Brian Bannister Q&A, Part 3

Royals starter Brian Bannister recently answered some questions for MLBTR readers.  This post concludes the series; also check out Part 1 and Part 2 Q&A.  Brian clearly took extra time out to answer thoughtfully, and we thank him for it.

MLBTR: Since you originally went to college as a position player, how do you use your experience in the batter’s box and in the field to your advantage when you’re pitching? Playing in the AL, do you miss hitting?

Bannister: I think it is as important to know how a hitter thinks and operates as it is to be able to throw major league quality pitches. One area I have done a lot of work on is how a hitter sees a pitch, determines its speed and location, and decides whether or not to swing depending on the situation.

To me, there are three types of pitchers that can be successful in the major leagues, each for different reasons. The one thing they share in common is that they all have a deception that makes it difficult for hitters to visually predict where the ball will be when it enters the hitting zone. If you think about it, a hitter does not actually see the ball hit his bat, he loses the ball a certain distance out in front of him and has to "guess" where it will end up. This is why repetition and good eyesight are important for a hitter, and why as pitchers we don’t want to pitch in patterns. Hitters spend hours hitting off of pitching machines and BP pitchers, where there is no deception, and they are very good at it. Here are the three types of pitchers I have seen that can "deceive" Major League hitters and be successful:

1. "Late Movers" – These pitchers have the ability to make the ball move in the zone after the hitter visually loses the ball either more than the average pitcher, in a different manner than the average pitcher, or in a completely random manner altogether. These are pitchers that throw cut fastballs ("cutters", such as Mariano Rivera), sinking fastballs ("sinkers", such as Chien-Ming Wang & Fausto Carmona), split-fingered fastballs ("splitters", such as Roger Clemens, Curt Schilling, J.J. Putz & Dan Haren), knuckleballs (such as Tim Wakefield), or from an arm angle that puts more sidespin on the ball than backspin (such as Jake Peavy). If I could throw any pitch, it would be the split-fingered fastball, because the movement on it is unpredictable and is impossible to hit squarely every time. Unfortunately, it is also the most dangerous on the arm and requires large hands to take the strain off of the elbow. All these pitchers share the ability of having good "stuff", but their ball moves late in the zone more than anyone else in the game and is never straight.

2. "Risers" – These pitchers are the most exciting to watch in baseball, because they have the appearance of "blowing away" hitters. To be a "riser", you have to have exceptional lower body flexibility and be able to pitch under control with a long stride. What "risers" do that other pitchers can’t is they throw the ball on a plane with more upward tilt than average. In other words, their fastball appears to "rise" as passes through the hitting zone. What is actually happening is the hitter sees
the ball, and he predicts that it is going to be lower based on past experience than it actually is. Pitchers that have this unique ability include: Josh Beckett, Jonathan Papelbon, John Maine, Scott Kazmir, Chris Young, Pedro Martinez, and my all-time favorite in this category, Nolan Ryan.

3. "Deceivers" – These pitchers have a unique pitching motion that hides the ball longer than the average pitcher or makes it difficult for the hitter to determine the actual speed of the pitch. Most often, these pitchers are left-handed and stride across their body more than the average pitcher. Young pitchers can work on their deception by trying to keep their front shoulder closed longer, bringing their lead arm/glove in front of their release point, and making sure their throwing arm stays hidden behind the body. Pitchers that have mastered the art of deception are: Johan Santana, Tom Glavine, Erik Bedard, C.C. Sabathia, Oliver Perez, and my favorite deceiver/late mover hybrid, Greg Maddux.

After studying and watching the best pitchers in the game for years, I have come up with these three categories that I believe all good pitchers fit into. If a pitcher is not having success, despite having great "stuff" I believe it is because he is not deceiving hitters the way that the pitchers above do. Major League hitters are in the big leagues for a reason, and it is our job as pitchers to find ways to get them out. Finding out which category you naturally fit into and working hard on developing that deception is the best way for a young pitcher to be successful in the long run.

