I was up in Rochester this past weekend for a couple of bowling tournaments and decided to catch a Red Wings game on Saturday night. It was just going to be a night out at the ballpark, as their roster is pretty much devoid of anything resembling prospects with Plouffe and Revere up with the Twins. They do have Kyle Gibson, but he wasn't slated to start that night. Rochester was facing the Syracuse Chiefs, the Nationals AAA affiliate, likewise lacking in future stars. Both squads are basically holding areas for fringy veterans and organizational guys, so there were Gregor Blanco and Jason Repko sightings, along with an appearance by former Mets farmhand Chase Lambin. Still, it was nice to be able to sit back in a pretty nice stadium on a pleasant evening and watch a minor league game without a notebook or camera.
And then something weird happened.
Chiefs starter Tom Millone started dominating. I saw his name when I looked up the game before we left, but it wasn't one that registered with me at all. He looked like your basic AAA fringy lefty, 87-89 on the gun, kind of funky delivery, a pitch to contact kind of guy. But from the start, the Red Wings batters were just completely overmatched. He showed strong fastball command, got ahead of hitters, and then unleashed a high 70s change-up that just dropped off the face of the earth. Rochester's bats flailed meekly and unsucessfully at it, even when they had to know it was coming. I started paying closer attention around the third. The release point and arm action looked exactly the same as his fastball. Now, he started throwing the change earlier in the count, using it for first pitch strikes. Then, he started mixing in a decent little slow curve, which he also could throw for strikes, or bury in the dirt when hitters were looking for the change. Rochester batters were off balance all night, and could only manage a few weak hits against him. Milone finished the 7th inning by striking out the side, all swinging strikeouts, all on change-ups, and he was done for the night.
Okay, I kind of wish I had my notebook. When I got back to the hotel, I looked up his stats: 155 Ks against 23 BBs in 158 innings at Harrisburg last year. Dominant numbers. His nine strikout game Saturday night gave him a 44:3(!) K:BB ratio for Syracuse this year. Driving home from Rochester, the car was convinced Milone could be a mid-rotation arm in the mold of Jon Lieber. He is the type of pitcher that has to prove it at every level, but he keeps doing it.
Now I am not a scout. I can't emphasize that enough. I saw Tom Milone once, and it's entirely possible I saw him on one of his best days. (though he did have an 11 strikeout game against Durham this year) Much like I saw Brian Bannister one June day in 2005, and suddenly saw a future #3 starter, one of the rare few who could live in the upper 80s and get by on good command of multiple pitches.
I had been planning on writing about Bannister from the start, but he is going to be a bit of an anomaly in this series. He was never on any BA top 100 lists. John Sickels never rated him higher than a C+. He was a 7th round pick out of USC where he mostly pitched out of the pen and was injured for his junior year. His minor league track record, pre-2005, wasn't anything special, and by the time he broke out he was a 24 year old arm at AA. Now he's 30 years old and seemingly out of baseball, after electing not to pitch in Japan post-tsunami. But as someone who writes about prospects, Bannister is endlessly fascinating to me, because his career is one, that for me, asks a very important question. "What does a successful major league career look like?" Or, in other words, "Is Brian Bannister a member of the Mets Prospect Graveyard?"
What We Talk About When We Talk About Pitchability
As mentioned above, the Mets drafted Bannister in the 7th round of the 2003 draft. On its face, that would seem like a bit of an overdraft. Bannister had pitched two seasons out of the USC bullpen in 2000 and 2001, serving as their closer in 2001, and then missed all of 2002 after elbow surgery. The Red Sox took a late round flyer on him in the 2002 draft, but Bannister went back to school for the 2003 season. He started mostly, but was far from dominant, striking out only 56 batters in 93 1/3 innings. He was a polished college righty without swing and miss stuff, coming off elbow surgery. Not exactly a guy you look at as a future major league prospect. Except Bannister, of course, had major league bloodlines. His father, Floyd, was a starter in the bigs for many years, pitching well for various terrible Mariner and White Sox teams in the 80s.
