I have been operating under the assumption that since his shoulder injury in 2012, John Danks is - essentially - a replacement level player moving forward until proven otherwise. This article is inspired by the fact that reader Dean challenged this assumption in one of his comments. Rightfully so - my assumption is largely based on the fact that Danks' velocity has been down, I have perceived his stuff not to be as sharp, and...well, he has posted an ERA of 4.75 and 4.74 in the last two years.
For 2014, there was at least the hope that another year removed from surgery Danks would get a little extra zip on his stuff, and maybe he would have the extra savvy of having pitched a year with no stuff. Instead, he lost more velocity and walked more hitters. Not exactly the return to form White Sox fans had hoped for.
It was Dean's perception/hypothesis that Danks pitched better toward the end of the year. This is certainly corroborated by the fact that his best OPS against by "month" was September/October, as seen below:
March/April - .676
May - .864
June - .711
July - .876
August - .888
Sept/Oct - .649.
Dean is also correct that Danks posted a solid ERA of 3.94 to close out the season - not his best stretch of the season, but if Danks could post a sub-4.00 ERA next year I would be pretty thrilled.
Please note that none of the following is meant to call out Dean - quite the opposite, he's a much appreciated reader who frequently contributes a well-informed point of view and he caught that Danks' results at the end of the year were better than they'd been in months when I doubt anybody on our staff noticed.
The key to the excitement that might be fostered by finishing strong like that is, as mentioned above, the hope that the further Danks recovers from surgery, the more his stuff will recover, or the better he will have figured out how to use his new diminished stuff. I don't know that I feel comfortable projecting September and October as the Real Danks moving forward - after all, we're looking at splits of 5-6 starts at a time here. Similarly, his first few starts of the season were basically as good as the last few months, whereas right before his good-results finish - i.e. depending on where you want to draw the line for "the end of the season - he was getting absolutely annihilated in August. For July and August every hitter against him hit better than Magglio Ordonez did for his career.
Also important to note - from September onward, players face much weaker competition as teams that have been eliminated from playoff competition are auditioning minor leaguers for the next season, and just generally September call-ups are weaker than the usual talent pool.
Danks' best year, in most respects, was 2008. It was certainly his best ERA (and in terms of aesthetics it was capped by a Game 163 shut out of the hated Twins, which is arguably the Best White Sox Game since Game 4 of the 2005 World Series - he also would notch the team's only win in a fairly lopsided Division Series against an ascending Tampa team). Although Danks had his best K/BB ratio in 2011, this is a great illustration of the fact that K/9 can perversely be inflated by pitching worse - if you allow more batters to reach base, you have more opportunities to strike them out. His K%:BB% was still his best in 2008, with a 12.7 mark as opposed to his 2011 number of 12.2. Indeed, 2008 was Danks' best FIP season at 3.44.
In 2008, before his injury, Danks had more velocity. Although I will have to mix and match databases to cobble this together, as some of them don't go back seven years, up until his injury in 2012 Danks was averaging somewhere between 90.5-92 mph on his fastball. Since 2012, however, his fastball sat at 89.3 in 2013 and dipped further to 88.5 in 2014. If those numbers are correct, that means that he has weakened as time has gone on rather than strengthened.
Even more unscientifically, what stood out to me about Danks when he was good was that he had a plus cutter that he could run in on right handers and keep them under control. Here are his RHB / LHB splits before and after his shoulder injury:
2012 - Injured midseason
RHB: .273/.329/.472 over 1067 PAs. That's good for a .342 wOBA and compares roughly to, say, Carlos Lee's early work with the White Sox.
LHB: .270/.326/.437 over 371 PAs. Remarkably similar, although as you can see they have less success hitting for power. While we're on the subject, the PA split is very illustrative of how important it is for starting pitchers to be able to get opposite-handed hitters out - managers stack their lineups for platoon advantages and it adds up.
Now, obviously these numbers are just worse across the board - doubly so as offense has trended downward league-wide, with the notable exception of when players hit against John Danks.
While I don't have the data for when he was more effective against righties than lefties, it's become clear that Danks can't pitch inside against RHB anymore. I charted 36 of the 42 homers he has surrendered to RHB in 2013-14 and here's what the pitch type / velocity / area each pitch was in before it got hit over the fence (was unable to isolate the remaining six):
Note: For "quadrant" I divided the zone (and areas outside the zone) into 9 blocks - a combination of either up, middle, or down paired with out-middle-in.
Although it looks like these dingers are coming against a variety of pitches - 50% are inside, 50% are middle out, 50% are fastballs, 50% are on the cutter or change - there isn't much variety in velocity here. If his cutter doesn't have its old life on it, RHB can just pull it and hit it hard, instead of being jammed on the infield. And, indeed, a hefty chunk of Danks' groundball percentage from before his injury has shifted over into the "line drive" column.
Unsurprisingly to anybody who has watched Danks pitch in the last few years, he no longer trusts his cutter. Pre-injury Danks threw it typically between 22-27% of the time, whereas in the past two years he has thrown it 17-18% of the time, with approximately 7-10% more of his pitches being thrown as change ups. It looks like most of those cutters are now just being thrown as change ups. In fact, since coming back from injury, Danks has about twice as many change ups as cutters. Frighteningly, although the post-injury cutter holds lefties to homers to only 3.7% of the time when they hit it in the air, righties log homers over 17% of the time they hit a cutter and get under it.
By and large, I agree with what Matt had to say in defense of the rotation. Simultaneously, however, Matt highlighted precisely my concern - over 162 games you will need more than the original five guys you penciled in as your starters, and depending on what various prospects do, the White Sox have a very strong but shallow rotation. I say this because I do not think that Danks is usable and I believe he is only going to get worse. This version of Danks cannot get righties out, and as seen above, he is going to be facing righties around 3/4s of the time. Even if he can refine his control with this arsenal so that he makes fewer mistakes, the mistakes he does make are just going to get hit over the fence. What's more, in 2014 his velocity and control numbers took a step backward even compared to 2013. Perhaps this is pessimistic - perhaps the new Fly Ball Pitcher Danks will benefit from having Melky in left instead of Viciedo. But with offense where it is league-wide, an ERA of 4.75 is awful and is going to cost you wins - and there isn't really a reason to suspect that he will improve in 2015, beyond the fact that it's hard to be as awful as he has been.
Given how many investments the White Sox have made to compete in 2015 it would be a shame to wind up a few wins outside of the playoffs anyway because they could not or would not find someone better than John Danks.
Maybe Rodon just rides in on a white horse and Noesi churns out another below-average season (which is great for a 5th starter) and I look like a negative Nancy. I'd be fine with that. However, all but the absolute worst rosters can be playoff teams if they have everything break the way they'd hope for it to. The best way to consistently make the playoffs is to try to make your roster good enough that it can survive some misfortune. If one of the Big Three get hurt and Danks takes another step back (or just stays as he has been), all of the big offseason acquisitions may have been a waste.
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