And yes, I do miss hitting.

MLBTR: Are you familiar with the Batting Average on Balls In Play (BABIP) stat?  It’s been suggested that the percentage of batted balls that drop in for hits may be largely out of a pitcher’s control.  What are your thoughts on that?

Bannister: I think a lot of fans underestimate how much time I spend working with statistics to improve my performance on the field. For those that don’t know, the typical BABIP for starting pitchers in Major League Baseball is around .300 give or take a few points. The common (and valid) argument is that over the course of a pitcher’s career, he can not control his BABIP from year-to-year (because it is random), but over a period of time it will settle into the median range of roughly .300 (the peak of the bell curve). Therefore, pitchers that have a BABIP of under .300 are due to regress in subsequent years and pitchers with a BABIP above .300 should see some improvement (assuming they are a Major League Average pitcher).

Because I don’t have enough of a sample size yet (service time), I don’t claim to be able to beat the .300 average year in and year out at the Major League level. However, I also don’t feel that every pitcher is hopelessly bound to that .300 number for his career if he takes some steps to improve his odds – which is what pitching is all about.

One thing that I work a lot with, and that is not factored into common statistical analysis, is what counts a pitcher pitches in most often – regardless of what type of "stuff" he has. Most stats only measure results, not the situations in which those results occurred. In the common box score, an RBI is an RBI, but it doesn’t show the count, number of outs, and number of runners on base when it occurred. For me, the area where pitchers have the most opportunity to improve or be better than average is in their count leverage.

Let me give the fans and young pitchers out there one example of a way that I try to improve my performance, this time with regards to BABIP.

Question to myself: Does a hitter have the same BABIP in a 2-1 count that he does in an 0-2, 1-2, or 2-2 count? How does his batting average and OBP/SLG/OPS differ when he has two strikes on him vs zero or one strike?

These are the type of questions that I will come up with and employ in my starts to see if I can improve my outings. For example, here are my career numbers in the counts mentioned above:

2-1: .380 (19/50)
1-2: .196 (20/102)
2-2: .171 (18/105)
0-2: .057 (3/53)

It is obvious that hitters, even at the Major League level, do not perform as well when the count is in the pitcher’s favor, and vice-versa. This is because with two strikes, a hitter HAS to swing at a pitch in the strike zone or he is out, and he must also make a split-second decision on whether a borderline pitch is a strike or not, reducing his ability to put a good swing on the ball. What this does is take away a hitter’s choice. If I throw a curveball with two strikes, the hitter has to swing if the pitch is in the strike zone, whether he is good at hitting a curveball or not. He also does not have a choice on location. We are all familiar with Ted Williams’ famous strike zone averages at the Baseball Hall of Fame. It is well-known that a pitch knee-high on the outside corner will not have the same batting average or OBP/SLG/OPS as one waist-high right down the middle. Here is a comparison of the batting averages and slugging percentage on my fastball vs. my curveball:

Fastball: .246/.404
Curveball: .184/.265

The important thing to note is that, with two strikes, if I throw a curveball for a strike, the hitter has to swing at it (and I like those numbers). How does a pitcher use this to his advantage? By throwing strikes and keeping the advantage on his side as often as possible. It seems like such a simple solution, yet so much more emphasis is placed on "stuff" nowadays and this is often not reinforced. When a pitcher who has great "stuff" employs this line of thinking, his numbers will improve to an even greater degree.

So, to finally answer the question about BABIP, if we look at the numbers above, how can a Major League pitcher try and beat the .300 BABIP average? By pitching in 0-2, 1-2, & 2-2 counts more often than the historical averages of pitchers in the Major Leagues. Until a pitcher reaches two strikes, he has no historical statistical advantage over the hitter. In fact, my batting averages against in 0-1, 1-0, & 1-1 counts are .297/.295/.311 respectively, very close to the roughly .300 average.

My explanation for why I have beat the average so far is that 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.

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