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In Focus with Brian Bannister

In Focus with Brian Bannister

Hi, I'm 14 years old and play catcher and would like to be a Major League catcher some day. What is the best path to get there?
-- Carson, W.

There are a lot of things you can do to prepare yourself to be a Major League catcher. Because you are still just 14 years old, you should begin to set long-term goals for yourself right now, so that when you are a junior or senior in high school, you can begin to achieve some of them.

First off, catchers are the managers of the pitching staff. They need to think like a pitcher in order to call the right pitches, and then keep their pitchers motivated and focused until the last out is recorded.

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Giving a good, low target with your glove, receiving the ball softly, and being quick to block a ball in the dirt are characteristics of good fundamental catchers. Your long-term goal should be to throw a ball to second base in 2.0 seconds or faster, with anything under 1.9 seconds being ideal. From a hitting perspective, you should try switch-hitting and see if its is comfortable for you. Being able to hit from both sides of the plate will allow you to catch more games regardless of who the pitcher is, and it will also give you a good perspective on how to get both types of hitters out. Your running speed and home run power are not the defining qualities of your position, but they are both bonuses if you can develop them.

Finally, catchers take a lot of physical abuse from foul balls, bad pitches and a lot of time in a squat position, so be careful with the stress you put on your body now so that you can play in the Major Leagues someday. Good luck.

Can pitchers have a noticeable impact on their BABIP (batting average on balls in play)?
-- Ed S.

For those with an interest in statistics, a pitcher's BABIP, or the percentage of balls in play (not including home runs) that result in hits, are largely out of a pitcher's control when averaged over the course of several years. A favorable batted-ball mix (the ratio of line drives/fly balls/ground balls/popups) can help lower a pitcher's BABIP over the course of a season, but in general, it will migrate towards .300 over time. As pitchers, we can only control our strikeouts, walks, home runs allowed and groundball/flyball ratios (the latter based on adjusting our pitches and arm angles).

A good way to get a rough idea of what a pitcher is doing to improve his long-term sustainable ERA, independent of luck, is to look up his FIP, or Fielding Independent Pitching, on a site such as www.fangraphs.com. For example, Paul Splittorff's career FIP was 3.72, and his career ERA ended up at 3.81, while Bret Saberhagen's career FIP was 3.26, and his career ERA ended up at 3.34.

I think it is very important for young pitchers, especially those with a desire to play in the Major Leagues, to understand how they can make themselves more effective for their organizations and fans long-term, and not simply rely on the luck and emotions of a few games. Striking out more batters and walking less, without increasing your home run rate or throwing extra pitches per inning, is what every pitcher should strive for. Making low-contact pitches with two strikes will increase strikeouts, while throwing strikes early in the count will reduce walks and pitches per inning.

Throwing pitches that hitters consistently hit on the ground will lower your home runs allowed, and also increase your chances of getting double plays. Continue to focus on what will make you a better pitcher long-term, and don't let the luck of the game affect your emotions in the short-term.

The reason that a pitcher's ERA does not always match his FIP is that the timing of his hits can vary from year to year. The luck of those hits/homers are much more detrimental with runners on base, which is recorded as percentage of runners left on base, or LOB%. A common LOB% percentage is in the 70-80% range, with anything above that range representing good luck and below that bad luck.

Therefore, you can now see how your favorite pitchers, such as Zack Greinke, are improving from year-to-year. Zack is currently posting a career-best 3.56 FIP, and has the 2.88 ERA to match because of some great pitching with runners on base and an increased ground-ball rate, which has resulted in less home runs allowed.

Brian, first of all, let me say that I love watching you pitch. My question has to do with the necklaces a lot of the Royals seems to be wearing. They all seem to be of the same style. Is there any significance to that? Do they symbolize something?
-- Matt H.

Matt, the necklaces you are referring to are worn by players all over Major League Baseball and other sports, as well. They are made by Phiten, Co. (www.phitenusa.com), and contain a unique form of charged, water-soluble titanium. Athletes wear them to enhance circulation, promote relaxation and help relieve stress. We are given customized necklaces with team logos and colors on them in order to match our uniforms. Many players notice a difference when wearing them, or continue to wear them for superstitious reasons/good luck.

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