It had to happen sooner or later. All those new-wave statistics that are taking baseball far beyond earned-run average, runs batted in and...
It had to happen sooner or later.
All those new-wave statistics that are taking baseball far beyond earned-run average, runs batted in and batting average. All the cutting-edge research into what really is meaningful — and what isn’t — in judging player performances. The entire analytical revolution being waged on computers, and increasingly, in front offices around the country.
Inevitably, it had to reach the eyes, and ears, and brain, of a real live major-leaguer. A person who had the capacity to absorb it all, the open-mindedness to realize its potential, and the imagination to make it work for him.
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And that person is 27-year-old Brian Bannister, pitcher for the Kansas City Royals and son of a Seattle baseball legend, former major-league pitcher Floyd Bannister out of Burien’s Kennedy High School.
When the Royals were in Seattle this past week, I asked Bannister how familiar he was with such esoteric terms (in the mainstream, at least) as BABIP (batting average on balls in play) and VORP (value over replacement player). He rolled his eyes, as if I had just asked him two plus two.
“It’s like the ‘Good Will Hunting’ line — ‘This stuff is so easy to me,’ ” he said, but not in a boastful fashion.
Bannister is well beyond the rudimentary stage of study. Ask him how deeply he has delved into statistical analysis, and he says, “Oh, as deep as anybody. I’ve gone as deep as you could go, so far.”
If there’s a Web site or book that presents some provocative new way of looking at baseball and its numbers, chances are strong Bannister has checked it out.
“What it has stirred up is really fun,” he said. “Because here’s a whole group of baseball fans that were kind of outcasts, or ignored, or everyone said they were crazy.
“The truth is coming out that they have some interesting things to say. If I can bridge that gap a little bit, I’m happy to do that.”
Trust me, this is not the prevailing point of view in the clubhouse. More typical is the response of Willie McGee, whom I covered in the early 1990s. I once asked Willie, then with the Giants, about some statistical anomaly in his résumé — an uncommonly high average in day games, if I recall.
“I don’t know about that,” he said dismissively. “I ain’t no Bob James.”
It’s Bill James, patron saint of sabermetrics, as baseball statistical analysis is called, but you get the point.
Bannister might just be the most cerebral man in baseball right now. He’s certainly one of the hottest pitchers. He started out the season with a 3-0 record and 0.86 ERA in his first three starts before losing to the A’s on Friday in Oakland.
Bannister, a cum laude graduate of USC, realized quickly that lacking the overpowering stuff that made his father the No. 1 overall pick in the 1976 draft by the Houston Astros (still the only Washington state player to achieve that status), he needed every edge he could get.
While in the Mets organization, Bannister was introduced to sabermetrics by pitching coach Rick Peterson. It clicked instantly.
“I appreciate all the guys who publish that material, because it kind of inspired me to realize there’s more to the game than just the box score in the paper,” Bannister said. “I just try to use it to see how I can make myself a better player.
“I take the stats out there, and I make my own stats. Most guys are using them for the purpose of projection. I’m using them for the purpose of changing the future projections. I want to find my weaknesses and find which stats will help me do that, and change my pitching style accordingly.”
Now here’s the rub: Bannister’s style is such that stats analysts will tell you he is due for a fall in 2008. And he knows exactly why. His goal this year — utterly successful so far — is to defy his own expected demise.
After the Royals picked him up last year from the Mets by trading 100 mph reliever Ambiorix Burgos, Bannister went 12-9 for the last-place Royals with a 3.87 ERA (but Bannister will be happy to explain how inefficient a measurement ERA is).
His success was built on a foundation that sabermetrics shows to be unsustainable. Bannister had just 77 strikeouts in 165 innings, and just 42.5 percent of balls hit against him were on the ground. But most ominously, his BABIP (by opposing hitters) was .264, third-lowest in the majors.
Now, that might seem like a good thing, but as Bannister is well aware, BABIP has been proven to be a random thing. That is part of the groundbreaking work done by a man named Voros McCracken, who pioneered in the early 2000s a body of work called Defense Independent Pitching Statistics.
McCracken surmised that pitchers could control strikeouts, walks and home runs allowed, but once the ball was put in play, any number of factors outside pitchers’ domain made the ensuing result out of their control.
While fellow sabermetricians were initially dubious, no less an authority than James eventually conceded that McCracken’s hypothesis was correct. Further number-crunching has determined that the average BABIP is about .303, and it is not much different, over time, against great pitchers and poor ones.
Bannister said he met McCracken in spring training.
“It’s just fun to see how baseball fans are contributing to the success and development of baseball,” Bannister said.
Ah, but McCracken’s studies were an alarm bell to Bannister, because they would seem to indicate that his .264 BABIP was so absurdly low last year that he is destined to regress to the mean. In other words, he just got lucky last year.
Bannister’s response was to dig deeper into the numbers. He discovered that hitters last year had just one hit in 44 at-bats when he got ahead in the count 0-2, and were 3 for 53 in his career. He went so far, in an interview with the Web site mlbtraderumors.com, to break down the batting average and slugging percentage against him on fastballs and curve balls (much, much lower on the latter).
So part of his solution to conquering the BABIP monster is to stay ahead in the count and pound opponents with curveballs.
Asked whether he had any kindred spirits in baseball who are as heavily into stats as he is, Bannister laughed and said, “No, because people are more talented than me. It helps to throw about 90 mph.”
Like, for instance, Floyd Bannister, who won 134 games in his career and played in the All-Star Game at the Kingdome in 1982.
“I had a pretty strong arm coming up through high school and college, and I took it up through the ranks,” Floyd Bannister said from Phoenix in a phone interview. “Brian was not that big, and he didn’t throw that hard. He had to learn to pitch.”
And he’s still learning. By every means at his disposal.