RHP ∙ 2007—10
Brian Bannister came to the Royals in a trade with the Mets in the ’06—’07 off-season. He was excited about the trade mostly because he went from a crowded staff in New York to a great shot at a spot in the rotation in KC. He also had a soft spot for the Royals after living in KC and watching his dad Floyd pitch for them in 1988 and ’89. Back when the Royals switched to natural grass at Kauffman Stadium, the Bannisters shipped some of the old turf to their Phoenix home. “So my backyard was left field from Kauffman that Bo played on,” Bannister has said. “I was destined to be a Royal.”[i]
A relatively soft tosser, Bannister the younger had to get by on smarts and command. According to him, “I really had like an A ball or AA arm, but I pushed myself to be the best I could be and to learn the game as much as possible and to push my performance up to a big league level.”[ii] He started 2007 in Omaha, but was in the big league rotation after just a few weeks. Relying mostly on a cut fastball plus a curve and change, 2007 turned out to be a charmed rookie season. Bannister both threw well and was smiled on by the baseball gods. His K-rate, batting average against on balls in play (BABIP), and home runs per fly ball suggested that he was fortunate to post a low ERA, and he was, but only in addition to being legitimately good. He was twice recognized as the AL rookie of the month and finished third in rookie of the year voting.
The amazing thing about Bannister is that he realized and understood that he was partly lucky in ’07. For a player, Bannister was unusually aware of and interested in sabermetrics, and was candid about using them to try to improve his performance. In a Q&A on the Royals official website, he explained relatively advanced concepts like BABIP and why he believes pitchers should focus on the things they can control like walks, strikeouts, and homers.[iii] He likened himself to Bill James with a 90 MPH fastball.[iv] How many pitchers enter a season with the expectation of giving up more hits? His plan going into ’08 was to “work on missing some more bats to counteract the more hits I’m going to give up. And I want to walk fewer guys.”[v] He was successful in slightly increasing his strikeouts, but the walks, homers, and BABIP also went up, and the season was semi-disastrous. It’s almost as though his ’07 and ’08 seasons were made to be lessons in the vagaries of things like BABIP, home runs per fly ball, and sequencing. On the surface, Bannister went from excellent to scrub in those seasons. But if you wipe out some noise, his combination of strikeouts, walks, and ground ball rate was actually slightly better in ’08.
Still, the results were not there, and he started 2009 in Omaha. But he was back in the big league rotation quickly, and for his first 20 starts, Bannister finally put it all together. The fielder independent numbers and the results were fantastic. The biggest change seems to have been mixing in an effective change more often. He threw seven spotless innings in Tampa in his 20th start of the year, but woke up the next morning with a burning pain in his shoulder, unable to raise his right hand above the shoulder. He stayed in the rotation for six more starts, all of them disastrous, the cut gone from his cutter. When the shoulder was examined, the doctors discovered a major tear in his rotator cuff. They told him it needed surgery that would require a two-year rehab with very little chance of ever coming back. So he opted not to have the surgery, instead hoping he could rehab his way back.
The Royals gave him a chance to keep pitching in 2010, but the damage to his shoulder was too much, and he usually got lit up. He did somehow manage to mix in a few excellent starts, including six shutout innings in Washington while dueling with Stephen Strasburg. But the injury forced him out of the majors after that season. It is touching to hear Bannister’s passion for the game and how hard it was for him to have to walk away in this highly recommended interview he did with Dave O at Clubhouse Conversation. After some time away, he is diving back into the game in various ways, including cheering on the Royals with the rest of us nerds on Twitter.
[i] Brian Bannister, https://twitter.com/RealBanny/status/458364028268462080, April 21, 2014.
[ii] Brian Bannister, http://clubhouseconversation.com/2014/04/brian-bannister/, 2014.
[iii] Brian Bannister, “In Focus With Brian Bannister,” http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080604&content_id=2837801&vkey=news_kc&fext=.jsp&c_id=kc, June 4, 2008.
[iv] Rustin Dodd, “For Bannister, the secret is in the numbers,” http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20090806&content_id=6279440&vkey=news_kc&fext=.jsp&c_id=kc, August 7, 2009.
[v] Dick Kaegel, “Bannister has game plan heading into ’08,” http://kansascity.royals.mlb.com/news/article.jsp?ymd=20080329&content_id=2464560&vkey=news_kc&fext=.jsp&c_id=kc, March 29, 2008.