Prospect Retro: Brian Bannister
Brian Bannister was drafted by the New York Mets in the seventh round in 2003, out of Southern Cal. He was successful in college and well-known to scouts due to his family background, being the son of Floyd Bannister, the David Price of 1976. Floyd was a decent pitcher who never quite lived up to expectations. His son didn't have the same kind of arm strength, but Brian was considered extremely polished. He pitched well in the New York-Penn League after signing, posting a 2.15 ERA with a 42/18 K/BB in 46 innings and allowing just 27 hits. I gave him a Grade C+ in the 2004 book, noting his strong curveball and feel for pitching but also noting his mediocre fastball.
Bannister began 2004 with St. Lucie in the Florida State League, going 5-7, 4.32 with a 106/27 K/BB in 110 innings, allowing 111 hits. He held his own after a late promotion to Double-A, going 3-3, 4.06 in eight starts with a 28/17 K/BB in 44 innings, 45 hits allowed. Note how his strikeout rate dropped at the higher level. Despite this I gave him another Grade C+, projecting him as a useful fifth starter or long reliever.
Bannister began '05 in Double-A and made adjustments, going 9-4, 2.56 with a 94/27 K/BB in 109 innings with 91 hits allowed. Logically promoted to Triple-A, he continued to perform well with a 4-1, 3.18 mark in eight starts with a 48/13 K/BB in 45 innings, 48 hits. His strikeout rate was moving upward, and he was now getting attention as a sleeper prospect in the baseball press. I continued to rate him as a Grade C+ prospect and future inning-eater.
Bannister began 2006 in the Mets rotation after a strong spring training. A pulled hamstring sent him back to the minors and he ended up splitting the season between the Mets (38 innings, 4.26 ERA, 19/22 K/BB), Triple-A Norfolk (30 innings, 24/5 K/BB, 3.56 ERA) and St. Lucie (two starts). The Mets gave up on him at that point and shipped him to Kansas City for a better arm, Ambiorix Burgos. Remember him?
Burgos had a better arm, but Bannister was the better pitcher. He went 12-9, 3.87 with a 77/44 K/BB in 165 innings for the Royals in '07, allowing 156 hits and being one of the best rookie pitchers in the game. Statheads, however, were frightened of his very low strikeout rate, warning that he was likely to go backwards in '08.
Bannister, however, is a stathead himself and was well aware of the fact that strikeouts indicate potential for future success. He adjusted his approach in '08, and indeed he did strike out more guys last year, posting a 113/58 K/BB in 183 innings and increasing his K/9 from 4.2 to 5.6. However, it didn't help the results: his ERA jumped to 5.76 and he went 9-16. The main difference was a sharp increase in his hit rate (10.6 H/9 vs. 8.5 in '07) and more home runs given up.
Did Bannister just have bad luck on balls in play last year, or was the league genuinely catching up to him? From watching him pitch a lot, I think it was a combination of both factors, actually. . .he had worse luck, but he also seemed to hang more pitches high in the strike zone at bad times. He seems to have turned things around this year, 4.17 ERA with a 47/25 k/BB in 78 innings, 78 hits allowed. His WHIP is 1.33, compared to 1.21 in '07 and 1.49 last year, right in between. His K/9 is 5.42, not quite as high as last year but better than '07.
Because he doesn't have plus velocity, Bannister will live on the margins, but his intellect and feel for pitching give him an edge in adaptability and survival. As a minor leaguer, he showed the same ability to adapt that he's shown in the majors. While I don't think he's going to have a hugely successful career, he could be an average starter and eat innings for several years, and that has value.