Peter Gammons: Collaborating with the Light

Dave Dombrowski fenway

What is interesting about this fusing of the world of analytics and sabermetrics with the more traditional world of coaches and scouts reared in baseball long before there was a Baseball Savant or Wins Above Replacement or people other than the Branch Rickey School knew about spin rates, is that the man raised in the Roland Hemond baseball world replaced the Amherst man who spoke at sabermetric conventions.

It started when Ben Cherington, Mike Hazen and the Red Sox baseball operations people began searching for ways to better scout and develop pitching. With the help of Allard Baird and Jared Porter, they centered on Brian Bannister, a former major league pitcher who made 114 starts over five seasons with the Mets and Royals and, after retirement continued his photography and gradually became fascinated by the data, analytical and sabermetric studies of the baseball he so loves.

As much as the data world is feared by the traditionalists, press room scouts and media who often are blinded by the light, the 34-year-old Bannister has deep baseball clubhouse tradition. His father Floyd was the first pick of the 1976 draft by the Houston Astros. In time, Brian grew up in clubhouses, with Tom Seaver when Floyd pitched for the White Sox, with George Brett in Kansas City. When he pitched for the Royals in 2007-2010, he became a close friend of Zack Greinke.

Healthy, Greinke has become this generation’s Greg Maddux, a master of manipulating pitches on both sides of the plate, this year pushing for his second Cy Young Award. Bannister’s pure stuff and health did not allow him to continue his career on a parallel track to Greinke, but their intellects, love of scouting and understanding of how to take analytical data to the mound under the pressure of the third decks have made them unique.

Bannister went to spring training with the Red Sox, then set out scouting major league and minor league teams, evaluate the club’s minor leaguers…and as Cherington sought answers to an underperforming major league staff and the lapse in the development of organizational pitchers, his mind, voice and creativity became part of the in-house retuning of the major league rotation.

What is significant here is that veteran major league pitching coach Carl Willis welcomes Bannister’s input. “Why wouldn’t I?” says Willis. “When I was with the Indians, Eddie Murray gave me a great deal of input that helped with our pitchers. He saw things no one else saw, like how they tipped pitches. Banny and I aren’t from different worlds; we were both major league pitchers. But we come from different viewpoints that work together. There are times when we might not agree completely, but we’re together on working together to make the Red Sox pitching better. I love the input, I really respect what he sees. I might not always understand him…just kidding.”

Bannister, Willis and other coaches convinced Joe Kelly that while his velocity is in the top four pitchers in the game, he needed to use his changeup, breaking ball and in time—next year—blend in his four-seamer with his power two seam sinker. Kelly has won eight games in a row, and in his last seven starts hasn’t allowed more than two runs. “Why can’t he be Corey Kluber?” asks Willis. Indeed, when Kluber turned 27, he had two major league wins.

Bannister and Willis have worked hard with Rick Porcello to get back to pounding his two seam sinker at the bottom of the zone, but in conjunction with using his curveball, changeup and four-seamers up in the zone to change eye level. The majority of the swings and misses in Porcello’s three post-DL stint have been four-seamers.

They have worked hard on checkpoints on 22-year-old Eduardo Rodriguez, who has run into issues out of the stretch, tipping pitches and using his slider. In 18 starts, Rodriguez has allowed none or one run 10 times. “He is special,” says Willis. Wade Miley has sped up his time between pitches and not only been solid since his bad April, but, according to Baseball Info Solutions has been in the top six among starters in MLB in fastball command, or “hit the mitt” percentages. Between now and the end of next March, Matt Barnes will be a focus, finding ways to shorten his delivery, stop spinning off towards first base—which makes his 97 MPH fastball look 92—and better utilize his changeup.

All the while, Bannister will be studying to find potential relievers to repair what has become a bullpen lottery. Then he will continue studying the organizational pitchers, which many in the organization feel have a lack of prospects from High A to AAA.

When Dave Dombrowski arrived in Boston, he was trumpeted as a traditionalist who eschewed analytics. Not so. Dombrowski has spent two weeks getting to know the baseball operations staff and scouts, and says “I am really impressed by the people here, especially the number or really good people.” After several meetings with Bannister, Dombrowski created the position of Director of Pitching Analytics and Development. Dombrowski likes to have a scout who specializes on pitchers, and moved the highly respected Chris Mears to that position. When pro scouting director Jared Porter left to join Theo Eopstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod with the Cubs, Dombrowski moved Gus Quattlebaum to the pro scouting director post, which was greeted with enthusiasm by the pro scouts because of the years Quattlebaum spent on the road for the Yankees, Orioles and Red Sox. Dombrowski is expected to bring on some scouts with whom he familiar, but there have not been firings or mass exits.

“This job is great because of the resources we have,” says Dombrowski. “Some places you have big payrolls, but you cannot invest as heavily in everything else the way we can here.” And will do.

“I would think people in the organization would be really excited,” says one former Red Sox official. “That kind of attention given to pitching is what a lot of us hoped would happen. To utilize an incredible resource like Brian Bannister is cutting edge, but really a look forward to using every possible idea.”

Dombrowski turns out to not be a traditionalist. He has the advantage of walking in with the full support of John Henry, and contrary to his pre-arrival perception, isn’t blinded by the light, but enthused by the light he thinks he sees at the end of the (Ted Williams) Tunnel. He mentions how grateful how thankful he is for all Cherington did to construct this organization, and with a director of pitching analytics and development and Henry’s backing on player and infrastructure investments, he is moving into a job unlike what he knew with the White Sox, Expos, Marlins and Tigers.

Oh yes. When he was with the White Sox in the mid-eighties, one of those kids running around the clubhouse was Brian Bannister.

Comments

  1. As a Sox fan I can’t help be excited about the next year with Dombrowski! The people are in place, and the prospects are also in place. All that’s needed is an ace, a couple relievers, and someone to replace Hanley. Unless of course he wants to DH. Then I think he might work. Maybe? Hate having to look forward to another off season from last, or next to last place, but this team really isn’t far away at all from a good 10 year run!