Brian Bannister was a castoff MLB pitcher who now operates as the Red Sox' vice president of pitching development.
The following is excerpted from THE MVP MACHINE: How Baseball’s New Nonconformists Are Using Data To Build Better Players by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik. Copyright © 2019. Available from Basic Books, an imprint of Hachette Book Group, Inc.
Brian Bannister belongs to a family of pitchers. His father, Floyd, was the first- overall pick in the 1976 draft and pitched for fifteen years in the majors. Floyd’s brother-in-law was a second-round pick a year earlier and topped out at Triple-A. Brian is the eldest of three brothers, one of whom pitched at Stanford and the other of whom, like Brian, was drafted out of USC, although he never advanced beyond Rookie ball. They grew up in Scottsdale, where Floyd settled after attending Arizona State.
Floyd’s career lasted until Brian was eleven, and he pitched with a lot of legends who succeeded in distinct ways: Tom Seaver, celebrated for his perfect mechanics and pinpoint command; Steve Carlton, renowned for his unorthodox training routines and devastating slider; Gaylord Perry, practitioner of the spitball; Nolan Ryan, pure power personified. Brian asked questions and absorbed baseball knowledge. He wanted to know why pitches moved and what made each pitcher’s delivery different.
Although Floyd lasted a long time in the league, his career park-adjusted ERA was exactly average, which was seen as underwhelming for a first-overall pick. Perhaps people overestimated the predictability of prospects: Floyd’s 26.6 career WAR tops the 22.3 average for first picks from 1965 to 2003. But he was known for his fastball and urged to “establish it” by most of his pitching coaches, and now he wishes he’d made more use of his above-average breaking balls. “I should have thrown a lot more [curveballs], and I probably would have had a much more successful career,” he says.
Floyd, who grew up working on cars, liked to design things in his head and bring them into being with his hands. Brian inherited his father’s mechanical mind. “He liked to create things,” Floyd says. “He would spend hours in the playroom working on Legos or Lincoln Logs or Construx. It seemed like his goal a lot of times was to use up every piece. It was amazing what he would create. He would sit there for hours.” Later, he graduated to SimCity.
When Brian was about ten, Floyd bought a new piece of software: Photoshop. Brian became enthralled. He could faithfully sketch what he saw, and he was quick with numbers; he missed only one math question on his SAT. Eventually, he gravitated to photography, which like pitching allowed him to fuse his artistic and scientific sides.
The MVP Machine: How Baseball's New Nonconformists Are Using Data to Build Better Players
by Ben Lindbergh and Travis Sawchik
Move over, Moneyball. Instead of out-drafting, out-signing, and out-trading their rivals, baseball's best minds have turned to out-developing opponents, gaining greater edges than ever by perfecting prospects and eking extra runs out of older athletes who were once written off.
In 2002, a year before Brian graduated from USC, he proposed that he and his father start a photography studio in a building Floyd had bought as an investment. Floyd labored to turn the space into a nine-thousand-square-foot professional facility, Loft 19, which he still operates in Brian’s absence, renting out equipment and doing photoshoots and video shoots. “When we built the studio, [Brian] would sit out there on the computer and just study different photographers that he liked, and he would get online and see exactly how they set up their lighting,” Floyd says.
Brian, mostly serious, says, “Everything I learned about pitching development, I learned from Ansel Adams.” He likens his process to Adams’s zone system, a technique for ensuring optimal film exposure and development that Adams explained in his second book, The Negative (1948). “What the zone system attempted to do was understand the physical limitations of the chemicals in a negative piece of film and then, knowing those limitations, be able to, essentially, optimize them or cheat them in order to create a better image,” Bannister says. Adams, Bannister says, would visualize his ideal image of a scene from, say, Yosemite National Park. Knowing the specifications of his film and camera and the physical properties of light, the photographer could calculate the perfect settings for a certain moment, given the tools he was working with.