Bannister the younger was very different from his father, a power lefty and former number one overall pick, but he got points for polish and make-up, and all the other nice things we say about pitchers without great stuff. There is something to pedigree, though, beyond just betting on genetics. You'd expect someone like Brian Bannister to have an easier time adjusting to life as a ballplayer when he has someone to call who also rode the bus for ten hours, or got knocked around one night in Fort Myers. That is no small thing.
Bannister signed quickly and was assigned to the Brooklyn Cyclones, where he put up strong numbers against NYPL batters. The periphreals are all very nice, but they are in line with what you expect to see from a 22 year old college pitcher in short season A ball. He didn't make Baseball America's Mets Top 10 Prospect List, unlike such future luminaries as Craig Brazell and Jeremy Griffiths,* or such future MPG entries like Lastings Milledge and Justin Huber. John Sickels gave him a C+ based on "his strong curveball and feel for pitching but also noting his mediocre fastball."
*And hey, someone thought Victor Diaz was going to be a second baseman at some point. That's optimistic.
Bannister started the 2004 season in St. Lucie and posted strong K and BB ratios. He was perhaps a tad more hittable than you would like to see, but he pitched well enough overall to get a late season promotion to Binghamton. Unsurprisingly, he lost a chunk of his strikeouts against higher level competition, and saw an uptick in his walk rate. His ERA remained respectable, due to very low home run rate (just 2 in 44.1), but it looked his lack of plus velocity was finally catching up to him.
Once again, after the season, Bannister failed to crack the BA Top 10, (though they did rate his slider as best in the org) and once again Sickels gave him a C+. Sickels did rank him 10th, one slot ahead of Jeff Keppinger; however, that is not exactly high praise, looking at the other names on that list.* Sickels did think he would be "a useful fifth starter or long reliever," which at this point might even have been a touch optimistic.
*Pagan, at 16th, will end up with the most career WAR. Followed by Banny, then the immortal Keppinger.
By the time I saw Bannister pitch in New Britain, he was already having a very impressive 2005 season. The strikeouts had returned, the extra walks had disappeared. On the night I saw him, he was throwing three pitches for strikes, changing speeds and hitting his spots. This continued in a late season promotion to Norfolk, where Bannister actually struck out more than a batter per inning and didn't surrender a single home run in 45 1/3 innings. There was some prospect buzz around him at this point, but Sickels stuck to his C+, (that would rank him fourth in the Mets farm system after the Lo Duca and Delgado trades) but upgraded his prognosis to "future innings eater." He also debuted on BA's list at ninth, but their rankings came before the trades. He would have ranked 6th on a post-trade list. (and he lost best slider to Alay Soler, oh well)
Bannister would make the team out of Spring Training as the fifth starter, making his debut against the Nationals.* He ended up with a no decision after Billy Wagner gave up a game tying solo shot to Ryan Zimmerman in the ninth. Bannister held the Nationals scoreless for his first five innings, though he struggled with his command, before giving up a three run home run to Nick Johnson in the sixth. Command issues continued to be the theme for his April starts. Bannister made five starts in April, going 2-0 with a nice shiny 2.89 ERA, but walked 17 against only 14 strikeouts in 28 innings.
*I had successfully blocked out the Jorge Julio appearance in this game from my memory. Emphasis on had.
In his fifth start of the year, against the Giants, Bannister strained his hamstring while scoring from second on a Kaz Matsui double. The injury kept him out for the entire first half of the year, and by the time he completed a rehab assigment, the Mets has John Maine and Oliver Perez as rotation options. Bannister made one meh start in August and made a couple of appearances out of the pen in September. In the offseason the Mets decided that Bannister wasn't in their plans and traded him to Kansas City, for current and future crazy person Ambiorix Burgos. Burgos soon after needed Tommy John surgery and then started doing horrible things. Unlike the Petit trade from our last entry, this would be one of the worst trades of the Omar Minaya era, for me, second to only the Heath Bell deal. Lack of rotation depth would be an issue in the 2007 and 2008 seasons when starts were made by such luminaries as Jason Vargas, Jorge Sosa, 2007 Mike Pelfrey, Dave Lawrence, Phil Humber, Claudio Vargas, Brandon Knight, and some guy named Socks or something. Bannister, meanwhile, was put in the Royals starting rotation for 2007.
