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.




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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.


33 Responses to “John Danks: Ace?”

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  1. Sox27 says:

    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.

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    • LionoftheSenate says:

      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.

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    • RC says:

      ” 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.

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      • PG says:

        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.

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      • Sox27 says:

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

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  2. Brad says:

    2nd sentence: “despite” should be “without”

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    • Big Jgke says:

      “They did this despite employing a starter that most baseball fans would consider an ace.” Is not much of a sentence, from a grammatical or sensical perspective.

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    • joe says:

      Despite makes no sense… if they did it “despite employing a starter most would consider an ace”, it is saying most fans consider there to be an ace on that team.

      If you are going to fix grammar, at least do it correctly. It may make sense grammatically, but in doing so you flipped the actual meaning of the sentence.

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      • Dave says:

        It read “despite” in the original and was later changed to “without” after @Brad’s suggestion. So his comment is on point.

        If you are going to rip people for correcting grammar, you should at least read more carefully and know what you are talking about.

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  3. Rob says:

    Danks has zero wins through five starts, therefore he is not a good pitcher. /sarcasm

    Is Cole Hamels the most similar pitcher to John Danks right now?

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    • Sox27 says:

      you’d be astounded how many people still use W-L for starters as a metric for their effectiveness. We still have a lot of dumb people to help. I think the Hamels comparison is a good one.

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      • James says:

        I think Hamels is better because he is more consistent, but he also plays in AAAA so it’s possible Danks would be as good at a lower level.

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  4. Luke in MN says:

    I’d think it would be hard to maintain your BB rate if you are throwing a higher percentage of off-speed stuff, but it hasn’t shown up so far.

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    • Sox27 says:

      Luke, I got a question unrelated to the post. I only saw Liriano’s first two starts, is there a problem with his stuff right now? Or is it simply a matter of him not throwing enough strikes and walking too many hitters right now?

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  5. BigBoy says:

    I have been a fan of John Danks ever since he was a tiny wittle prospect. Despite the doubters, my heart and brain went with John Danks. Therefore, I am a genius and should become a general manager. Your Welcome, America.

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  6. MikeS says:

    Interesting analysis. It’s hard to argue that using your best pitches is anything but a good idea but maybe they are his best pitches only if he doesn’t use them much. Maybe if the hitters see the cutter and change more or don’t see the fastball as much then those pitches lose some value? When a pitcher makes a change like this that puts him ahead of the hitters, how long does it usually take for the scouts to catch on and inform the hitters so they can adjust and catch up?

    I don’t know the answer to these questions.

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  7. My echo and bunnymen says:

    I recognize John Danks as the ace of the White Sox.

    ~White Sock Fan

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  8. Patricio says:

    You do realize that Roy Halladay’s K/9 rate over the past decade is 6.86, right? I know I consider him elite – do you?

    My point – more than K/9 rates state whether a pitcher is elite. I’d reference K/BB ratio before K/9….

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    • Jack Weiland says:

      “A confluence of averageish metrics have kept people from considering Danks elite.”

      Better?

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      • Daniel Andrews says:

        No, why would a confluence of averageish metrics keep people from considering him elite? You have an assortment of other metrics used to determine value like WAR and VORP on BP which show him being a top of the rotation pitcher and yet have people overvalue other metrics which are biased towards strikeout pitchers such as FIP and xFIP. If he pitches for another 11 seasons at his current FG WAR or BR WAR he’ll pass the likes of many HOFers in WAR. Is he destined to become the Luis Tiant of his era?

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  9. CubsFan says:

    Why are WAR Graphs available for batters but not pitchers? The Danks/Hamels comparison made me curious.

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  10. kick me in the GO NATS says:

    Oh Danks, he is an ACE.

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  11. CircleChange11 says:

    A part of me is glad that the Twins don’t have this rotation, we’d never stop hearing about them.

    Jackson is a 3.5 WAR pitcher, that makes 33 starts a year. Floyd is a 4.5 WAR pitcher. Every team should have guys that are effective last this, but can’t sustain it over a season. Good grief.

    I don’t consider Danks an ace, but I also realize that makes zero difference anywhere in the world. *grin* Danks is still a very good pitcher pitcher.

    I don;t think the CXhiSox have an ace, and I don;t think it really matters for their particular club.

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  12. Daniel Andrews says:

    While Danks is not to the point of being an ace like Halladay, no pitcher in baseball is. He does possess the same type of bulldog mentality Halladay takes to the mound. Considering the home ball park Danks pitches in I would consider him the #6 pitcher in the AL. Over the past 3 years Danks has the 13th best WAR total amongst pitchers.

    As far as Danks closing out innings or games, i think he does it quite well even when he doesn’t have his best stuff. Most other pitchers fall apart, he doesn’t.

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    • CircleChange11 says:

      I’m not sure I would agree with the “bulldog mentality” type thing.

      I view Holliday as being the model of “intensity”. Intensity that manifests itself through sustained focus. I define that to differentiate it from the casual view of “intensity”, which is Carlos Zambrano going bat-poop crazy. Being intense and being emotional are two different things.

      Anyway, back to Danks … I actually think one of his shortcomings is a lack of focus or occassionally getting a bad case of “Young and Dumb”. With the latter, he reminds me of Matt Morris in the regard that the worst thing that can happen to him is to be throwing harder than normal in the first inning, blow a couple guys away, and then try and pitch the rest of the game as if he were channeling Nolan Ryan. Sometimes he loses focuses, seemingly forgets to “pitch” and is just throwing the ball up there, or trying to throw is past guys, at the expense of location, etc.

      I haven’t watched him pitch much in the last year, but prior to that, there were some occasions where he seemed to be his own worst enemy in regards to dominating early and then seemingly putting his brain on cruise control and ending up losing his touch.

      But, I have also seen him get roughed up early, and battle like hell, keeping his team in the game and saving the bullpen as much as possible.

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      • Daniel Andrews says:

        Your last statement is the definition of being a bulldog and a testament to what I think separates ace from a non-ace on a game by game basis. I think Danks is more consistent on a game by game basis than Cain, Billingsley, Hamels, or Gallardo. How else does one accumulate a higher WAR than other so called aces such as Cain, Billingsley, Hamels, and Gallardo with so called less than dominate stuff? When there is less or equal variance in performances it is harder to call it luck.

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  13. B N says:

    People are making Halladay comparisons, but I think Mussina might be a much more apt model. Similar K/9, similar BB/9, same tier of stuff. I mean, let’s be realistic- Danks isn’t out there vying for the most CG every season. He’s out there pitching similarly, but slightly worse, than Mussina.

    That’s a good pitcher, but I think people that are comparing him to HOF guys are pretty far off base. Even Moose, who kept up better performance than this over a long career, is a fringe candidate.

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  14. Tim says:

    Danks’ best pitch is actually the change-up

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