Continuing with the acclaimed series, Caucasian Darlings of the Blogosphere, this week we’ll take a closer look at Brian Bannister of the Kansas City Royals. Many of you White Sox fans probably remember Bannister’s father, Floyd, who went 50–49 for the South Siders from 1983 to 1986. Both father and son are starting pitchers who are a shade over six feet tall and around 200 lbs, but that’s where their similarities on the diamond end. The elder Bannister was a left-handed power pitcher who led the league in strikeouts with the Seattle Mariners in 1982, while the younger is a righty induces outs with a fairly pedestrian high-80’s fastball. In fact, Brian had one of the lowest strikeout rates in the league last year, his rookie season, when he struck out just a hair over 4 batters per 9 innings pitched.
So far, nothing I’ve told you about Brian Bannister separates him from hundreds of aspiring hurlers whose natural ability leaves them a tick or two below the elite. However, Bannister put together a surprising 13-10 record in 2007 with a 3.87 ERA, and he’s off to an even better start this year, going 3-2 with a 2.48 ERA in his first five turns.
How does he do it? That’s been the topic of some print articles, but most of the attention he’s been getting during the off-season and thus far, this spring, has been from online sources. Bannister, who graduated cum laude from the School of Fine Arts at USC, is regarded as one of the most intelligent players in baseball (yes, yes, hold your laughter). He has made it no secret that he is a student of baseball statistics, and tries to use the information he garners from those stats to improve his performance. This level of exposure has also led to unwanted nuggets, such as his admission that he’s a Michael Buble fan, but you have to take the good with the bad, I guess.
The secret to his success last season, as well as this year, has been limiting the amount of hits that he gives up on batted balls (referred to as Batting Average on Balls in Play, or BABIP). This is usually regarded to be something that the pitcher has no control over, but Bannister seems to have an enduring knack for keeping his BABIP down. Last year, he had the second-lowest such mark in the American League (.264, with .300 considered average), and this year he’s even better (.230 so far). Here’s how Bannister described his strategy to keep his edge: “My explanation for why I have beat the average so far is that in my career I have been able to get a Major League hitter to put the ball in play in a 1–2 or 0-2 count 155 times, and in a 2–0 or 2-1 count 78 times. That’s twice as often in my favor, and I’ll take those odds.”
When Bannister is on, he really does get ahead in the count regularly and induces a lot of weak contact. However, one of the most exciting things about watching him pitch is being aware of how small his margin for error is because of his lack of overpowering stuff. For example, in his last start on April 24, he was cruising along with a one-hit shutout against the powerful Cleveland Indians lineup, until he took a line drive off his calf in the sixth inning. The resulting pain was enough to throw his command off just a little, and the Indians’ David Dellucci smacked a home run in the next inning (the first homer Bannister had allowed this season). After a couple more hard-hit balls, Bannister was pulled from the game, behind 2-0. The anemic Royals offense couldn’t muster anything against Cliff Lee, and that was the final score. There’s a fine line between success and failure for a major league pitcher who relies on command, and no one treads that line more closely than Bannister. A few pitches down the middle of the plate, and he can turn into Josh Fogg or Jason Marquis in a hurry.
If you have the MLB Extra Innings package, MLB.tv, or are headed to a bar tonight, and you appreciate artful pitching, check out Bannister when he pitches against the Rangers this evening. I think you’ll enjoy the experience.