Sports

Brian Bannister and the art of making pitchers better

Former Red Sox pitcher Rich Hill is one of Brian Bannister’s success stories.
Kathy Willens/Associated Press/File 2015
Former Red Sox pitcher Rich Hill is one of Brian Bannister’s success stories.

Brian Bannister’s résumé is atypical: He posted a near-perfect score on the math SAT before enrolling at the University of Southern California as a fine arts major; he’s the son of a former major league baseball player, with whom he now runs a photography studio; and he was a pitcher with below-average velocity who managed to last parts of five years in the big leagues.

On the surface, tension exists between most of those elements. Beneath the surface is the foundation of a pitching mind the Red Sox hope will help transform the organization.

“He’ll give us an edge,” president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said upon the hiring of Bannister as the team’s director of pitching analysis and development in September.

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So who is he and what does he do?

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The title alone distinguishes Bannister; it is a position with few parallels. Bannister, 34, will work with pitching coaches and coordinators throughout the organization to exchange ideas about the handling of pitchers, while also contributing to the pro scouting, amateur scouting, and analytics departments in the acquisition of pitchers.

The role is broad and unusual, but a number of arrows have pointed to it for decades.

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Bannister’s father, Floyd Bannister, was the No. 1 pick in the 1976 draft by the Houston Astros, and went 134-143 with a 4.06 ERA in a career that spanned six organizations and 15 seasons. His three sons — Brian, Brett, and Cory, all of whom pitched in college — had access to extraordinary learning opportunities around the game that included some of the game’s best performers.

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Floyd Bannister spent time on the same staffs as Tom Seaver, Steve Carlton, Gaylord Perry, and Nolan Ryan. Brian, his eldest son, found fascinating subjects for his considerable curiosity.

“He was always asking questions, looking at different guys and how they threw,” said Floyd. “I was able to play at a high level with a lot of great players who were a lot better than me and pass that on to him as far as, how does the ball move, how do things like that happen?

“He would ask how that guy made that pitch do that. That’s kind of how he works. He likes to study things, see how they work.”

The curiosity wasn’t limited to baseball. Brian Bannister proved comfortable with numbers and statistics (he recalls getting just one question wrong on the math portion of his SAT) while also taking pleasure in art.

He enrolled at USC as a fine arts major with a plan to study film. However, most of the film classes were in the afternoon, in conflict with baseball practice. A walk-on second baseman, Bannister pivoted to study photography, with most of those classes taking place in the morning.

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“I have this constant battle in my mind between my artistic side and my mathematical side; I’ve always been that way,” said Brian, who used his pro signing bonus to open a photography studio (Loft 19) in Phoenix with his father.

“One of the things I love about photography is its blend of art and science. It’s, what image are you trying to capture? But you’re calculating the ISO, the F-stop, the shutter speed, and the physics properties of light, all at the same time.

“Pitching is the exact same thing. It is an art. We talk about the art of pitching. But now that we have pitch data available, I get both sides — I get the art and I get the math.”

Analytical mind

Blocked at second base on the USC baseball team, he moved to the pitcher’s mound, working out of the bullpen as a freshman.

“He didn’t have the best stuff, but he clearly had a plan and he knew how to pitch,” recalled Red Sox director of pro scouting Gus Quattlebaum, who was an amateur scout for the Yankees when he met Bannister at a Taco Bell as part of a makeup evaluation.

“The thing that stood out was that he had more feel for pitching than anyone I’d ever met. I was like, ‘My God, this guy could be a pitching coordinator or pitching coach.’ It really stood out.

“It was one of the more in-depth conversations I’ve ever had with a kid that age. He knew more about pitching than I did.”

Bannister started his pro career after being taken by the New York Mets in the seventh round of the 2003 draft, and made his big league debut in 2006 on a team that featured Tom Glavine and Pedro Martinez. Though that team advanced to the NLCS, it wasn’t until the following season and a trade to the Royals that Bannister not only secured a toehold in the big leagues but differentiated himself.

Brian Bannister played parts of five seasons in the majors, the last four with the Royals.
Jamie Squire/Getty Images/File 2010
Brian Bannister played parts of five seasons in the majors, the last four with the Royals.

At 26, he went 12-9 with a 3.87 ERA for a very bad Kansas City team, finishing third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Yet it wasn’t so much his performance as the way that he analyzed it — using baseball’s emerging tool set of pitching data — that made him a darling of the sabermetric community.

Bannister understood what the numbers meant and could translate that back to his performance, while bringing teammates and media members along for the ride. He could tinker with his release point and repertoire until he found the right combination.

“I was a failed starter in High A, a non-starter who didn’t throw hard,” he said. “I talk about getting into the DNA of a pitcher. I started tweaking the DNA of how I pitched and I ended up in the big leagues. I was good for times, I was bad for times, but I had a big league career.”

He was considered something of a pioneer among players for his understanding of statistics such as batting average on balls in play (BABIP) and, in particular, the pitch-tracking data (Pitch F/X) that added numbers to what Bannister had long discussed with his father about “the magic of a pitcher from the wrist to the fingertips” — pitch life, spin, deception, and movement.

“He was very focused, very cerebral,” recalled former Royals teammate Brandon Duckworth. “He was a little ahead of his time from a players standpoint with the metrics.