“I believe coaching baseball players is the same thing,” Bannister says. “Half of it’s art, it’s experience, it’s creativity, and then half of it is just knowing the pure science and knowing the data you’re working with and being able to manipulate it in the direction that will benefit the player the most.” When Bannister works with a pitcher, he visualizes him as the perfect form of himself, with optimal mechanics and an optimal pitch. He understands the limitations imposed by the physics of the body and the baseball, and he tries to work around them by tweaking an arm slot or wrist angle or grip to get to the goal. Adams seeking the most striking shot of Yosemite, Bannister says, was “no different [from] us trying to create perfect baseball players, or at least as close to perfect as possible.”
Bannister was far from a perfect pitcher. His face looks like his father’s, and at six foot two, 202 pounds, he boasts a slightly bigger build. But unlike the left-handed Floyd, a flamethrower who twice led his league in strikeout rate, the right-handed Brian threw a four-seamer that averaged less than 90 mph. Drafted by the Mets in the seventh round in 2003, it took him seventy-four minor-league games to make the majors, compared to Floyd’s seven. Brian wasn’t a top prospect, and he pitched only thirty-six innings for the Mets as a twenty-five- year-old rookie in 2006 before being traded to the Royals.
In 2007, Bannister made the Mets look silly, making twenty-seven starts, posting a 3.87 ERA, and finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting—one spot higher than Floyd finished in 1977. But Bannister was too statistically savvy to believe it would last. While with the Mets, Bannister had been introduced to sabermetrics by pitching coach Rick Peterson, and he’d immersed himself in the stats with the same single-minded intensity he’d brought to Lincoln Logs, Photoshop, and Ansel Adams.
Before Bannister, the closest the statistical community had come to influencing a major-league pitcher’s performance was what came to be called the “Félix Incident.” In June 2007, future FanGraphs man- aging editor and Padres analyst Dave Cameron—then a full-time corporate cost analyst for Hanes and a part-time blogger for the Mariners site U.S.S. Mariner—posted “An Open Letter to Rafael Chaves,” the Mariners’ pitching coach. Cameron observed that the Mariners’ ultratalented but mercurial ace-in-waiting, Félix Hernández, was far too fastball-reliant early in games, and he pleaded with Chaves to make him mix it up. Soon after, a fan in the stands handed a printout of the post to Chaves. Chaves, who claimed that he’d already been trying to persuade Hernández to vary his pitch selection, relayed the post to the pitcher to prove that his pattern was well known. “Chaves gave me a report,” Hernández said in early July, after his second consecutive strong start. “On the Internet, they say when I throw a lot of fast-balls in the first inning, they score a lot of runs. I tried to mix all my pitches in the first inning.”
The Félix Incident was a milestone moment, but it was also an isolated event in an era when teams still banned bloggers from the press box, to say nothing of inviting them into the decision-making process. Asked if he’d read the Internet more often, Hernández laughed and said no. Bannister had a fraction of Félix’s talent, but the blogosphere couldn’t afford to be picky with its champions. He established himself as an Internet hero by becoming the first big leaguer to out himself as a sabermetrician and profess his devotion to PITCHf/x data. Even then, he was thinking like a conduit, saying, “The truth is coming out that [outsiders] have some interesting things to say. If I can bridge that gap a little bit, I’m happy to do that.”
The irony of Bannister being a statistical trailblazer was twofold. First, Bannister played for a defiantly old-school team led by a scouting-centric GM, Dayton Moore. Second, Bannister was one of the pitchers who looked far worse via advanced statistics than he did via traditional ones. The best pitchers decrease their dependence on defense and luck by controlling the “three true outcomes”: strikeouts, walks, and home runs. Bannister didn’t do that: among the ninety-four pitchers with at least 150 innings pitched in 2007, his strikeout rate ranked eighth-lowest. He’d been bailed out by the third-lowest BABIP (batting average on balls in play), which at .261 was more than forty points below the AL average. He knew that number was bound to climb, taking his ERA with it.
To try to forestall the coming correction, he sought more strikeouts in 2008, and he did increase his strikeout rate slightly. But just as anticipated, his BABIP rose to .308, and his high fly-ball rate came back to bite him as more of his flies left the park. Bannister’s underlying performance was almost the same as it had been the year before, but his ERA inflated to an untenable 5.76.
