Brian Bannister is a thinking man’s pitcher. Known more for his guile and pitching acumen than for his stuff, the 26-year-old right-hander has established himself as a mainstay in the Royals starting rotation in his first full major league season. Originally a seventh-round pick by the Mets in 2003, Bannister was acquired from them last December in exchange for reliever Ambiorix Burgos. The son of former big league pitcher Floyd Bannister, the USC product has started 17 games for Kansas City and is 7-6, 3.45 in 107 innings.
David Laurila : Who is Brian Bannister?
Brian Bannister : Brian Bannister is a student of the game of baseball. I’ve known for a long time that I wasn’t blessed with the greatest amount of ability, but what your future is based on is more than just your physical talent. I’ve always believed there are guys who learn certain aspects of the game that allow them to play at a level above their physical talent. Some guys survive on future projections for awhile, and then, as they don’t live up to those projections, their careers come to an end. I’ve always wanted to be known as a guy who got the most of his ability–someone who maximized his potential–because to me that’s the true measure of success.
DL: What approach do you take with you to the mound?
BB: I obviously didn’t get to the major leagues on my fastball velocity. I learned early on, through guys like Maddux, Glavine, and Schilling, that locating your fastball is the single most important aspect of pitching. It’s about fastball command. Beyond that, it’s the ability to throw alternate pitches in hitter’s counts, like 2-0, 2-1, and 3-1. There’s a hidden side to the approach of a pitcher, which includes the ability to throw a first pitch strike–something Schilling is a huge advocate of. There’s also the ability to throw a strike on 1-1, which is one of the fundamental principles of Rick Peterson, who was my pitching coach with the Mets. By going to a 1-2 count, as opposed to a 2-1 count, a hitter’s batting average in the major leagues drops by over two hundred points. Those are the kind of hidden things that I think the mainstream media and the average fan doesn’t pick up on. I believe that pitching is all about giving yourself the best odds of success–not just finding the guy with the best stuff and sending him out there to compete. It’s the guys with the best stuff who understand the odds and percentages of pitching that become the Hall of Famers.
DL: Is it possible to think too much on the mound?
BB: I think it’s possible to think too much about the wrong things. You’re thinking about things you can’t control, like who is standing in the batter’s box, or maybe drifting off about something like what your ERA will be if you give up a home run to the next hitter. I think every pitcher has been guilty of thinking thoughts like that–about what will result if something negative happens. When you do, it ultimately comes out in the next few pitches or over the course of the game. The negative will transcend into your results. That is why being mentally tough is such an important aspect of pitching. It takes training and preparation to achieve that, which is why your bullpen sessions are so important. You’re training your mind to get ready for the game, and also how to react to situations that might come up.
DL: Can you normally sense when a hitter is about to adjust to how you’re working him, and if so, do you wait for him to prove that he is or do you try to beat him to the punch?
BB: One of the hardest things about pitching, and one of the reasons no one will ever have a zero ERA, is that while you’re trying to play the odds in your favor, there are no certainties. If a hitter has a reputation of always taking the first pitch, as a pitcher you’re only hurting yourself by not taking advantage of that and throwing a strike. But I remember that Ted Williams, who almost always took a strike, hit a first-pitch home run once and the pitcher yelled at him while he was running around the bases that he never swung at the first pitch. Those are the types of things that a pitcher needs to study and learn about a hitter, because at the major league level a lot of hitters change when there are men on base or in scoring position. That’s why a lot of young pitchers struggle, because they don’t recognize that good hitters change their approach in certain situations. For a pitcher, it’s a guessing game as to how you want to attack a hitter in a given at-bat, and you can’t always be right.
DL: Hitters typically hit mistakes. How would you define a mistake?
BB: It’s not only a pitch that’s not well executed, which, in general, could be a hanging curveball or a fastball over the heart of the plate. A mistake can also be a pitch to a hitter that has one strength, and pitching directly into that strength. It’s a mistake because every hitter has weaknesses, and it’s a pitcher’s job to exploit them, hopefully matching them with his own strengths. By not taking advantage of that, and pitching into his strengths, you’re just increasing the probability that the hitter will be successful.
BB: I’ll take you through each one. On the 3-2 count to Pedroia, just in my own research, my own study of him, it was a case of where throwing a strike doesn’t always mean throwing a pitch in the strike zone. If you know that a hitter has a tendency to swing at a pitch out of the zone, to a pitcher that’s a strike. What I was trying to do with that pitch, which ninety-five percent of the time is going to be a fastball–and the hitter knows that–was to throw a pitch that was elevated. Getting a hitter to swing at a pitch that’s elevated will help you get him out, because it’s a ball–it’s a lower-percentage pitch to hit. In my research, that was the pitch to get him out on; he just did a good job of getting on top of the ball. He hit the pitch I was trying to throw.
