Brian Bannister’s new approach

Brian Bannister, a right-handed starter for the Kansas City Royals, revealed the key to his recent success: PITCHf/x. Bannister has studied the data, after a demotion to Triple-A, and found out he already had the tools to succeed, if he put them together the right way. In a recent interview with a Kansas City sports radio station (810 WHB), Bannister spent nearly 10 minutes talking about PITCHf/x and how he uses it.

The interview

You can listen to or download the interview in a new window. One comment at Tom Tango’s blog included a brief transcription of a key piece of the interview:

I know how the numbers work. I know how OBP works. I know all the numbers that will never be printed in the newspaper. They’re slowly working their way on to major league scoreboards. But, how the game really works, it’s not what you see out there, and it’s not about short term emotions in games. It’s numbers behind numbers… it’s how the game works.

I’ve sold out to those numbers, and I’ve finally found a way, and by throwing that cutter 60 times a game to get the hitters to consistently hit the top half of the ball, and its the difference between being a 5.70 ERA guy and a 3.70 ERA guy.

Here are some of my takeaways from the podcasted interview:

{exp:list_maker}Stopped relying on a rising four-seam fastball since the side effect of trying for more strike outs was a high flyball rate
Went to a cutter that that moves like a Derek Lowe fastball in terms of rise and gets more grounders
Throws a power change than sinks like Brandon Webb‘s fastball; grip is from James Shields
Was discouraged from featuring a cutter due to the lack of righties who rely on cutters in big league rotations
Figured his cutter was fast enough, just a “couple” mph less than his fastball
No longer watches video or reads scouting reports; believes in the law of averages (a good sinker will be hit on the ground by anyone)
Knows an ERA+ around 100 and 180 innings a year equals a pitcher with value to big league teams{/exp:list_maker}

By studying the “numbers behind the numbers,” Bannister has discovered a technique that should make him a solid starter for years to come. Naturally, I want to look at the numbers myself and see what he’s doing with my own eyes.

His stuff

First step was to classify Bannister’s pitches. I stuck with 2009, although I can go back to 2007 and 2008. And, well, I did. I won’t go into detail, but Bannister did indeed throw lots of four-seam fastballs, and even two-seam sinkers. His slider has been shelved (I found four in one start in May, that’s all).

What I found for 2009 was pretty much what I expected. A four-seam fastball (F4), a change-up (CH) that is not much “change” in terms of velocity, the cutter (FC), a curveball (CU) and the aforementioned slider (SL).

Type # vs LHH vs RHH MPH PFX_X PFX_Z DEG RPM
CH 281 179 102 86.0 -7.7 1.9 255.5 1,554.3
CU 162 93 69 75.2 4.4 -7.9 29.2 1,521.0
F4 280 158 122 90.3 -2.5 9.1 195.5 1,927.9
FC 918 473 445 87.6 0.5 5.3 173.4 1,081.8
SL 4 2 2 85.1 2.7 1.4 118.1 581.9

Here’s what that all looks like in a spin movement chart. From the catcher’s view, measured in inches, it shows the movement of the pitch caused by spin. The vertical component is a reflection of the back- or top-spin on the pitch. A zero on either axis (pfx_x, pfx_z) would be the same as a pitch only affected by gravity.

Click to enlarge.
Key: Blue (CH) Yellow (F4) Green (FC) Coral (CU) Black (SL)

image

These flight paths may be more intuitive, you know, if you’re not a PITCHf/x nerd like Bannister.

image

image

Reading the tea leaves, I like Bannister’s release points. He seems to come more over the top with the fastball and curveball, thereby maximizing the back- and top-spin effect he’s going for. That rising fastball and sinking curveball may not be his favorite pitches, but he may be eking out every last bit he can from them.

Checking Bannister’s work

Well, Mr. Bannister, you are doing what you said you are doing.

Indeed, the man is throwing tons of cutters.

image

Bannister described the power change as an extreme ground ball pitch, his cutter as a mediocre ground ball pitch, and his fastball as an extreme fly ball pitch.

image

Check, check and check.

How do the pitches measure up against Bannister’s own benchmarks. He compared his change-up to Webb’s sinker, and his cutter (in some regards) to Lowe’s.

Webb sinker Lowe sinker Banny’s power change Banny’s cutter
GB% 67% 64% 69% 47%
MPH 89 90 86 88
pfx_x -9.2 -9.2 -7.7 0.5
pfx_z 1.5 3.7 1.9 5.3
SLGCON 0.377 0.461 0.255 0.479

The numbers speak for themselves. While he’s not an elite, front of the rotation (when healthy) starter, Bannister has wisely applied things he’s learned from guys who are elite. It was mentioned in Tom Tango’s thread that Bannister would make a great broadcaster or pitching coach. I agree, but I get the feeling we’re going to being waiting several years before he’s ready for his next career.