Bannister exhibited a post-Moneyball mindset in an era when his own employer was still resisting Moneyball. “Most guys are using [stats] for the purpose of projection,” he told the Seattle Times. “I’m using them for the purpose of changing the future projections. I want to find my weaknesses and find which stats will help me do that, and change my pitching style accordingly.”
Bannister’s weakness was an inability to miss bats. Having tried and failed to fix that, he steered into the skid. If he had to allow contact, he’d try to make it weaker contact, getting grounders and keeping the ball in the park. PITCHf/x data told Bannister that his four-seamer was holding him back, so entering 2009, he went away from the four-seamer in favor of his cut fastball, a more grounder-oriented pitch whose movement resembles a cross between a slider and a sinker. Compared to 2008, Bannister increased his cutter rate by 30 percentage points, throwing it almost half the time. He also designed a power changeup, mimicking the grip of right-hander James Shields to give him greater sink.
Bannister’s self-directed reconstruction worked remarkably well. He started the 2009 season in Triple-A, but he soon made it back to the majors and looked like a new man. His ground-ball rate increased by 12 percentage points, a single-year spike surpassed—among pitchers from 2002 to 2018 with at least 150 innings thrown in back-to-back seasons—only by Johan Santana in his 2004 Cy Young year. Getting grounders didn’t make Bannister a Cy Young contender, but it did make him a major-league pitcher again. He lowered his ERA to 4.73, and his FIP (fielding independent pitching) fell to a career-low 4.14.
The comeback could have been even better. Through his first twenty starts, Bannister sported a 3.59 ERA, a 4.00 FIP, and an even higher ground-ball rate. But just as it seemed that Bannister had found a way to make himself as perfect as possible, a new imperfection appeared. In the twentieth outing, a 117-pitch, seven-inning shutout in Tampa Bay on August 2, Bannister partially tore his rotator cuff. He tried to pitch through the injury, making six more starts, but he got shelled, allowing thirty-four runs in thirty-one innings before the Royals mercifully shut him down in early September. The following season wasn’t much of an improvement; Bannister’s smarts couldn’t help him if his arm wouldn’t cooperate, and his ERA ballooned to 6.34. He planned to pitch in Japan in 2011, but he and his wife were trying to have a second child, and in the aftermath of the To¯hoku earthquake and tsunami, they thought it safer to stay home. Bannister had just turned thirty, but his pitching career was complete.
In a November 2011 interview at FanGraphs, Bannister’s Kansas City pitching coach, Bob McClure, suggested that Bannister had committed a cardinal sin of old-school baseball: overthinking things. “Banny got a little overboard and tried to do more than he was capable of doing,” McClure said, adding, “He got into things like how the ball was turning, and to me, it’s not that complicated.” McClure, a pitching contemporary of Floyd’s, was a baseball lifer who harbored some reservations about the role of data; elsewhere in the interview, he spouted the age-old advice that had held back Hill: “Establish your fastball, if you can, to as many hitters as you can.” McClure became Boston’s (and Hill’s) pitching coach the next year but was fired in August, as the last-place team’s pitching staff posted the worst park-adjusted FIP in franchise history.
Bannister, who thought he had made the most of modest abilities that were further reduced by his injury, was stung by the criticism. “I felt like it was a little unfair,” Bannister says. Trey Hillman, Bannister’s manager from 2008 to 2010, says that like McClure, “I thought at the time that he was a little too analytical in his approach.” But Hillman, who has since worked for the analytically advanced Dodgers, Yankees, and Astros, among other teams, has realized that Bannister was “way ahead of the curve.” Bannister is still close to McClure, who’s since grown more receptive to the new tools at players’ disposal, but back then, Bannister says, “it was so new, and he’d been in the game so long, that when he connected the dots, it felt to him like I had let this information get in the way of my performance.” That “pushback moment,” as Bannister calls it, contributed to his decision to temporarily withdraw from the sport. Baseball wasn’t ready to change.