DL: How about the pitches to Ramirez and Ortiz?
BB: With Manny, it was a 2-1 fastball, and I missed out over the plate. That’s a pitch that a major league hitter should hit, so it was simply a mistake pitch–my worst pitch of the night. The 3-2 pitch to Ortiz was also a mistake, but it was a mistake for a different reason. I had thrown him seven pitches and we decided to throw him a changeup. The best changeup is one that’s below the knees–below the strike zone for a ball–because it has the best action and movement on it, but I decided to throw it for a strike. I threw it up in the strike zone, and he managed to hit it to the shortest part of the park. [Editor’s note: Ortiz lined the ball just inside the Pesky Pole, 302 feet from home plate.]
DL: Joe Mauer recently said that when he’s going well with the bat, the ball almost seems to be coming toward the plate in slow motion. As a pitcher, what do you see, or feel, when you’re in the zone?
BB: I think that what happens–to me, besides a hitter’s past performance, what’s most significant is the confidence level. For both a hitter and a pitcher, confidence translates into a subconscious ability to relax. Whether you call it being in your zone, on fire, or anything else, as an athlete it’s that ability to relax. As a pitcher, it allows you to grip the ball looser, which allows you to finish a pitch, to impart more spin on it, and to keep it lower in the strike zone. In general, your muscles react quicker than when you’re tense. It’s the same thing with a hitter. Being relaxed allows the muscles to be looser and your swing to follow a more natural arc; your hands to be quicker, and the bat barrel to release quicker. That translates to more bat speed and a swing with better timing. I always try to be aware of that on the mound, because to me a .250 hitter who is in the zone hits more like a .350 or .400 hitter, whereas, a guy who’s hitting .350, but is struggling, might be hitting worse than someone who is a .200 hitter.
DL: What you’re saying is that a lesser hitter may be more dangerous on a given day?
BB: Yes. You have to know the lineup, one through nine, but at the same time you have to know that, at some point, a three- or four-hole hitter might be a weaker hitter than the ninth place hitter. That’s based on his recent performance, because even though his overall numbers may not show it, they’re an average–they’re based on the entire season. Recent performance can have a real impact on what a hitter is likely to do in a given game. One of the biggest tells of a hitter is that when he’s tense, or if he’s injured and not playing at 100 percent physically, he starts cheating on balls. He’s struggling, and not as quick, so mentally he’s not as relaxed. That causes him to cheat, which makes him more susceptible to breaking balls. You see him fly out a lot, because he’s trying to get the bat head out. That, along with a hitter’s body language after a swing, or after his at-bat, is a very telling sign.
DL: How would you describe the major league strike zone?
BB: Compared to other levels, it’s clearly defined, and it’s enforced better because the umpires are better. The QuesTek system basically enforces the accuracy of the strike zone and helps make the umpires better. But I think what you see, coming up from high school, college, and the minor leagues, is that it gets narrower at the corners. You don’t get wide strikes. Even compared to the 1980s, it’s a slightly narrower zone. You hear older pitchers talk about expanding the zone, but it’s very hard to do that nowadays because of the enforcement of the QuesTek system and the evaluations they do. However, I also think that an inch or two has been added at the top of the zone, which has historically been from the bottom of the letters. Of course, even though that’s how it’s drawn, it’s never really been enforced that way. It’s been more from the waist to the knees.
DL: You feel that the strike zone is somewhat higher now?
BB: I think it’s compensation for it being narrowed, and I see more pitchers and hitters surprised at strike calls on balls above the waist. You see it most often on a bad curveball, a hanging curveball, where the hitter traditionally takes it because coming in he registers it as a ball. Sometimes you’ll notice the pitcher react like he’s surprised that the umpire calls it a strike.
DL: How much do the strike zones of individual umpires vary?
BB: I think, at the major league level, it’s been extremely consistent, and I give a lot of credit to the umpires. I think the only variation I’ve seen, umpire to umpire, is their determination of a strike on a breaking pitch. A strike, by definition, is where the pitch crosses the plate, and from pitcher to pitcher the break of a breaking pitch is different. Some guys have more of a vertical break on a curveball, and some guys have more of a horizontal break on a slider. It’s a judgment call for each umpire, because even though it might cross the plate, it finishes outside of the strike zone where the catcher catches it. Do they call that a strike or not? The one variation I see is how they make that determination.
DL: When you go over scouting reports before a game, do they include the tendencies of that night’s plate umpire?
BB: It’s something that’s discussed among pitchers. Is he a so-called pitchers’ umpire, or is he a hitters’ umpire? But I think the only real difference is whether your percentages, with a specific umpire, increase or decrease with getting strikes called on certain breaking pitches. That’s it, really.
