of control. Burgos is quite likely Bannister's complete opposite as a pitcher. Bannister made 27 starts for the Royals and posted a 3.87 ERA in 165 innings. His walk rate stayed low (BB/9 of 2.4) but his K/9 was also low, at 4.20. Bannister's BABIP (that's batting average on balls in play - which is often used to determine how 'lucky' a pitcher is because BABIP has been shown to be something largely out of the pitcher's control so if a pitcher's BABIP is significantly higher or lower than the MLB average - last year the MLB average was just over .300 - then they have been 'lucky' to the extent that they differ) last season was .266, which he has acknowledged as a key to his success. In fact, Brian spoke at length about his low BABIP last year. He also said (in the Posnanski blog linked above) that he believes he will need to decrease his walk rate slightly and increase his k rate slightly to compensate for the expected increase in BABIP (statistically: regression to the mean).

Walking fewer hitters will certainly be difficult, as his BB/9 last year was already excellent, but I suppose it is possible - 21 pitchers posted better BB/9 than Bannister last season (the lowest was Greg Maddux at 1.14). Striking out more hitters seems like a more attainable goal, though. He will almost certainly never get back to his minor league rates, but if he could just get to league average he should be able to retain his success of 2007 and then some. So far in 2008 he's off to a good start (BB/9: 0.0; K/9: 5.14).

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