John Danks: Ace?

Last season, the Chicago White Sox pitching staff led all of baseball in WAR. They did this without employing a starter that most baseball fans would consider an ace. Mark Buehrle may be the longest tenured White Sox pitcher, but his lack of strikeouts hardly make him an ace. While Gavin Floyd and Edwin Jackson are extremely effective when “on,” they can’t seem to sustain that success over a full season. That leaves John Danks, who has gotten off to a strong start this season. While he may not be a household name just yet, Danks has slowly developed into the White Sox best starter. If his early season results are any indication, he may actually be getting better.

Still just 26, Danks has always been considered an above-average starter, but his strikeout rate has always prevented him from being elite. While a career 7.06 K/9 isn’t a bad thing, it’s not exceptional either. This season, Danks is fooling hitters more than ever. Through 33.0 innings pitched, Danks has struck out a batter per inning. Typically, we would attribute that large of a jump to luck or blame it on small sample size, but Danks has made some adjustments this season that may allow him to sustain his success.

A look at Danks’ PitchFx data reveals a possible change in approach. Danks has thrown fewer fastballs this season, opting instead for more cutters and changeups. Danks’ fastball has been an inconsistent pitch over his career, fluctuating between positive and negative each season according to his pitch type values. To combat this inconsistency, Danks has compensated by throwing his two most effective pitches more often. While his fastball carries a negative value again this season, his cutter and his changeup have remained effective once again.

As a result, Danks has posted one of the best SwStr% of his career. Danks’ current rate of 10.8 is his highest since 2008, when he posted the highest strikeout rate of his career. Unfortunately, Danks struck out only 7.34 batters per nine innings that season. Is this a sign that Danks’ strikeout rate will come crashing down to earth? Not necessarily.
Danks has significantly altered his approach since 2008, which might allow him to sustain some of his strikeouts. Back in 2008, Danks was only throwing his cutter 16.4% of the time (compared to 27.9% this season). While the cutter wasn’t an immediate success for Danks, it has evolved into his best pitch over the last two seasons. Since 2009, Danks’ cutter has rated as third best in the majors (behind Roy Halladay and Jon Lester). While his approach is completely different, it’s hard to argue with the logic behind Danks’ new approach. Throwing your two best pitches more often is probably going to lead to better results.

Of course, it would be tough for any pitcher to sustain this much of a gain over a full season. Danks is currently on pace to finish two full strikeouts per nine over his career average. While we shouldn’t expect Danks to continue to exceed his career numbers by such a large margin, his change in approach could lead to an increased strikeout rate this season. For Danks, strikeouts were the only thing preventing him from being considered elite. If he can sustain some of those gains due to his new approach, the baseball world is going to start recognizing John Danks as the ace of the White Sox.

We hoped you liked reading John Danks: Ace? by Chris Cwik!

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Chris is a blogger for CBSSports.com. He has also contributed to Sports on Earth, the 2013 Hard Ball Times Baseball Annual, ESPN, FanGraphs and RotoGraphs. He tries to be funny on twitter @Chris_Cwik.

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Sox27
Guest
Sox27

I love watching Danks pitch every 5th day, but here is my one concern with him and the one thing that to this point prevents me from labeling him an “ace.” He too often will get himself into situations where he fails to close out innings/games. Sunday was a perfect example of this, he was at the 100 pitch mark through 5 2/3 innings. He had surrendered 1 run to Detroit at that point, but proceeded to give up 3 consecutive hits and 2 runs. The end result was a 3-0 loss. Danks again this year appears to be saddled as the tough luck pitcher on the Sox staff, the same way he was in 2008. His inability to close out innings/games to this point in my eyes is the one thing preventing him from fully elevating to elite status.

LionoftheSenate
Guest
LionoftheSenate

Agree about Danks often failing to close out a hitter…..same deal with J Weaver, until last season…..often 0-2 but rarely that KO pitch……I believe Danks has gotten over that hump…..amazingly, none of the projection systems saw this coming.

RC
Guest
RC

” Sunday was a perfect example of this, he was at the 100 pitch mark through 5 2/3 innings. He had surrendered 1 run to Detroit at that point, but proceeded to give up 3 consecutive hits and 2 runs”

That seems like more of a managerial issue than a pitching issue to me. If a guy has thrown 100 pitches (especially this early in the season) his leash shouldn’t be long enough to give up a couple runs.

Maybe Ozzie Guillen just isn’t very good at… well.. being a manager.

PG
Guest
PG

No, I don’t really think that’s the case. Ozzie has always said he’ll try to give his pitcher the best chance to get a win. Sometimes this works, sometimes it doesn’t. But in general I think it helps to not have them looking over their shoulder every time they get into trouble. There’s a reason, like the article said, the White Sox led the majors in SP WAR.

I’m guessing Ozzie left Danks in the game because he was losing 1-0, and he was hoping he could make it out of the inning and still have a chance to get a W. That would be pretty consistent with the way he manages.

Sox27
Guest
Sox27

Also, part of the issue is throwing 100 pitches and not getting through…well…6 innings.