Banny Log Once More

Long time readers of this blog in all of its various forms know that Brian Bannister is one of my all-time favorite people in sports. For a good while, I would do a Banny Log every time he pitched, reviewing his performance, discussing his theories about pitching and so on. It was fun. After a while, though, I stopped doing it. It was a conscious decision. I started to think I was putting too much pressure on the guy.

See, Banny’s quest to become a good big league pitcher speaks to my sentimental sports heart. Banny comes at hitters with a high-80s, low-90s fastball that has some cutting action on it. That’s his base pitch and like many league average pitches, it has its ups and downs depending on his command and where his fielders are positioned and how well the hitters are seeing the ball come out of his hand. Banny has tried to compliment that pitch with dozens of others, the most prominent of them being a four-seam fastball that he sometimes could ride up in the strike zone, a change-up that was intended to make hitters pound the ball into the ground (and often did have that effect), a curveball that Banny will tell you has never had great definition but could change the hitter’s perspective, a slider that had its up and downs and he finally gave up on, a cutter that was really like his fastball only slower, and so on and so on. Banny has been the great tinkerer, moving the numbers around on his own personal toy number slide, hoping to make them all go in order while working around that ever-present missing space.

There has always seemed to me something literary about Banny’s quest, some huge overriding theme — man trying to overcome his own limitations, man reaching for something beyond his grasp, you know, that sort of thing. It’s like Moby Dick with a seventh-inning stretch. I appreciate that not everybody feels this way. There were those, for instance, who thought the Banny Log was (in the memorable words of one emailer) “a lot of words written about a kinda crappy pitcher.” But I never saw it that way. Well, yeah, it was often a lot of words. But Banny’s quest was, and is, endlessly fascinating to me. He tinkers and analyzes and studies and plots and creates and destroys and invents and experiments — a mad scientist in the lab — all because he desperately wants to pitch in the big leagues. It’s impossible for me to watch him pitch without thinking that he is what I would be if I had any baseball talent at all.

Well, sadly, the Banny story ends in Kansas City. Last week, the Royals outrighted Banny, and Banny refused to accept the Class AAA assignment, and you really couldn’t blame either side. The Royals are loaded with bottom of the rotation guys. They picked up two more potential fourth or fifth starters last week when they dealt David DeJesus to Oakland for Vin Mazzaro and minor-leaguer Justin Marks. They go along with Luke Hochevar and Kyle Davies and Sean O’Sullivan and possibly Bruce Chen, and the Royals are loaded with pitching prospects in the minor leagues, and it’s fair to say the bottom of the rotation is filled. It’s possible that one or two of these guys will emerge and become a No. 2 to compliment Zack Greinke at top of the rotation, but that’s a different question, and in the meanwhile the Royals really didn’t have room for Banny, an arbitration-eligible pitcher who made more than $2 million last year and who has been 23-40 with a 5.58 ERA the last three years.

On the other side, Banny is turning 30 and has to believe (HAS to believe) that if he can just stay healthy, if he can find the right situation, well, he can still help a big league club. The National League, where the lineups aren’t as stacked, where the pitcher hits (Banny is a good hitter), where there are some great pitcher’s parks, yes, the National League has to look like an oasis. So he will become a free agent and try to find that oasis (San Diego, you listening?). Like I say, you can’t blame either side.

The biggest knock inside baseball circles on Banny — other than the obvious knock that he doesn’t have a dominant pitch — has been his tinkering. There are quite a few players out there who understand and consider the advanced stats, but nobody did it as publicly or as intensely as Brian. He took a lot of bleep for it. Banny has a mathematical mind. He just thinks that way. So when he had a very good rookie season in 2007 — 12-9, 3.87 ERA, third in the rookie of the year voting — he came to believe that he had simply been dealt aces all year long. He believed he had been lucky. His strikeout total was very low (77 in 165 innings), he was a fly ball pitcher who somehow didn’t give up many home runs, and hitters had an unnatural .262 average on balls hit in play. Most pitchers would not have thought much about it. Banny thought about little else. His xFIP — what is basically his estimated ERA once you take fielding and luck out of the equation — was 5.04. He wondered if (hoped?) maybe his cutting fastball, which has a different action on it from most pitches, would allow him to keep his pitching luck and keep that batting average low. He thought about numerous changes he could make to his game. He worked on many, many adjustments.

