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.
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.