We are all familiar with the story of Brian Bannister. The Royals trade an underperforming reliever with talent to the Mets for him despite his somewhat modest stats. After a poor Spring Training he starts the season in Omaha, pitches well, comes to KC in late April and pretty much pitches lights out for the remainder of the season. The problem is that while his ERA looks good, the peripherals raise some significant concerns. Here are his major league career stats:
BABIP (2007 only) .264
The low strikeout rate and particularly lucky BABIP lead many to conclude that Bannister will regress significantly in 2008 and for the remainder of his career. I agree that Bannister isn't an ace and that we shouldn't expect him to be an ace in the future. But how much regression should we expect? Is he a poor pitcher that just got lucky? I don't think so. There are a number of pitchers who can succeed and who have done so relatively consistently without huge strikeout numbers. Here are a few along with their key career stats:
That makes it look like Bannister should be headed for a career as an average to above average pitcher and that is quite possible. But I think we need to recognize that Bannister managed this in his rookie season (career numbers span 203 innings pitched in two seasons) none of the above pitchers were able to do this in their rookie season. In addition, Bannister is only 26 and I think it is reasonable to expect that he will improve somewhat over the next 2-3 years.
One could argue that the above cases, including Bannister represent exceptions to the general rule that in order for a pitcher to succeed, he has to have a fairly high strike out rate. Therefore, perhaps it is unlikely that Bannister will be such an exception and will fall victim to the fate of most non-strike out pitchers in the majors. This generally described strike out rule has seen some exceptions recognized in recent years. Knuckleballers and extreme sinkerballers can and often do succeed despite low K-rates.
I am going to suggest another class of exceptions which would be very hard to identify, measure and study. This would be pitchers who are particularly good at pitch selection. Two interviews with Bannister this year showed that Bannister works hard to study every batter he is going to face and has thought long and hard about which pitches are best in which situations and how he needs always be unpredictable. I think anyone who read those articles would be impressed with his intellectual approach to pitching and would agree that wise pitch selection is one of his strengths. It is my contention that this has been a key to his success. I further contend that there are some other pitchers who use this particular talent to succeed. There are a number of veteran pitchers who once had great stuff and used that to succeed, but due to the ravages of time, lost most of their stuff and had to rely on "pitchability" and their knowledge of batters and the game to succeed. These are a few of the current pitchers who fit that bill, along with their stats over the last 5 years:
I think that pitch selection or pitchability is a talent, just like velocity, movement and control are talents and that some pitchers who particularly excel at pitch selection can and do succeed, despite their low strikeout rates. This all leads me to conclude that Bannister's long-term future is as a borderline #2/#3 starter, most likely a particularly good #3. This would put him in the 4.30 ERA area.