To play a part in pushing it forward, Bannister needed to know more. When he was with the Royals, Bannister had an accomplice in his pitching explorations: Zack Greinke. Like Bannister, Greinke saw pitching as a science experiment. In 2007, Bannister’s first season in Kansas City, Greinke recorded a 5.71 ERA through his first seven starts and was banished to the bullpen. There, Bannister says, Greinke learned that although he had great command, he didn’t need to nibble; he could get creative and blow batters way. At the end of the season, Greinke returned to the rotation for seven more starts and posted a 1.85 ERA, launching the peak of a Hall of Fame–caliber career.
“We used to try to come up with the nastiest sequences Zack could throw,” Bannister says. One favorite from 2009 was the slowest curve Greinke could throw for a strike—something in the 60s—followed by an upper-90s fastball up and in to a righty, tunneled out of the same slot and often fouled off, and then a coup de grâce 90 mph slider down and away. “That three-pitch sequence alone took him to a Cy Young Award that year,” Bannister says. Greinke was worth 10.4 WAR in 2009, the highest pitcher total in the fifteen years following Randy Johnson’s fourth consecutive Cy in 2002. When he won the award himself, Greinke told the New York Times, “I’m also a follower, since Brian Bannister’s on our team, of sabermetric stuff and going into de- tails of stats about what you can control,” adding, “That’s pretty much how I pitch, to try to keep my FIP as low as possible.”
Unlike Bannister, Greinke was a virtuoso who threw five pitches with stuff to spare. Not only could Greinke easily outstrip Bannister’s loftiest radar readings, but when he and Bannister challenged each other to see who could throw the slowest curve for a strike, Greinke won that competition too. In 2009, he threw pitches at every mile-per-hour increment from 60 to 100. He and Bannister were testing the limits, consulting their PITCHf/x archives to see what worked. “It was getting into the concept of sequencing, of tunneling, maximum contrast between pitches, throwing pitches to the parts of the zone where they moved the most,” Bannister says. “It was really fun to see somebody that was one of the best pitchers in the world really start to get into the forefront of information and leverage some of those concepts.”
Serving as Greinke’s sabermetric spirit guide helped Bannister embrace his calling as a conduit. “I realized that my future was not about me ever competing for a Cy Young Award or being an All-Star . . . but about taking that information, studying it more than anybody, and using it to help the best players in the world become even better,” he says. “Or to identify, in a predictive way, inefficiencies in other players where they’re drastically underperforming their ceiling and helping them understand why they’re underperforming.”
Bannister’s breakthroughs are a testament to one constant in the story of player development: human beings’ ability to be wrong about things they think they understand. During Bannister’s career, he’d been fascinated by pitchers who succeeded despite underwhelming stuff—like his 2006 teammate Tom Glavine, an All-Star at age forty with an 85 mph fastball—or underperformed despite seemingly over- powering stuff. The more he watched and listened, the more he realized that “nobody really knew what created pitch quality.” “I thought to myself, are we throwing all of our pitches wrong?” Bannister says. “Have all of our pitches been taught incorrectly for decades? Is there an optimal way to throw every pitch? How close are we, right now, to that optimal way?”
For the next three years, Bannister spent eight to ten hours a day browsing the public PITCHf/x site Brooks Baseball, “recreating from the ground up what I believed good pitchers did.” If he could isolate their attributes, he could recreate them in others, just as he’d reproduced 3-D figures from Photoshop. One pattern he picked up on was pitchers’ tendency to throw their fastballs in the wrong locations. With two strikes, they would almost invariably aim down and away, which made sense in a pre-pitch-tracking era, when umpires could be coaxed to allow a little leeway at the edge of the zone. As umps began to get graded based on their adherence to the zones specified by tracking systems, though, pitchers stopped getting strike calls on balls that batters couldn’t hit. At the same time, technology revealed how high-spin fastballs, which appear to rise, could coax batters to whiff when elevated.
“That was a revolutionary thing for me, in that we were indoctrinated to throw it down and away,” Bannister says, adding, “You see so many pitchers throw their fastballs to locations where it continues to underperform, maybe because of tradition, or outdated philosophies, or just a lack of knowledge of what the data says.”
