BOSTON -- His brethren in the hybrid world of coaching and analytics are playing musical chairs, climbing the baseball ranks. Brian Bannister contractually agreed years ago that he would not participate in that game, a bold move that may have hurt his earning power and flexibility in the short term. But it was a choice that also helped both Bannister and the Red Sox achieve their respective goals, all the while positioning Bannister well in an industry that will only value people in his mold more in coming years.
The Red Sox’ assistant pitching coach and vice president for pitching development, Bannister, 37, is more than qualified to be a lead pitching coach somewhere. Clubs both want him and what he represents: an ex-player with the intelligence and not only a passion for analytics, but the ability to communicate findings directly to players. There appears a greater demand than supply at the moment for those types inside pro ball, which is why teams are now dipping into the college realm or hiring independent consultants.
The Phillies promoted their 37-year-old assistant pitching coach, Chris Young, to lead pitching coach, in large part because of his ability to communicate and also understand what really works. He’s risen quickly. In 2017, Young was a scout for the Astros.
Not all teams have someone like that in house, though. The Twins this offseason plucked their pitching coach, 47-year-old Wes Johnson, from the University of Arkansas. The Dodgers just took a Diamondbacks consultant, 32-year-old Robert Van Scoyoc — a favorite of J.D. Martinez — and made him their hitting coach.
Why, then, after helping the Red Sox win a World Series in 2018 -- after nearly four years impacting the organization in a variety of roles -- has Bannister not moved on elsewhere and upward? He researches draft targets and trends in development. He pores over data and video of players at all levels, and then he instructs big leaguers, traveling with the team.
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“I think I’m kind of in that sweet spot right now where I know what our needs are, and I have the opportunity to work with staff at all levels of the organization to try to produce pitchers at a faster rate to keep that major league product winning on the field,” Bannister said. “I’ll be scouting one day, I’ll be in player development the next day. I’ll be in the front office working in analytics on Day 3. And the diversity of the role and the exposure to every aspect of the organization is what’s so appealing.
"Because you really start to see on an interdepartmental basis, how each person positively impacts the Boston Red Sox. And then figuring out ways to fill in the gaps. How to get the players from amateur scouting, through player development as efficiently as possible, and prepare them with exactly what they need for the major league staff. That part’s fascinating.
“I definitely enjoy the exposure to everything and trying to add value to everything. And that’s probably where my role is unique.”
Other teams know how unique his role is, and have come after him.
“They denied,” said one rival executive who asked the Sox for permission to talk to Bannister in recent years. “Sounds like he agreed not to interview as part of his contract.”
Time and again, teams have asked the Red Sox for permission to interview Bannister to become lead pitching coach. Every inquiry has been denied by the Sox, a contractual permission Bannister granted them. He’s let the Sox say no repeatedly because of how he saw his role best unfolding, both now and in the future -- and because of the loyalty he feels to an organization that’s allowed him to grow in a new position since his hiring in January 2015.
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Typically, clubs grant permission to their staffers to interview for superior titles and jobs elsewhere. But Bannister and the Sox put unusual language in his contract: The team could deny outside requests for all but the highest level baseball operations jobs, such as general manager.
“People love him,” Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski said. “But he’s always agreed that he wants to stay here. He’s never even been open to interviewing with anyone. He’s very happy here.”
Bannister confirmed his happiness. But there could be some industry confusion as to why he’s stayed put.
A second-generation major leaguer -- his father, Floyd Bannister, pitched in the major leagues from 1977 to '92 -- Brian Bannister, who played for the Mets in 2006 and the Royals from 2007-10, also happens to be an approachable nerd, happier than most to discuss the game and his studies. He admits that openness has led to reprimands on a few occasions in this age of paranoia over every bit of information. But he has a rare combination of insight and enthusiasm when he explains, for example, why the movement on Chris Sale’s slider actually means it would be better classified as a curveball.
"The reason I’m still in the game is because I have a fundamental passion for the game of baseball,” Bannister said. “I was born into the game. Grew up in a major-league locker room, was fortunate enough to play it myself and once again, fortunate to have been on a major-league coaching staff and win a World Series.
“And when you’re around it for now almost 40 years, you start to identify inefficiencies in the system. And ever since disruptive technology has come into the game, we have better tools for identifying what those inefficiencies are. And that’s how my mind works.”