References & Resources
Thanks to “Nick” for the transcription.
PITCHf/x data from MLBAM’s Gameday
Pitch classifications by the author

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Comments

  1. Dave Allen said...

    Great read Harry.  And that is an incredible interview.  My favorite part is how he understands he is at bet a league average pitcher, but that provides a lot of value anyway.

  2. behindthepen said...

    I took a look at Banny when he faced the Sox a couple of weeks ago.
    What strikes me most about what he’s doing now, is that he is throwing those 4 different pitches at any given time, and he keeps them in the zone, which he can do because the batter is probably having a hard time figuring out which is which.  He doesn’t have overpowering stuff but he’s “wild in the zone” in that the batter may know it’s going to be a strike, but it’s probably impossible to read the break.
    The added benefit is that while he’s not trying to get K’s, his K rate is still above his career average.

  3. sean said...

    i agree with the other commenters here.  it’s great to see a baseball player take a look at the scouting tools/data that are available out there today and not only NOT disparage the “stat geeks”, but use it to his (money-making and competitive) advantage.  he knows that he’s never going to be a phenom like tim lincecum, so it seems like he’s intent optimizing the talent he does have.  and realizes that being a 100 era+ pitcher has a bunch of value if he can pile up innings.

    i’m a tigers fan, but i will root for bannister succeed because he gets it.  he’s a smart guy and willing to use every available tool to improve his pitching.

    hopefully he becomes a broadcaster after he retires, because it certainly seems like he could provide just a TON of insight to those of us who aren’t out there playing the game every day.

  4. Steve C said...

    I wonder if Poz has stopped smiling yet?

    I was looking at the run values on Fangraphs the other day and noticed that his FB and CU are the only two pitches showing a positive run value.  What is being classified as a FC and SL there have a negative effect.  The possibility exists for Banny to go another step and attempt to figure out what he is doing differently on the pitches classified as FC and SL to make them come out more like his FB.

    Another area that could show improvement for him is adjusting his approach for lefties and righties.  I can’t remember which but it seems to me that he should be favoring the CU to one and the CH to the other.  He does quite well against righties as it is now though.

    One last thing about Banny and Pitch/FX.  We finally have a pitcher that may log where he is trying to throw the ball and P/FX is recording where it actually wound up.  That could be some pretty powerful stuff.

  5. Andy said...

    Oh my God I’m in love with Brian Bannister. Instead of trading him away, the Mets should’ve introduced him to Maine and Ollie Perez. And I’m stunned a team as backwards-thinking as the Royals can have someone like Bannister, who clearly lives in his mother’s basement, on their team.

  6. Harry Pavlidis said...

    FG is using the raw pitch classifications from Gameday. Using my own classifications (and inverting the values since FG uses positive RV as “good for pitchers” instead of the negative/actual value)

    Cutter 0.647
    Fastball 0.609
    Change 2.901
    Curveball -0.994

    He only threw four sliders, but those were worth more than 5 runs per 100 pitches, as if that means anything at all.

  7. James said...

    The new market inefficiency:

    Taking players with the “tools” and making them change their approach according to the numbers.

    It’s likely that plenty of big-league players have the tools to be average to above average performers, but aren’t deploying them in a maximally productive way.

    I love this!

  8. Sky Kalkman said...

    Great article.  One thing I wonder is if we have enough performance data to really know if Banny will be effective going forward.

    Also, will everybody be throwing a cutter in two years?  Is it really that easy?  Was Mo just ahead of the curve?  Given that the pitch is so straight, why is it so effective?  Will it be less effective as hitters see more of them?

  9. Harry Pavlidis said...

    The cutter/sinker combo is tough to beat. For example, in a game I’d rather forget, in the 2008 playoffs against the Dodgers, Carlos Zambrano was working both sides of the plate with both pitches. It was fantastic. The defense behind him was another story.

  10. Matt Lentzner said...

    “Power” Change huh? Kind of a contradiction in terms if you ask me. IMHO, it’s a sinker, plain and simple at only 4mph off his fastball speed. I’m dying to know what grip he is using.

    I wonder if the novelty of the cutter is going to wear off after a couple more years. If Bannister is smart he will continue to monitor his PITCHfx stats and continually adjust his approach.

    Anyway, great article Harry. There’s obviously an unexplored land of statistical scouting/coaching out there.

  11. Alex Krolewski said...

    Bannister’s getting a lot more popups on his four-seamer than on any of his other pitches.  Do the fly balls hit off his four seamer have a lower BABIP than fly balls hit off his other pitches?  That is, are some of the fly balls just long pop ups that made it to the outfield?

  12. Nick Steiner said...

    You’re welcome Harry.