Unlike Trevor Bauer and Kyle Boddy, Bannister isn’t brash; he doesn’t take Twitter potshots or call out coaches who don’t see things the same way. “My goal was always to be the most coachable guy on the team,” he says. Yet his studies drew him to the same conclusion: baseball was beset by beliefs that didn’t stand up to scrutiny in the more illuminating light of the post-PITCHf/x era. Right-handers have to throw from the third-base side of the rubber to maximize deception; pitchers should come to a balance point during their deliveries; changeups must be at least 10 mph slower than fastballs; pitchers need to pitch on downhill planes. “I’ve pretty much debunked all of those pitching concepts that are just rehashed over and over again to every pitching prospect that comes along,” Bannister says. “And I disagree with almost all of them completely. I think those things, as innocent as they seem, have destroyed more pitchers’ careers over the years than anything else.”
Bannister tentatively planned to found a Driveline-like independent facility where he could instill the new principles of pitch quality in impressionable pitching minds. In a 2014 interview, he described
his vision as “Moneyball but on the player side,” a means of “promoting stats instead of steroids.” Unexpectedly, though, MLB beckoned: a few years after his last professional pitch, at least one team was ready to receive his ideas.
In 2013, Brooks Baseball proprietor Dan Brooks had invited Bannister to speak at Saber Seminar, where he delivered a prescient presentation on sabermetrics on the field. In 2014, Bannister returned to conduct a live, outdoor demo of a TrackMan system. Among the onlookers was Red Sox senior analyst Tom Tippett, who approached Bannister and asked if he’d be interested in interviewing for a vacant assistant farm director role.
Bannister hadn’t gone to Boston with the intention of trying for a team job, but Fenway was in the neighborhood. A day later, he and Tippett walked to the club’s historic home and sat in the seats on top of the Green Monster, where Bannister interviewed with assistant GM Mike Hazen. Over the course of the conversation, it became clear that assistant farm director wasn’t the right role for Bannister, whose passion was pitching-centric and who wanted to work closely with players. “I don’t think they quite knew what to do with me,” Bannister says. He didn’t fit the profile for any preexisting position, so they agreed to get together and feel their way forward. The player-stathead was a new breed, but the Red Sox knew they wanted one.
Adams wrote that “to photograph truthfully and effectively is to see beneath the surfaces and record the qualities of nature and humanity which live or are latent in all things.” Replace “photograph” with “develop pitchers,” and you’ve described Bannister’s job with Boston: perceiving what pitchers potentially could do and helping them do it. The day after Hill made it back to Boston in 2015, Bannister was promoted to director of pitching analysis and development. The next July, he joined the major-league staff as an assistant pitching coach; in November, he was elevated again to vice president of pitching development, while retaining his role as assistant pitching coach.
“Most guys have the potential to pitch in the big leagues,” Bannister says. “You just have to give them the right ingredients.” Not everyone wants them. Selling a player on a particular approach, Bannister says, is “almost like an ad agency pitching a company on a campaign.” When Bannister approaches a player or coach for the first time with an analytical recommendation, he often encounters one of four reactions. Some guys get defensive, because by suggesting a way in which they could do something differently, Bannister is implicitly critiquing the way they work now. Some get scared, hesitant to tamper with whatever propelled them to pro ball. Some get angry and rant about technology ruining the game. And some buy in too much, developing such an insatiable appetite for information that even Bannister thinks they might be in too deep to perform freely. “It’s very rare to just get a casual, normal reaction where they process what you’re telling them, don’t have an emotional reaction, see the upside of it, [and] they’re willing to try it out,” he says.
Bannister makes a medical analogy to describe how the front office and field staff function. The analysts upstairs are the radiologists who dissect the data and relay it to the surgeons (coaches), who operate on the patients (players). Bannister, who’s inhabited all three roles, likens altering players without using technology to performing surgery without ordering an MRI.