And his next season was absolutely miserable. That happened to be the season I started writing Banny Log, and I wonder if him being on a stage — even a small stage like this blog — magnified his troubles and made things worse. Banny tried all sorts of things. He tried to strike out more batters (and did — his strikeout rate jumped from 4.2 to 5.6). He tried to get more people to hit the ball on the ground — to little effect. He got off to a good start, and even by mid-June he was a league average pitcher, maybe even a touch above. He was 7-6 with a 4.47 ERA. And then the roof caved in. He made 16 more starts the rest of the year, and the Royals won only five of them. His ERA was 7.29. One game against the Yankees, he lasted one inning and allowed 10 runs. He couldn’t get out of the fourth at Minnesota. He gave up home run after home run. It was hard to watch.

He looked at each problem analytically, which is his style, but to a lot of baseball insiders his study of xFIP and PitchFX and so on did not seem quite as charming when he was struggling (to be fair, many of them did not find it charming even when he was pitching well). “Thinks too much,” became his scouting report. And, I don’t know, maybe Brian does think too much. Maybe Crash Davis was right, maybe fear and arrogance really are the secret to the game, maybe Banny would have been better off sticking with the pitches that got him his good rookie year and not worrying about those advanced numbers. Of course, I don’t think so. I think his luck just turned. When you pitch without a dominant pitch, you are pitching on the edge. Banny’s xFIP in his miserable 2008 season was actually BETTER than his xFIP in his terrific rookie season.

Anyway, I felt bad for my friend … and I started to think that maybe I was making things worse for Brian by writing about his exploits game after game. And so I stopped writing Banny Log. Brian pitched very well his first 20 starts in 2009 — he was 10-10 with a 3.59 ERA for a lousy team, which I consider pitching very well — and then wore down and got hurt and struggled the rest of the way. He did not pitch as well in 2010, though like usual he was better in the first half (7-5, 4.50 ERA through his first 12 starts) then the second half (2-10, 8.73 ERA through his last 12 games). There was an injury or three in there too. It was time for a break-up, and the Royals and Brian Bannister broke up.

There’s no telling what happens next. In addition to everything else, Brian is the son of Floyd Bannister who in many ways as a pitcher was everything his son is not. Floyd was left-handed and ludicrously gifted. He was the first pick in the draft. He led the league in strikeouts in 1987, and led the league in strikeouts per nine innings two other seasons. He threw absurdly hard and won 134 big league games over a 2,388-inning career. I’ve always been fascinated by sons and daughters who go into their famous father’s business — Mike Brown running a football team like his father Paul, Frank Sinatra Jr. going on torch-song tours, Bruce Allen trying to put together an old football team like his father George once did.

Brian has wide interests — he loves photography, movie-making, statistics, he has the makings of being a fabulous television color commentator. But I know he wants a much longer baseball career. He will go to camp for somebody, and he will face the same challenges he has been facing his whole career. His stuff is still only so-so. His body and arm tend to wear down over a long season. And when he misses by just a little bit he tends to get hit hard — there’s not even the tiniest margin there. But he’s also beaten the odds time and again. When it comes to Brian Bannister, it’s probably not best to analyze. It’s probably just best to root for the guy.

30 thoughts on “Banny Log Once More

  1. John in Philly

    I’d be happy with the Phillies giving him a shot as the 5th starter/long guy from the bullpen. I’m still not sold on Kyle Kendrick.

    Also, although I doubt I’m first at this point… circle me, Jamie Moyer

    Reply
  2. Charlie

    I remember Banny when he came up with the Mets. I liked him a lot, but it seemed like every inning he pitched the bases were loaded.Of course the Mets trade the ultimate nice guy for the wife beater Ambiorix Burgos. That’s Mets baseball!!