    Great article anyways.  I wonder if Bannister is taking the “averages” *too* far?  Some guys will definitely hit better against cutters than 4seamers and so on. 

    It seems seems like by pitching to the averages, he is essentially giving up on being anything more than an average pitcher.  And while that is okay for him, a league average pitcher is somewhat valuable, he probably has the potential to be better.

  13. Harry Pavlidis said...

    Kyle, any thoughts on the Shields video?

    Alex, that’s a good question, or two. I can look at both, to some extent. I’m looking at the hitf/x data for Banny now, and it has 41 BIP.

    In descending order of vertical launch angle
    (type, result, angle, sob)
    Pop, F2, 86, 76
    Pop, F2, 77, 86
    Pop, F6, 54, 88
    Pop, F6, 51, 71
    Fly, F8, 50, 79
    Fly, F7, 45, 93
    Fly, F7, 44, 96
    Fly, F8, 43, 94
    Fly, F7, 43, 94
    Fly, F8, 39, 92

    and so on until 24 degrees. THen it jumps to 11 degrees and line drives, and then grounders around 6 (there is a small overlap). No hits on pops or flies in this data, by any definition. I’ll see what the gameday batted ball types say about Banny, too.

  14. Dave Allen said...

    Harry,

    FanGraphs actually uses the BIS classifications to calculate pitch values, not the Gameday classifications.

  15. qqqqqqqq said...

    It’s nice to see that Bannister is benefiting from PITCHf/x. Another outcome might be that he can see what is wrong, but is powerless to fix it.

  16. Victor said...

    Maddux was known for his pronated cutter.  Roy Halladay basically just throws Cutters, 2 Seams, and Curveballs now.  Remember when he was a 4 seam, hammer knucklecurve guy?

    Seems like there’s plenty of successful cutter + 2 seam pitchers (or pseudo 2 seam with his power change in Banny’s case) so I don’t understand why scouts would discourage Bannister to throw the cutter.

  17. dan said...

    John Danks also picked up a cutter last season and had a great year. Phil Hughes has a had a lot of success since he started throwing it late last season. Anecdotes, I know, but it has seemed to work. But of course, the only guys who throw it are the ones who are able to throw it well, so you rarely see a guy start throwing a “bad” cutter .

  18. Mike said...

    Great article.  I love how being good at math – or really, just actually CARING about the math – is going to allow this guy to pitch for probably 5 to 10 more years than he otherwise would have, and will end up earning him $50 million more than he would have made if he continued to stick to his prior philosophy and was a 5.00+ ERA pitcher.

  19. garik16 said...

    I posted this on the Book Blog,but figured I’d like to post it here as well to get everyone’s thoughts:

    Here’s a question here.

    Bannister describes his change up as a power change…but his comparison is to Brandon Webb’s FASTBALL (err sinker).

    And the comparison checks out in pretty much all areas…INCLUDING SPEED (mph).

    So why bother with the cutter as a primary pitch….why not switch the regular full time pitch to the change up?

    It acts like a sinker (fastball), why not throw it as one?

    Wouldn’t that result in a HIGHER ground ball rate and thus a more successful Bannister?

  20. Sky Kalkman said...

    So, will everyone start throwing the cutter?  I mean, Bannister didn’t seem to be able to throw the other pitches very well, but he can succeed with the cutter.  Is that because it’s a personal strength or just a great pitch?  What if Johan Santana started throwing a cutter?  (Pardon me if he already does.)

  21. Mike in Houston said...

    Probably not a good idea of letting the cat out of the bag. Good hitters who pay attention and good hitting coaches are going to have their guys looking for the cutter exclusively and the element of surprise will be gone. Only 1 guy with a cutter good enough to tell you it’s coming and you still can’t hit it. Let us see how he finishes the season and how the cutter responds in terms of success now.

  22. Steve said...

    I love the Bannister math stories that come up at least once a year. Keep it up.

    Another person who picked up a cutter lately is Dan Haren.  I don’t think he’ll have a second half slump this year now that he’s throwing it a lot this year.

    Rivera’s cutter is basically unhittable even if you know it’s coming.
    Same thing for Hoffman’s changeup. 
    I’d be interested to see if Bannister could find a way to add more movement to either of these two pitches of his.

    The thing about the slider that seems to come up is the amount of damage it does to the pitcher’s arm, and unless you have one like Brad Lidge’s that’s complemented by a great fastball, it’s generally less effective. 
    Still, I wonder what Bannister things about pitches like Lidge’s slider that get high swing and miss rates.

    I also noticed Jamie Moyer dropped his slider last year, throws more changeups and pitched much better than a man his age should.

    Another pitch worth noting is the splitter (Clemens picked it up later in his career).

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