Brian Bannister: TRUE SABR
"It’s tough because I’m a student of it, and all last year I was well aware I was among the league leaders in it," Bannister said. "But what do you do? Just because you’re continuing to get outs, do you say, ‘Oh, this shouldn’t be happening’?"
"I realize very well that I could regress to the mean."
By any traditional metric, Bannister 2007 season with the Royals was a success. He went 12-9 on a Royals team that, as it was wont to do, finished well under .500. He led the team in wins and posted a respectable 3.87 ERA, good for 16% better than league average. He even finished 3rd in the Rookie of the Year vote.
But Bannister was also lucky, and he was aware of that, as the quote above referring to his BABIP indicates. He struck out a mere 4.2 per 9, and while his control was now more in line with his minor league record, batters were still putting a lot of balls in play against him. Even if you assume BABIP should be a range of sorts, say 10-14% higher than LD%, that would still make Bannister .264 BABIP on the season an outlier. Throw in the fact that his HR/FB% was lower than average (and that he's a strong flyball pitcher) and his FIP and xFIP were a half point and a full point higher, respetively, than his ERA for the season.
While Bannister might have been aware of all this, he couldn't do much about it, as he suffered some serious regression in 2008. Although he raised his strike out rate by more than a full batter per nine, and maintained an above average walk rate, he saw his BABIP and HR/FB% spike back to more normal marks. Combined with his flyball tendencies, and some bad luck on strand rate, his ERA ballooned to 5.76 despite posting a nearly identical xFIP.
Still, Brian Bannister had a couple things going for him coming into the 2009 season. One was that he played for the Royals, who had few other starting pitching options. He was also still cost-controlled and set to make only a hair over 1.7 million. But he had to know that the leash was shortening. He was arb-eligible now and about to get expensive compared to his recent production. The Royals were beginning to build a nice farm system with some interesting arms for the future. So Bannister went back to the drawing board. If he couldn't get enough strikeouts to overcome his flyball tendencies, he decided that he needed to get more ground balls. Of course, with Yunesky Betancourt behind him in the infield, that would be kind of like picking his poison, but at least grounders wouldn't be leaving Kauffman Stadium at quite so prodigious a rate. So Bannister did what every pitcher does, he poured over years worth of Pitchf(x) data. Wait, what?
"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."
He had thrown a cutter before, but had basically abandoned it with the Royals for a standard four pitch arsenal. After delving into Pitchf(x) data, Bannister had found that the cutter was far more likely to get him groundballs than his four seam fastball. He went from throwing his fastball nearly 60 percent of the time to less than 17 percent. He also stopped throwing his slider entirely. Instead he threw a cut fastball about half the time, and threw his change-up, using a new grip, almost 20 percent of the time. It got the desired effect. Bannister's groundball rate went from 37.5% in 2008 to 49.5% in 2009. His change-up, especially, was an incredibly effective pitch. It was worth 10 runs above average in 2009, making it a top ten change-up in baseball that year. His cutter was also above average.
After completing a brilliant 7 inning start against Tampa Bay on August 2nd, (ironically, outpitching James Shields, who had shown him his new change-up grip) Bannister looked like a new pitcher. He was 7-7 with a 3.59 ERA. His new approach was paying off.
Bannister would make six more starts in 2009 after the gem against Tampa Bay. He threw 31 more innings, giving up 32 runs on 42 hits. His ERA rose to 4.73 and he was finally shut down with shoulder fatigue. Bannister said he hadn't felt right after the Tampa start, and he had suffered through some shoulder tightness earlier in the season. Still, even with the poor finish, Bannister posted the lowest FIP of his career, 4.14.
Bannister no doubt hoped to carry over his success in 2009 into the 2010 season, but that was not to be. Whether due to lingering shoulder problems or simply the league just catching up to him, Bannister was shelled. His cutter and change-up regressed and ended up as below average pitches. He tried throwing his four seamer more, and saw his groundball rate drop and his home run rate skyrocket. He did manage to hand Steven Strasburg his first major league defeat, winning a 1-0 pitcher's duel on June 23rd. But it was one of his few successful starts that season. Bannister was no doubt unlucky, as his 4.68 xFIP was more than a run and a half below his ERA, but the Royals didn't care about DIPS theory, they wanted results. Bannister was sent down to AAA in August and eventually non-tendered in the offseason before he would have entered his third year of arbitration.