To stick with the surgical theme: years passed between Joseph Lister’s nineteenth-century discoveries about the infection-fighting effects of sterile surgery and the advent of universal, routine hand-washing in the operating room. In the time it took for Lister’s ideas to be adopted, lives were needlessly lost. Baseball decisions aren’t life or death, but teams are still trying to reduce that delay. In the absence of better information, experience and a history of trial and error were competitive advantages. Now they can be constraints, unless they’re accompanied by a healthy humility. “People upstairs are learning faster than you can ever learn, and so you can’t fight it,” Bannister says. “You have to be the conduit.”
Coaches who can stomach that status get something back in the bargain: they don’t have to worry that doing their jobs will cost them their jobs. As a former No. 1 pick, Floyd knows better than most that tampering with top prospects has historically been a career-jeopardizing proposition. “Most pitching coaches are fearful that if they tweak anything and they hurt you or make you even less effective, then all the eyeballs come looking at them,” he says. “I saw that a lot.” The consequence of cover-your-ass coaching was that players with the most talent received the least instruction. Today, the wisdom of any tweak a coach wants to make can be tested and backed by data. That doesn’t guarantee the tweak will work, but it ensures the coach won’t be crucified if something goes south.
Naturally, technology has changed the type of tweaks that teams tend to make. In the 2011 interview where he verbally brushed back Bannister, McClure said, “You don’t have to have great stuff in order to be a good pitcher. You just need good command and good feel.” Bannister’s research has led him toward a different emphasis. “I’d rather have a pitcher with a 70 or 80 [pitch on the 20–80 scouting scale] that really has no idea where it’s going than a pitcher with a 50 pitch that can throw it exactly where he wants to every time,” he says. “I’ll always err on the side of pitch quality.”
A tweak as subtle as reorienting a slider’s spin axis by 15 percent may translate to more efficient movement, more whiffs, and the difference between foul after foul and a true putaway pitch that can re- place a weaker weapon. “It’s just almost like Christmas when you see a guy with all the right physical characteristics to throw a 70 or 80 pitch, and then you realize he’s gripping the ball wrong, and you’re just like, yes!” Bannister says. “That’s the final puzzle piece, that he doesn’t know that that’s making his pitch a 50 or a 60 instead of a 70 or 80.”
There’s an art to that insight, but it’s nothing ineffable. “Pitching is not mysterious, it’s just physics,” Bannister says. “[We’re] trying to get away from, ‘This pitcher has this quality that we can’t teach anybody else.’ . . . It’s not magic. He’s just doing something better than everybody else.” Once a team deciphers that “something” and identifies the components of pitch quality, it can automate much of the process of finding players who are ripe for repackaging. A program combining machine learning and basic artificial intelligence can comb through data on mechanics and pitch characteristics and flag anything that seems suboptimal: a great pitch that’s barely being thrown, or an underperforming pitch with high spin but poor spin efficiency, which Bannister compares to a car with a powerful engine but bald tires. Then the pit crew of coaches and communicators can come in and devise the best strategy for fixing the flaw.
In his current role, Bannister says, “99 percent of the work I do is standing out in the outfield during batting practice or during a bullpen session, holding my phone and showing it to a pitcher, showing him what the data says and then telling him why I think he should make an adjustment and backing it up on the spot.” Before Bannister, no one on the Red Sox staff needed to deploy data that way. Boston’s old internal information repository dated back to before the iPhone-iPad era, and it wouldn’t work on mobile devices. After joining the Red Sox, Bannister learned SQL (Structured Query Language)—a programming language that’s become a prerequisite for front-office work—to retrieve information from the database more quickly, but the queries he created weren’t powerful enough for his purposes.
Enter a new application called PEDRO (pitching, evaluation, development, research, and optimization), a nod to Red Sox legend and onetime Bannister teammate Pedro Martínez. PEDRO, which was built by R&D analyst Spencer Bingol, a former baseball blogger hired by Bannister, functions as a “sandbox of ideas on the player-development and scouting side.” It also enables Bannister to do with one click what once would have taken him hours or days, applying his custom pitcher evaluations on a “mass scale” and allowing him to exchange computer time for face time with players.