    Reply
  3. Anonymous

    I wish the best for Banny. I always looked forward to his starts and wished that his stuff was good enough to send Davies packing.

    However, I’ve heard that he didn’t throw his cutter most of this year due to shoulder pain. That pitch made him league average, and without surgery to fix his rotator cuff, his career is going to be much shorter than we hope.

    Reply
  4. Anonymous

    I will always root for this guy. 2008 Mother’s Day. 2 hitter. It was Baltimore, but had them off balance all day. Last game with my mom.

    Reply
  5. The Underminer

    “When it comes to Brian Bannister, it’s probably not best to analyze. It’s probably just best to root for the guy.”
    Nice.
    It is interesting to think that this is so true with some guys.
    Others, maybe Lee or Rivera, it is the other way around.
    Thanks Joe.

    Reply
  6. Anonymous

    Let him check out Dr. Mike Marshall’s site and develop an arsenal of freaky pronated pitches. If he’s a tinkerer, he might be just the guy to assimilate Doc’s theories and push MLB pitching past its current medieval state.

    Oddly enough, his career W-L percentage and ERA aren’t so very different from his dad’s, who managed to seduce countless teams into overpaying for his potential.

    Reply
  7. Anonymous

    I also think that it was time for the Royals and Bannister to part ways, but I also think that he can be a serviceable 5th starter/middle releiver/spot starter for an NL team.

    Reply
  8. Anonymous

    I too always liked Banny. Sad, in one way, to see him go because he is a great character, but I am glad that DMGM is making some good decisions at the major league level too. I wish Brian the best and hope he comes back as a pitching coach.

    Gaines

    Reply
  9. Friendly

    So long to the Royal I liked to call “the right-handed Larry Gura” (One guy up here in Montana got that). I wish he would’ve held up.

    Reply
  10. Joe

    Since he understands Sabermetrics, he should become a reliever and play for the minumum, knowing that his role is very overrated.

    Reply
  11. Thile

    Maybe it’s cardinals homerism along with being a fan of Pos and Banny by extension, but he seems like the kind of guy Duncan has worked wonders with throughout the years?

    Looks like that’s been mentioned a couple times since I’ve refreshed!

    Reply
  12. Anonymous

    In my view, if there is a park out there that can help him, it is in San Diego and if there is a coach out there who can help him, he is in St. Louis.

    Reply
  13. Ryan M

    Bobby A,

    I’m right there with you. It should be a crime to allow any child to throw right-handed. Do what I do to my (future) children and tie their right hands behind their backs for 12-15 years. Your children will thanks you for it when they get older and use their baseball wages to pay for the therapy.

    Reply
  14. Victor Laszlo, Jr.

    Banny appears to be following a Frank Pastore (http://www.baseball-reference.com/players/p/pastofr01.shtml) career storyline. Hopefully being granted parole by the Royals will lead to a more positive career conclusion.

    Thanks for the solid seven innings on September 14, 1983, Frank. Aided by Nick Esasky’s Grand Slam, the comeback win was a rare bright spot for Reds fans that season; a bonus was that it quieted the obnoxious Braves fan behind us in the Green Seats.

    Reply
  15. Kyle Richardson (Fargo)

    I love the story of Bannister because it sounds like so many of us who didn’t have the stuff to get even as far as Brian…

    I was a lefty with underwhelming stuff coming through high school, but loved to pitch… I threw two- and four-seam fastballs (not that either moved much), curveballs (at about all kinds of different speeds), knuckleballs, screwballs, palm balls, circle change-ups, splitters, etc… I pitched in amateur leagues until I was 30, always enjoying the challenge of trying to get hitters out…

    As the years have gone on, I realized that I wasn’t blessed with a great arm, long fingers to make the ball do magic stuff or any sort of movement that would miss bats… But, I loved to pitch… I loved the competition, and I loved always trying to find something else that might help me get someone out… Looking back, I was probably a nightmare to warm-up with because I was always trying new grips to get the ball to do something, anything…

    I love Banny’s story because he is what I always hoped I’d become–a big league pitcher who LOVES being there…

    God bless him and his quest… He’s an athlete we can follow and of whom we can be proud… Good luck, Brian…

    Reply
  16. Not a Banny Fan

    Isn’t it kind of an indictment of the usefulness of advanced stats for players if someone like Bannister — who supposedly rigorously follows and understands them — couldn’t use them to actually help improve his game? There are plenty of pitchers who can only throw in the low 90s like he can who are a lot better than he is.