DL: Does that impact pitch-selection at all?
BB: It can be talked about ahead of time, but I don’t think it can be determined until you actually go out there with your own selection of pitches and see the results. It can be told to you that someone is a pitchers’ umpire, but if he’s not calling strikes on certain pitches you have to react accordingly to the zone he has that night.
DL: Jim Palmer pitched almost 4,000 innings and never allowed a grand slam. With that in mind, how do you approach a situation where the bases are loaded with two outs and the count is 3-2 on the hitter?
BB: I actually gave up my first grand slam in pro ball this year. I also gave up one in college. As to the question, I think you have to weigh the slugging percentage of the hitter you’re facing. There are some hitters where the odds of him not hitting a home run are in your favor so much that you have to be aggressive. But if it’s a cleanup hitter who has tremendous power, you’re probably more likely to go outside the zone because a walk is a much better option than a hit. A single is two runs, a double is most likely three, and a home run is obviously four. So once again, you’re playing with the percentages of how you match up with that hitter. That’s how you make your determination of what to throw.
DL: What is your repertoire right now?
BB: A fastball, of course. I used to throw a cut fastball, which was kind of my signature pitch in the minor leagues, but I’ve turned it into a slider, which I’ve found is more successful at the major league level because it has a slower velocity and a deeper break. I’m also throwing an overhand curveball and a circle change.
DL: How much does the feel of individual baseballs matter to you?
BB: I don’t find that there’s much of a variation with the seams, but there is, from stadium to stadium, a variation with how the balls are rubbed up. I know there’s a consistency with the type of substance used to rub them up, but there’s also a variation from person to person and how they’re rubbed up. It’s the extent to how much it’s dirtied up, or soiled, before it’s determined to be game ready. With some balls you receive there’s a layer of dirt, like a slippery layer, and at some fields you get one that has a different tackiness because it’s a drier ball. The humidity is one thing that plays into it. The one location where all the pitchers notice it is in Colorado, with the humidor they use, where every pitcher talks about the different feel. Of course, pitches obviously break differently there because of the altitude, especially breaking balls.
DL: Does the pitch you’re planning to throw ever dictate whether or not you ask for a different ball?
BB: In general, if I’m throwing a pitch other than a fastball, I’ll focus more on the ball not being slippery. If I need my hand directly behind the ball it’s more likely to slip out if it’s not rubbed up properly. Of course, I try not to give a tell by throwing a ball back, or rubbing it up, before I throw a certain pitch. I try to stay the same so I’m not giving the hitter any advantage by showing him what I might be throwing. Even if a ball feels fine, I still like to rub it up.
DL: We’re at Fenway Park. How different does it feel standing on the mound here than it does in Tampa Bay or Colorado?
BB: There’s a special significance to playing in Fenway, because it’s a link to the past and the tradition of the game. It’s always a fear of older players that young players will forget what they did for the game–their contributions, both on and off the field. Being a player and helping to carry that torch–that mystique–is a tremendous honor. You’re there knowing that Ted Williams stood in that batter’s box, and Babe Ruth stood on that mound. It’s something you don’t experience everywhere you play.
DL: The Brooklyn Cyclones honored you with a Brian Bannister bobblehead night last year. Where does that rate among your career highlights?
BB: They retired my number too, and it will always be special to me, because every player has an attachment to the team he was drafted by and the team he came up with. It’s almost like it is with your own family, with the memories and emotions.It’s the start of a journey, and Brooklyn will always be my first professional experience, which is what makes it special. It’s also such a great baseball town, with the history of the Dodgers there–the love and passion that the fans have for the game.
BB: I don’t think so. The game has a special integrity, and I feel that all historical numbers should be put up in a fair and competitive environment. I don’t think I could essentially throw batting practice to a hitter so another record could be achieved. Of course, if he did it in the normal sequence of the game, I’d tip my hat to the guy. And I’d never intentionally walk someone to try to avoid a record. I’d never deny myself my competitive side. The game means too much to me.
BB: Every publication that’s ever tried to project me has been wrong. I think that’s because they use my current repertoire of pitches, and I’m unique as a player in that I continue to grow and evolve, always trying to refine and add new ways to help me get hitters out. That’s why I think I’ll always continue to surpass my projections. At the same time, I always use statistics–non-standard statistics that you’ll find outside of a box score–as a way to improve myself as a player. I know my weaknesses. I know that I have a tendency to give up more fly balls than ground balls. I’m also very aware of my WHIP, my on-base percentage against, my slugging percentage against, my home runs per nine innings, my strikeouts to walks ratio. I look at those things to see how I compare to other players in the league, and also to try to make myself a better pitcher. Like I said, I consider myself a student of the game. Numbers are important.