Monday, March 24, 2008

Brian Bannister: SABR Pitcher

I have to say that I honestly did want the O's to trade for Brian Bannister when he was with the Mets (as far back as 2005, when he was still in the minors). He had good control (2.3 BB/9) and could strike some people out (8.3 K/9) while not giving up too many HR (0.6 HR/9). From what I had heard, his "stuff" wasn't that great, but he seemed to be able to pitch. He spent a little bit of time in the majors in 2006 with New York and was able to post a 102 ERA+ even with too many walks (5.2 BB/9) and few strike-outs (4.5 K/9) by still limiting home runs pretty well (0.9 HR/9) and not giving up too many hits (8.1 H/9). His BABIP was a low 0.242, which was a bit concerning.

After being acquired in a trade by Kansas City for reliever Ambiorix Burgos, Bannister posted a 121 ERA+ in his rookie season. He got the walks down (2.4 BB/9) but the strike-outs dropped further (4.2 K/9) while the home runs and hits stayed about the same (0.82 HR/9 and 8.5 H/9). His BABIP was 0.262 (lowest in the league), which implies that he was once again lucky, but is Bannister due for a big regression?

There are really two issues with his performance: the low strike-out rate and the low hit rate.

The low strike-out rate is explained by Bannister himself - “I know how to strike people out. I just save that for when I need it. I’m purposely NOT trying to strike people out when there’s nobody on base. I want them to hit it.” I have one issue with this at first glance, and it's that a lot of "contact and control" pitchers say this same thing, but that doesn't necessarily make them more effective. I decided to see if his starts actually back up his claim by looking at when his strike-outs occurred. Since 77 was too many to look at individually, I decided to break them down by situation. I went through all of his game logs for 2007 and kept track of how many men were on base and the number of outs before each strike-out (except for one - I missed one somewhere and I'm not going through it again). With no men on he recorded 18-13-10 (0, 1, and 2 outs). With a runner on first it was 4-5-13; runner on second: 2-0-4; runner on third: 0; runners on first and second: 0-0-3; runners on first and third: 0-1-1; runners on second and third: 0; and with the bases loaded: 0-1-1. Though I didn't keep track of how many of each situation there was overall, that about 82% of his strike-outs came in the lowest pressure situations (none on, or a runner on first) whereas there were very few when it would have been most useful.

[Edit: After I did this I found a place that actually has the splits in different game situations, which I used for the next part.]

I didn't like the idea of basing my conclusion (even though I stated that it wasn't a sure thing) on just his own data without any points of reference, so I decided to check the strike-outs of another rookie right-hander who has pretty good control, a not so great K rate, and gave up less hits than he should have - Jeremy Guthrie. I looked at their strike-outs per plate appearance in different game situations. Then I divided that rate by their overall rate so that we're comparing apples to apples (even if it's Granny Smith to Fuji, or whatever). With runners in scoring position (second and/or third) Guthrie K'ed at 95% of his usual rate, while Bannister was at 80%. With RISP and 2 outs it was 115% - 128%; men on at all: 102 - 123; late and close (Late & Close are PA in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.): 86 - 52; tie game: 100 - 52; one run difference: 107 - 120; two run difference: 88 - 112; three run difference: 100 - 138; four run difference: 122 - 207; more than four runs: 61 - 129; and with no men on base: 98 - 100.

What does this all mean? Well, while Guthrie's adjusted K/PA stayed about the same when the score differential was less than four - dropping only for >4, but that was in a small number of PA (he just couldn't catch a break, score-wise - more on this later) Bannister's adjusted K/PA was lowest when the game was tied, and highest when the score differential was large. He did strike guys out better when there were runners on the bases, (but not in scoring position - except with two outs). Guthrie was pretty consistent all of the time, but it seems that Bannister actually may try to strike guys out more in certain situations; those that don't appear to depend on the score. This seems a bit odd, as with a larger lead a pitcher should "go after" hitters more in an effort to reduce pitch count, as a solo home run won't make too much difference. Since Bannister's "stuff" isn't that great, if he goes after hitters more that should result in more balls in play - not more strike-outs. I don't buy into the statement that Bannister could substantially increase his strike-out rate if he wanted to. It may go up some, but I doubt to becomes even league average. Some guys with good control have good strike-out rates in the minors, but that doesn't translate to the majors because hitters are more patient and their "stuff" is quite as good, relatively speaking. Could he K six per nine? Sure. He doesn't have to to be effective, but it wouldn't hurt.

In part of his interview with MLBTradeRumors, Bannister said that the low BABIP isn't all luck because "so far... 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, & I’ll take those odds." This claim was researched by Mike Fast and he found that for 2007, Bannister actually pitched in favorable counts (0-2, 1-2, 2-2) 63% of the time, while the league average is 66%. He does pitch less often in bad counts (3-0, 3-1, 2-1), which outweighed the other counts by a little bit, but not enough to explain how he gave up less runs than he should have. Not only did he not pitch in good counts more often, he didn't induce batters to put the play in play when he had those counts more often. He went on to look at how batters handled each of Bannister's pitches and what happened to those balls that should have been hits. It seems Brian was able to get right-handed batters to ground his fastball to the shortstop (excellent defender Tony Pena Jr.) more than normal (so the BABIP in that situation was lower than expected) and that he may have been a bit lucky with the curveball as some line drives turned into fly balls. I would have to say that while Bannister can be an effective major league pitcher, I have a hard time seeing that happening if he repeats his performance from 2007. Either the K/9 has to go up or the BB/9 has to go down (though there isn't too much room for that) because the hits and a few home runs should show up that weren't there before.

I certainly hope that he is successful, because it is extremely pleasant to hear that an actual player looks over the advanced stats in this manner. At the very least, he should make one hell of a pitching coach one day.

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