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It's not too hard to see the incentives for each party in his contract: at a time the Red Sox were losing top people in 2016, Bannister gave the Sox some stability. It also gave his role stability, too.
Wearing different hats, as Bannister does, can create pitfalls. Colleagues can feel threatened, players can be skeptical of something new. Bannister’s continued presence in Boston has helped on all fronts, from helping him see the work he’s started come to fruition, to helping those he works with believe and understand that he is, in fact, here for them — not just the climb.
“It requires a lot of trust that I’m not trying to take their job or that I don’t desire their job,” Bannister said. “I’m doing the research and studying the craft in order to bring about new insights or find, identify inefficiencies, so that the processes can be done better. It’s almost a glorified consultant. But because I get exposure to all departments, you see a lot of things that typically slip through the cracks and you see ways that things can be done better or more efficiently.
“Cause that’s honestly what I’m fascinated by in the Boston environment: how do we continue to win every single year? Because you almost have to shorten the natural cycles in baseball. You have to shorten them abnormally in order to keep pulling that off. You have to develop and identify and get more yield faster than the rest of the league.”
Bannister could become a general manager someday, Dombrowski said, although they have not discussed as much. What matters to Bannister is less the title and more the role itself. He’s genuinely interested in the broad view, and he has a chance to affect that now in his present life.
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“For us, winning on an annual basis, we have to develop pitching prospects faster than the other clubs,” Bannister said. “We’re trying to get the biggest yield possible out of every draft pick and out of every international signing and then it’s a race against the clock to create value out of those guys and make better player development decisions and utilize the analytics to identify where each pitcher slots into our major league staff, or how we can create more industry value out of them.
“And so it’s kind of this player development machine, where we’re trying to create as much value out of each guy, in order to fill in what we need to fill in with the major league staff, whether the pitcher ends up pitching for the major league staff or ends up being used in a trade to acquire a need so we can put the best product on the field at the major league level every year. I try to be a Swiss Army knife with regard to my responsibilities and work with everybody throughout the pitching pipeline to better identify pitchers, better develop them and do the whole thing faster. Because that’s really what the Boston Red Sox need on an annual basis. And that’s the fun and that’s the challenge for me in my current role.”
When Bannister spoke in 2014 at a conference in Boston, the ever-growing SaberSeminar, he presented on how to develop professional pitchers more effectively and more efficiently. He famously had success working with Rich Hill in 2015, helping the lefty to discover different shapes to his curveball and set him on a path to a new and lucrative pitching life. There have been other victories since then, and the efforts are always combined, owed to the players themselves and the likes of pitching coach Dana LeVangie, bullpen coach Craig Bjornson and the team’s newly promoted assistant general manager, Zack Scott, among many others.
If he does aspire to take greater control over an organization, a fair question comes up: well, what does he know about hitting? In a way, he’s worked to reverse engineer it.
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“The irony is I study hitting more than I study pitching,” Bannister said. “Because I feel like I have to know my competition and what we’re trying to do. I actually, I always wanted to be a hitter. I ended up being a major league pitcher because I have no foot speed. I can’t run. So I taught myself how to pitch starting in college, and just made it to the big leagues trying to figure out ways to be a better pitcher.
"But my passion has always been with hitting and studying hitting. I spend more time talking with [with fellow Sox coaches] Tim Hyers and Andy Barkett and talking about hitting analytics . . . why this pitcher is going to be tough to square up? How is he creating deception? What is it about the movement of his pitches? Breaking down pitchers for the hitters is actually my favorite part of the game. Because it’s just the inverse of what I do on a daily basis.
“I try to stay extremely well balanced. Even though my title is on the pitching side, I spent just as much time understanding the swing and studying the swing. On a daily basis, I’m studying all the hitting gurus out there, whether it’s Aaron Judge’s guy, ‘Teacherman,’ or what Driveline is doing, or J.D. Martinez’s swing coach. I study all the guys out there and their philosophies. Because I find it fascinating because I want to know what hitters are trying to do next, so our pitchers can stay one year ahead of them.”
All of baseball wants that mindset. The Red Sox, at least for now, have been able to keep one rising star in house, because of an unusual contract for an unusual role in a game that is now embracing many things that are, well, unusual.
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