    Besides that, he was a constant whiner. Nothing was ever his fault. He would go out and have absolutely terrible games, and somehow giving up 7 runs in 4 1/3 innings was always the result of “bad luck”, or hitters somehow absolutely crushing pitches that he threw “exactly” where he wanted..

    Reply
  17. bannister19

    I’m always glad to read Joe’s comments on Banny. He has been my favorite player since coming up with New York, and still is today. You’ll see me with the username Bannister19 all over the internet.

    With that said, I’m also a huge Royals fan, and it was disappointing to see them let him go, but it was understandable. I was hoping 2010 would be the year for Banny — and for a month or two in the first half, like every other year, it was.

    @”Not a Banny Fan”
    First of all, just because you use statistics doesn’t mean you’ll pitch good, it doesn’t mean that it worked or didn’t work. Just because I can understand them doesn’t mean I will be a successful Major League Pitcher. There are hundreds of other variables involved. The speed isn’t the only thing. It’s arm endurance, stamina, control, pitch-types, movement, etc.. things that statistics will not change. You obviously aren’t very smart if you’re judging pitchers who use statistics based off one person.

    Furthermore, when did he whine? Brian Bannister will be the first person telling you that his maximum ability will be to be a #4 or #5 pitcher on any club (as much as I still hope he becomes an ace). He will be the first to tell you how bad he has pitched in recent years. He has never called it bad luck. Actually, if you even red Joe’s article, or anything on BB in the past, Brian called his success in 2007 luck. If you followed him in 2009, he will tell you that that was the best he’s ever pitched — if you were to follow him on a game by game basis you’d see why. Not one person has ever called it bad luck. The only thing that’s disappointing is the injury he encountered especially in ’09, and on a lesser scale in ’10.

    @Anonymous
    Luis Mendoza has sucked any time he has played in the Majors, obvious. (Besides 16 innings in ’07), however, Dayton Moore’s multiple signings of him (and trust me, I HATE Luis Mendoza) was not because he pitched 16 good innings once upon a time. His “stuff” is way better than Brian Bannister’s will ever be or was. His problem, a very unsolvable problem, is his control. If you were to see that kid pitch at his best, somewhere along the lines in Independent/International or the Minors, he would make Brian Bannister look like Sidney Ponson. Now, please don’t be a tool like this other guy and just look at ERA or something. You need to actually see them pitch.

    To somebody above, I’d love to see what Duncan can do with him. McClure’s a great guy too though. A change of scenery and league should hopefully help him. I just don’t think he’ll gain a spot in St Louis’ great rotation, and I think he can gain a spot elsewhere rather than going to Memphis [AAA] (though, if he went to Memphis, I’d go see him pitch every 5 days as I’m only an hour away!!)

    In the end, I hope he finds a spot elsewhere, and I hope he shuts some haters up. No one (maybe besides myself) has ever called him an amazing pitcher or anything like that — He could put up solid numbers and innings to help a club out though. I think San Diego or hopefully Florida (I’d go see him all the time as well, and they were “very” close to acquiring him in July of ’10.)

    Reply
  18. Buchholz Surfer

    A move to the bullpen would seem to be a good idea for a guy who was a decent starter in the first half of most years but would always wear down. Maybe his fastball would be a bit quicker as a relief pitcher as well, with only a few batters to face at a time. And it’s probably easier to outwit three batters in one game than to try to fool 27 of them.

    I could see him being a solid NL middle reliever, I hope he gets a chance, ideally in a good pitcher’s ballpark.

    Reply
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