A few major league teams inquired about Bannister, but he elected to play in Japan for the 2011 season. After the earthquake and tsunami, Bannister decided not to return to Japan to pitch, and, as of this entry, is out of professional baseball.
Reduced to a Stat Line, How Ironic
Bannister's career numbers:
37-50, 667.1 IP, 5.08 ERA, 4.77 FIP, 5.18 K/9, 3.02 BB/9, 1.16 HR/9, 7.2 fWAR
I think I have covered sufficiently why Bannister is currently out of baseball, but what I want to discuss now is, did he have a successful career?
Unlike Yusmeiro Petit or Phil Humber or Lastings Milledge, Bannister was never a hyped prospect. He was a C+ prospect, a 3 star guy made good. Most of those guys don't have careers. Look at the litany of C/C+ on those Mets prospect lists linked above. It's filled with guys who topped out on the AAA/MLB shuttle or didn't make the majors at all. In some ways, Bannister is a prospect only because the mid-decade Mets had no prospects. Their farm system has been ranked in the bottom half of the majors for years now, so back then we had no choice but to latch onto arms like Brian Bannister and Alay Soler, bats like Keppinger and Victor Diaz.
Bannister, though, made to the majors and lasted long enough to get a few seven figure paydays. He used every tool at his disposal to stay just good enough to be a major league pitcher. He didn't have his father's fastball or handedness, he had a weak college track record, and he had to prove it at every level of the minors. But he made it. I guess I come not to bury Brian Bannister, but to praise him.
On the fangraphs WAR leaderboard, he is surrounded by starters I'd forgotten I knew about, like Andy Hawkins, and Noah Lowry and Scott Kaminecki, and a bunch of marginal relievers who hung around for a while, or had a couple good years. Brian Bannister was not a good major league pitcher, he wasn't even an average one, but, for me, it was impossible not to root for him. He'll be a color commentator or pitching coach some day, or maybe not. He has other interests, a BFA in photography and his own photo studio, for one. Or maybe he wants to rest his shoulder for a year and try and pitch again. I'd rather watch him than Pat Misch, lord knows.
In a way, Brian Bannister is why I like writing about prospects. Don't get me wrong, it's always welcome to see a high draft pick like Ike Davis or David Wright just cut a swath of destruction through the minors and then come up and be all-stars for years and years. But there is a certain joy in watching the guys that shouldn't make it, the Brian Bannisters, the Josh Tholes, the Angel Pagans of the world figure out ways to get a better bit by bit, to go from a C+ prospect to a major league regular. They might not be guys you build championship teams around, but there is nothing wrong with being just fun to root for.
There is only one true SABR, but...
Commentor feslenraster was nice enough to do my work for me, comparing Bannister to Dillon Gee a few weeks ago. That works for me, as both were medium sized college righties without ideal velocity. Gee was actually an even later round pick, but he also didn't have the pedigree of Bannister. Gee doesn't throw his breaking pitches as much as Banny, instead using his pretty good change-up as his primary secondary offering. Gee has also, at least according to Pitchf(x), thrown a two seam fastball this year, so between that and the change-up, he gets a few more groundballs than Bannister did when he first came up. Though keep in mind, we are dealing with a very small major league sample here.
More generally, they are both polished righties without plus velocity who have a thin margin for error. They both get hit hard when they miss, and thus will struggle with their home run rate at times. Gee does have the advantage right now of pitching in pitcher friendly confines, and hasn't seen too many longballs this year, though he had home run issues in the minors. Gee gets a few more swings and misses with his change-up, but also hasn't shown Bannister's plus control. They do profile about the same in the long term, though, as 5th/6th starter types. Gee very well could have a season or two where he gets a little lucky with home runs and balls in play and posts a 3.50-3.75 ERA, and a then regress back to a 4.50-4.75 type pitcher. His home park should help him avoid a season like Bannister's 2010, but I don't know that their true talent level is all that different.
I totally would have bought a Brian Bannister Yomiuri Giants jersey.
Week of June 6th:
Blastings Thrilledge Lastings Milledge
Week of June 20th: Bill Pulsipher
Week of July 4th: Justin Huber
Other Sources and Additional Reading