“I had no real clue what it truly meant. If you asked him a question about it, you could see him get excited talking about it.”

Not everyone was quick to follow Bannister’s lead. But Royals teammate Zack Greinke was convinced early, and has credited Bannister as a voice who helped shape his approach to pitching.

“I always enjoyed the process of sitting in the dugout, talking about how to get better,” said Bannister. “I love passing that information on. I love seeing guys succeed or break through that barrier that’s holding them back.”

Tailoring the approach

Bannister retired as a player after the 2010 season, and under the tutelage of his father, he developed a philosophy celebrating the uniqueness of pitchers — and the idea that there wasn’t an ideal pitching template, but instead a world of variables that offered many paths to success.

Just as he recognized the ability to change a photo by altering lighting, shutter speed, and focus, so, too, did Bannister see in pitching a series of variables that could be altered in virtually limitless ways.

“I’m not afraid to break out of the norms of pitching theory,” he said. “Just because everyone has a unique body, everyone has a different arm action, their pitches break different ways. When you try to put everyone in a box, it only works for the guys who fit in that box.

“The most exciting part of pitching to me is figuring out how to maximize every guy. I believe so many guys can be big leaguers if they’re just given the right information and the right approach.”

Bannister planned to open a franchise using pitch-tracking equipment. The Red Sox interceded.

In August 2014, when Bannister was in Boston as a speaker at the annual SaberSeminar, he interviewed with the Red Sox, who considered him a candidate for the position of assistant farm director. In talking with him, however, it became clear that his ideas about pitching were distinctive.

At a time when the Red Sox were trying to find ways to implement new pitching analytics into their coaching and evaluation, Bannister represented a possible nexus.

“He just seemed like a good fit, a good blend,” said Sox general manager Mike Hazen. “It wasn’t just straight statistical analysis. He was able to bridge that on the field.

“He’s interesting. The way he looks at the game is different. He’s such a bright guy. He’s so passionate about pitching.”

Bannister, meanwhile, was drawn to “an opportunity to employ [ideas] on a much larger scale with much more at stake, and the opportunity to win a World Series in a great city. That was hard to pass up. I still get to do what I want to do, which is to help pitchers get better, but you get very few opportunities in your lifetime to work with a franchise like the Red Sox.”

At first, Bannister worked primarily with the pro scouting and analytics departments, rarely interacting directly with players. That changed last Aug. 23.

A eureka moment

That day, Bannister, Quattlebaum, and farm director Ben Crockett spoke at the 2015 SaberSeminar before driving to Pawtucket for the Triple A affiliate’s day game. Before the game, Quattlebaum introduced Bannister to veteran lefthander Rich Hill, who had made two starts for the PawSox after being signed away from the independent Long Island Ducks.

The talk represented a landmark in Hill’s professional career, and perhaps in Bannister’s.

Hill, Bannister noted, had a spin rate on his curveball that ranked among the highest in the game. Yet as a starter, the veteran lefthander felt compelled to work within a standard framework, utilizing his curve as a secondary pitch.

Hill pitched a complete-game shutout to beat the Orioles on Sept. 25.
Jim Rogash/Getty Images/File
Hill pitched a complete-game shutout to beat the Orioles on Sept. 25.

Bannister guided Hill to a radically different usage pattern.

“We talked about a different perspective of looking at pitching,” said Hill. “I remember it clearly. We talked for a good hour, hour and a half the first day.

“It was so refreshing, talking about shaping pitches, shaping the breaking ball. We talked about other pitchers — Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw — specifically about how they can shape their different breaking balls that they throw.

“All of those things took me from four pitches to maybe 12. It was like I had 12 pitches because of changing speeds, changing shapes, changing locations.

“If you talk about pitching as a standard, we talk about fastball and location. We don’t talk about changing speeds on our fastball really. It didn’t really click for me until talking to Brian.

“He gave me the freedom of creativity. That’s the best way I can put it. My creativity went through the roof after these conversations.”

Hill said he benefited immediately. He punched out 22 batters over 19 innings in his next three starts, then returned to the big leagues and recorded a 1.55 ERA with 36 strikeouts and 5 walks in 29 innings.

In two months, Hill had gone from a reliever released by the Nationals, to an indy league starter, to a minor league roster filler, to a major league starter worthy of a one-year, $6 million contract from the A’s that roughly doubled his career earnings to that point.

Hill represents the beginning of what the Red Sox hope to achieve. An organization that has struggled to develop homegrown pitching for most of the last decade recognizes a need to improve its track record.

The approach won’t net the same results for everyone; Hill, in fact, noted that he might have had a difficult time processing Bannister’s message when he was 25.

Still, if Bannister — working in concert with pitching coach Carl Willis, minor league pitching coordinator Ralph Treuel and his staff of pitching coaches, members of the scouting departments, and the analytics team — can help reverse the team’s poor record of pitching development, the impact is potentially momentous.

“Within the industry, you commonly hear things like, ‘The Cardinals are always good at developing pitching.’ Or, ‘The Rays always have a good bullpen,’ ” said Bannister. “Those are common sentiments.

“My goal is to work with everyone so that the Red Sox, hopefully sooner than later, are shared in that conversation.”

Alex Speier can be reached at alex.speier@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @alexspeier.