Great Lakes Royals

May 21, 2010 2:15 PM

Brian Bannister May Be Struggling With Control

Brian Bannister, for all the starts that haven't gone his way throughout his career, for all the talk about BABIPs, luck, day/night splits, GB/FB rates, strikeouts, and FIP, for all the discussions about relative value and marginal value, having stuff and not having stuff...he's found a way to synthesize everything into a package of one sort of forgettable, league-average, major league baseball pitcher.

For his career, Bannister enters tonight's start against the Colorado Rockies with a 4.67 career FIP, a 4.86 career xFIP, and a 4.81 ERA, good for a 32-41 career record, which is excellent for a Royals starter.  Zack Greinke, playing for more or less the same Royals teams, is only 51-57, and about a run per nine better than Bannister in ERA, FIP, and xFIP for his career.  Just context to show that, ironing out some of the awful pitches that go to the moon with sample size, Bannister is a professional who will get the job done in the middle of your rotation.

Historically, at least.  You might be surprised to find that Bannister is last among Royals starters in Fielding Independent Pitching, even behind Gil Meche now.  Perhaps, you might say, Bannister's simply getting unlucky?  Well, truth is, probably not.  His .280 BABIP might not necessarily regress towards the mean, but only if he continues to give up flyballs at the current rate.  Because, as Royals pitchers have found out this year, the only way that you can ensure that a ball won't find a hole in Yuniesky Betancourt's "range" is to keep the ball in the air all day.

Bannister is still getting groundballs above his career rate of 42.3%, but last year, he remade himself as a true groundball pitcher, getting GBs on 49.5% of balls in play.  In 2010, that's at 45%.  Enough to suggest that he's using the same strategy as last year, trying to get hitters to put his cutter on the ground, but it's a big enough difference to suggest that he's struggling to keep the ball down in the strike zone.  I'm not sure how reliable the Pitch F/X data is at discerning between Bannister's Cutter and his 4-seam Fastball, but if the data were 100% accurate, we would know that this year, Bannister is both throwing his cutter less, and getting hurt by it more.  He's compensated some by adding velocity to his fastball, averaging over 90 mph for the first time in his career.  Problem is, as Bannister himself has concluded, his 4-seamer is an extreme flyball pitch.  If he's not controlling his cutter for strikes, and keeping it down, he can't use it, and he's not an effective pitcher.

The Royals, as a team, are in the middle of the pack with 15 Wild Pitches thrown, and Brian Bannister is lapping the field with 5.  That's generally a control issue, though for Brian, it's not completely out of character.  He averages about 0.46 WP/9 for his career, which is up to about 0.98 for this season.  He also walks about 3 batters/9 for his career (with some variance for lineups where he nibbles and pitches around guys as a strategy), but this year, he's walking about 3.5 per nine.  If over the course of two to three starts, Bannister is throwing one more wild pitch than normal, and putting one more runner on via the walk, he's not going to be able to compensate for those control issues over the long haul without a half run increase in his ERA.  For Bannister, going from 4.7 to 5.2 runs per nine takes him from the average to replacement level.  It's a big deal.

Fortunately, while there is plenty of reason to worry about his control problems, the biggest issue with Bannister's season thus far is that he's getting smoked to the tune of a 14% HR/FB rate.  That does fit neatly into the "he's not keeping his pitches down" narrative, and that's probably part of it, but there's no way he can sustain that type of ball-leaving-park type of failure for much longer.  Bannister's 8 homers allowed are the most by the staff, and put him 13th among MLB pitchers, and 6th among American league pitchers.  It happens to the best of them.  Honestly.  It happened to Bannister two years ago, it's happening to AL Cy Young Candidate James Shields right now (9 HRs allowed), in fact, Bannister might not even lead the staff by this time next week...Zack Greinke might.  He's allowed 7 HRs in 9 starts, compared to 8 in 8 for Bannister.

Ultimately, Brian Bannister will be fine.  He's struggled more than any other Royals starter to this point, and has been about a replacement level starting pitcher in 2010.  This would be the first year that the Royals aren't starting a below replacement pitcher over the first two months of the season, so that's a big improvement of sorts.  For his career, Bannister has played out to be a good no. 3 or a no. 4, so if he ends the season as the biggest of the Royals' rotation problems, that's a pretty good pitching year, all things considered.

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