Much of that time also takes place in the company of cameras. Bannister’s affinity for photography isn’t just a rich source of analogies. It’s also a skill he draws on daily as he works with a suite of optical tools that includes Edgertronic, Rapsodo, and KinaTrax, a six-figure markerless, long-distance motion-capture system whose eight to sixteen high-speed cameras mounted in the stands from the first-base side to the third-base side record the movements of twenty-five joints on athletes’ bodies and enable its clients (including four MLB teams in 2018) to dissect the mechanics of players who appear in their parks.
Bannister has used that technology to satisfy some lingering curiosity about his own career. Although he didn’t throw hard, he knew there was more to his fastball’s ineffectiveness than velocity alone. After diagnosing himself the same way he diagnoses new pitchers, the mystery was solved: his fastball suffered from low spin efficiency. “Knowing what I know now, I would never have pitched the way I did,” he says. Instead of compensating with command and his cutter, the only measures he could take at the time, he “would have completely redesigned my biomechanics and how my arm worked.”
Bannister isn’t crying over spilt spin efficiency. “You only get one short career, and we just didn’t have the data available,” he says. The latest technology arrived too late to help him, but not too late for him to help others.
During games, Bannister typically sits in the clubhouse, consulting Statcast to monitor pitch selection, spin, and speed changes that might indicate injuries. If a pitcher encounters command problems, Bannister checks KinaTrax for mechanical misalignments, and when other issues arise, pitchers (or pitching coach Dana LeVangie) walk through the tunnel to ask for advice. But much of the magic occurs before games, when Bannister turns the outfield or the bullpen into an interactive pitching lab, setting up cameras and tracking devices and inviting pitchers to ask each other questions, share information, and experiment in a more focused way than they can while playing catch casually. “I’ve found that kind of coffee-shop environment builds a lot of culture, because you get pitchers talking about their craft more openly,” he says, adding, “There’s all kinds of little miracles that happen with guys that pump their game up a little bit.”
One of the most obvious outward manifestations of Bannister’s influence is the rate at which the Red Sox throw their four-seamers in the upper third of the zone or above. Shortly after bringing Bannister on, the Sox became the kings of the elevated four-seamer. “It was a fun way to take an analytical concept and exploit it and surprise teams,” he says.
After a twentieth-place showing in park-adjusted ERA in 2015, Boston’s MLB ranks climbed to fifth, then third, then second from 2016 to 2018. But any advantage the Sox derive from their onslaught of high heat won’t last long. Bannister believes Boston is about two years ahead of public awareness on analytical topics, but no team ever builds a big lead on its most progressive rivals. Tactics that work well soon inspire copycats, and teams that get lapped by the field resort to a policy of “If you can’t beat ’em, hire ’em.” In late 2016, the once defiantly traditional Diamondbacks hired Hazen as their new GM; Hazen, in turn, brought Sox executive Amiel Sawdaye with him as an assistant GM and also hired Boston bench coach Torey Lovullo as Arizona’s manager. Not long after, a newly slider-reliant Corbin became the club’s ace.
To cope with that cutthroat environment, Bannister takes a cue from the stock market, which he watches closely. “I can’t beat the league long term, but if I find an idea, I can beat it in the short term, and that’s all I’m looking to do,” he says. By the time a team could test a good, data-driven idea at one affiliate or with a small group of minor-league pitchers, assess the results, and get the green light from leadership, the advantage would have dissipated. Bannister believes it’s better to employ people who’ll go rogue but not reckless, Jack Bauers of baseball-skill acquisition who can cut the red tape, take ideas directly to the big leaguers who are most likely to benefit, monitor the effects, and expand the approach to the rest of the roster as confidence in its efficacy increases.
The second he thinks he’s beaten other teams to a developmental tactic, the clock starts counting down to the day it slips away. “You always have to come up with the next thing, and then it’s like, ‘Aw, we could have been way ahead of everybody if we just did this last year, but I didn’t think about it that way.’ It’s a never-ending cycle. The rabbit hole goes very deep.”